As Lakers wrap road trip, attention turns toward future as NBA trade deadline nears

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Rui Hachimura sat in front of his locker humming as reporters trickled into the Los Angeles Lakers’ locker room after their win over the Charlotte Hornets.

“Country roads,” Hachimura sang.

A couple of reporters reacted in surprise to his taste in music. After shrugging and smirking, Hachimura turned back and continued crooning.

“Take me home,” Hachimura bellowed.

The message was clear: Hachimura, much like the rest of the Lakers, was ready to go home after 12 days and six games on the road.

The Lakers wrapped up their Grammy-induced road trip with a 124-118 win Monday over the Hornets, staving off a furious fourth-quarter comeback sparked by Miles Bridges (career-high 41 points) and rookie Brandon Miller (33 points, 16 in the fourth) to win their third straight game. Los Angeles finished the trip 4-2 and improved to 27-25 this season — the first time the Lakers have been two games above .500 since Dec. 28 (which coincidentally also came after their first win over the Hornets this season).

Anthony Davis posted his third career triple-double and second of the season, notching 26 points, 15 rebounds and 11 assists — the latter tying his career-high set in Utah on Jan. 13). D’Angelo Russell scored 28 points and LeBron James added 26 points, as the Lakers continued to find a rhythm ahead of the Feb. 8 trade deadline.

“When we put our minds to it, we can beat any team in this league,” Davis said. “We lost two we felt like we should’ve won. Maybe won two that the people in Nevada thought we should lose. When we buckle down defensively and play the right way, play Laker basketball, then we’re a tough team to beat.”

To Davis’ point, the Lakers won two games they were supposed to win — at least based on record — against the Golden State Warriors and Hornets, lost two games they were supposed to win against the Houston Rockets and Atlanta Hawks and won two games they were supposed to lose against the Boston Celtics (especially with James and Davis injured) and New York Knicks.

Even when it looked like the Lakers were going to coast to a blowout win, leading by as many as 18 points in the first half and 21 points late in the third quarter, the Hornets rallied to cut the deficit to as few as four points with 1:20 left. Davis’ block on Bridges’ stepback 3-point attempt with 33 seconds remaining sealed the victory. But had there been an extra minute or two in the game, the Lakers potentially would have lost, and the trip would have become a disaster.

It wasn’t just then: The trip nearly devolved multiple times. Back-to-back blowout losses in Houston and Atlanta led to James’ cryptic hourglass tweet and an ongoing news cycle about his future with the franchise. Players continued to take subtle shots at lineups and playing rotations, as well as the game plan. Trade deadline noise has surrounded the group for months. When James and Davis were ruled out Thursday against Boston, the Lakers appeared on the brink of collapsing.

But a spirited win against the Celtics and a gritty win against the Knicks temporarily righted the ship. A win over the lowly, short-handed Hornets, who are without two of their best players in LaMelo Ball and Gordon Hayward, gave the Lakers their first trip above .500 all season.

The Lakers return to Los Angeles and get two much-needed days off. However, their return to action Thursday comes with significant intrigue. The day promises to be hectic on multiple fronts.

First, the trade deadline is at noon local time, meaning the Lakers could be a new team by the next game they play. Thursday — 2-8-24 — also is when the franchise is unveiling a Kobe Bryant statue outside Arena, adding both a celebratory and emotional element to the day’s festivities. That evening, the Lakers face the Denver Nuggets for the second time this season, pitting them against the team that swept them in last season’s Western Conference finals and beat them by 12 points on opening night.

Anthony Davis shoots over Denver’s Nikola Jokić on an opening-night loss for the Lakers. (Isaiah J. Downing / USA Today)

When asked if the Lakers’ road trip showed the organization that this group is good enough to invest in, James dismissed the question.

“This is who we have, so there’s nothing else to talk about,” James said.

That discussion point is something the Lakers are weighing internally. The wins over the Celtics and Knicks, following quality wins over the LA Clippers, Oklahoma City Thunder and Dallas Mavericks over the past month, and the In-Season Tournament championship the month before that, have shown the front office this group’s ceiling. Dispiriting losses against the Miami Heat, Memphis Grizzlies and Brooklyn Nets also showed a group that has often played down to the level of lesser competition and struggled to establish continuity or consistency.

As it stands, the Lakers, currently ninth in the West, are three games back of the No. 6 Phoenix Suns. No. 7 or 8 is probably the best-case scenario barring an unforeseen turnaround or collapses by teams currently in the top six. The Lakers were an exception last season in reaching the West finals as a No. 7 seed, but traditionally, it’s been difficult to make a deep postseason run as a lower seed.

There is only one Lakers asset available in a trade that rival teams truly covet: their 2029 first-round pick. Austin Reaves, whom teams continue to ask for in negotiations, remains off the table barring a clear-cut All-Star shockingly becoming available, according to league sources not authorized to speak publicly. Any trade of consequence the Lakers would make must feature either Russell, Hachimura and/or Gabe Vincent, but rival teams aren’t looking to take any of those players without the Lakers attaching assets — ideally the first-round pick, but a pick swap and/or second-round picks at a minimum.

