It’s not even New Year’s and rumors of Anthony Davis’s exodus from New Orleans are already dominating NBA discourse. Trades of superstar players have defined generations before, but they rarely ever happen during the prime of a player’s career. When they do, it causes a seismic shift—like when the Warriors traded Wilt Chamberlain to the Sixers in 1965, or when Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was dealt by the Bucks to the Lakers in 1975. Davis could be the next one, which is why the Pelicans’ MVP candidate will define the next calendar year.
Teams have been preparing for this possibility for years. The Pelicans are 15-20, and Davis, who is only 25, can become an unrestricted free agent in 2020. If Davis indicates that he’s not long for New Orleans entering this offseason, league sources expect the Pelicans to find a trade. Waiting past this summer would be a risk—the Pelicans could lose leverage, or Davis could simply walk in free agency once he opts out of his contract.
Davis has long dropped hints of a potential departure, from admitting concerns about staying too long in New Orleans like Kevin Garnett did in Minnesota, to more recent comments about valuing “legacy over money.” The trade smoke is blowing now more than ever: Davis bought a $7.5 million home in Westlake Village, a suburb of Los Angeles, this summer and switched representation to Rich Paul of Klutch Sports, and LeBron James is recruiting him to the Lakers. Giannis Antetokounmpo also half-jokingly made his pitch for Davis to join the Bucks. These public pleas are only a glimpse of the recruiting that occurs through private back channels.
The mere chance that Davis may become available will determine the decisions made by the Pelicans, and the teams interested in acquiring the superstar big man, over the next few months. Here’s a look at where things stand heading into 2019.
Follow the Money
The Pelicans are expected to offer Davis a five-year supermax extension worth $239.5 million this July, but Davis doesn’t see the extra money that only New Orleans, the team that drafted him, can offer “as a factor in his eventual decision,” according to The Athletic’s Sam Amick. It’s easy to see why: The supermax isn’t so super. It does not offer Davis significantly more than he can earn if he’s traded elsewhere under his current contract. Davis has a 15 percent trade kicker in his contract, worth $4.1 million. There’s also a belief across the league that Davis will take the same approach as LeBron by signing short-term contracts instead of inking a long-term deal, as ESPN’s Zach Lowe first mentioned. If Davis takes this path, he’ll be a 10-year veteran ahead of the 2022-23 season (his age-29 season) and able to sign a five-year max worth 35 percent of the cap. The difference between what he can earn going that route and the supermax is minimal.
What Anthony Davis Can Make
|Season||Pelicans||Other Team||Notes For Other-Team Approach|
|Season||Pelicans||Other Team||Notes For Other-Team Approach|
|2019-20||$27,093,018||$31,156,971||Traded, receives a 15% trade kicker|
|2020-21||$41,300,000||$35,400,000||Signs a one-plus-one contract (30% Max)|
|2021-22||$44,604,000||$38,232,000||Accepts his player option|
|2022-23||$47,908,000||$45,533,250||Signs a five-year extension (35% Max)|
Between 2019-20 and 2024-25, Davis can earn $266.6 million with the Pelicans compared to a projected $252.3 million with a team that trades for him; that’s a difference of $14.3 million, or only $2.4 million per season. The differential could shift depending on how much the cap increases, but either way, the disparity ranges from moderate to minuscule. What Davis loses in a trade is future financial security, which matters for a player who has missed an average of 14 games per season because of numerous injuries. The benefits are that Davis could play wherever he wants and retain control of his destiny.
The Other Teams in the Hunt
Davis has only so much say in what the Pelicans decide to do this summer. DeMarcus Cousins’s agent, Jarinn Akana, warned teams ahead of the 2017 trade deadline that Cousins was destined for the Lakers and that Cousins wouldn’t re-sign anywhere else under any circumstances, but the Pelicans traded for Boogie anyway. In 2007, when the Timberwolves made Garnett available for trade, the Lakers started as favorites, then the Suns emerged as Garnett’s preferred destination; Garnett’s agent, Andy Miller, publicly stated that Boston wasn’t an option for KG. Eventually, after weeks of silence on the rumor front, Boston did acquire Garnett. Even if Davis’s agent, Rich Paul, tries to push Davis to the Lakers, it doesn’t guarantee he’ll be dealt there. The list of suitors for Davis will go beyond the Lakers