The Lakers’ front office feels most of the available trade options don’t reach that level. Atlanta’s Dejounte Murray remains the exception as long as the Lakers don’t have to empty the cupboard beyond their initial offer of Russell, Hood-Schifino, the 2029 first-round pick (preferably protected) and additional draft compensation. Dorian Finney-Smith, Jerami Grant and Bruce Brown Jr. are other players who fill important needs on the wing, according to team and league sources. Otherwise, the Lakers will likely make a move along the margins, possibly shedding some salary in the process, and then work the buyout market for a player or two.

Another wrinkle for the Lakers is the loss of Jarred Vanderbilt, who will be re-evaluated in three to four weeks after the team announced Monday that he has a sprain in the middle of his right foot. Vanderbilt and the Lakers ruled out surgery — at least for now — after consulting multiple specialists. The 24-year-old signed a four-year extension in September and is ineligible to be traded this season.

The Lakers sorely miss Vanderbilt’s point-of-attack defense, as evidenced by their aggressive trapping and blitzing against Jalen Brunson and the Knicks and their inability to stymie either Bridges or Miller on Monday. To compound matters, Vincent (knee) remains out into at least March, and Cam Reddish (ankle) could still be a week or so away from returning. The Lakers need another solid wing defender — preferably one who’s at least a decent shooter — and the team continues to seek a reasonable upgrade, according to team sources.

Whether the Lakers are good enough to make a deep playoff run, let alone win a championship, is an entirely different matter. They currently rank 20th in offensive rating, 14th in defensive rating and 20th in net rating — hardly the hallmarks of a playoff team, let alone a contender.

James made it clear that assessment isn’t his to make — at least not publicly.

“It’s not a question for me,” James said when asked if the Lakers can win a championship as currently constructed. “I love who we have in the locker room. And that’s all I worry about.”

“Except me,” Davis interjected.

“Yeah, I can’t stand your ass,” James quipped before continuing his answer.

“I don’t get caught up in that,” James continued. “We’re gonna go out and prepare ourselves every single night no matter what it is. No matter who’s out on this team. No matter what. So it’s my job and it’s AD’s job as the two captains to make sure we keep the main thing the main thing. The main focus is now: Thursday’s game at home. And look forward to that matchup.”

Russell, who has been linked to rumors since re-signing with the Lakers over the summer, remains at the center of trade talks. He’s the closest thing the Lakers have to a sizable expiring contract. He said he’s unfazed entering the deadline.

“I don’t care,” Russell said. “At all. Show up to work. That’s it.”

Russell has played his best basketball as a Laker — and some of the best of his career — over the past four weeks since returning from a tailbone injury he suffered in late December. Over the past 16 games, Russell has averaged 22.2 points (on 46.3 percent shooting and 44.9 percent 3-point shooting) and 6.4 assists per game as the Lakers went 10-6.

Does the way he’s played since then give him the peace of mind that he did everything he could to remain a Laker?

“I mean, I can’t control that my contract makes sense to be traded, either,” Russell said. “So, I mean, just play. You can’t control that. Once again, I don’t care. At all.”

Russell’s contract — $17.3 million this season and a player option for $18.7 million next season — make him arguably the easiest salary to move on the Lakers’ cap sheet. He should technically have an implicit no-trade clause due to the one-year structure of his deal, but he and his representation chose to waive that as part of his negotiation with the Lakers.

Russell explained his reasoning again on Monday after briefly touching on the decision at Media Day back in September.

“I just thought it made sense,” Russell said. “Obviously I’ve been here before, I played for the Lakers before, so I know what the requirements are to be successful here. So, if you’re part of the future here, you’ll be successful. If you’re not, you’ll get traded. And I’ve been traded before here. So, my approach is just a little different. I really just genuinely, humbly don’t care because I know I can’t control it, one. And, two, I just won’t allow my mind to go there.

“I like to focus on this, and you guys see how I’ve been focusing on basketball and not comments and what’s trending on social.”

Though James has made it clear where he stands and that he’d like for the organization to approach this deadline with the all-in approach he prefers, the likelihood that the Lakers stand pat or make a marginal move has somewhat increased in recent days, according to team and league sources. Their 2029 draft pick is valuable; if they keep it, they’ll be armed with three first-round picks to trade this upcoming summer. The market continues to favor sellers rather than buyers. The Lakers have also grown more confident in their potential for internal improvement.

Even so, with roughly 48 hours until the deadline, the Lakers remain active on the trade market in hopes of striking the right balance between giving themselves a chance to make another improbable playoff run and prioritizing the state of the franchise over the rest of the decade.

“I’ve been saying it all year: We’ve been inconsistent, but what we have in our locker room currently, we feel like can really compete at a high level,” coach Darvin Ham said of the team’s mindset entering the deadline. “And I think we’ve seen that over the last three games. When we play at that level, we have more than enough in our locker room (to win). …

“And the nature of the business is to try to get better, when and if you can. That’s just it. It’s the business of basketball.”

(Top photo of LeBron James: David Jensen / Getty Images)

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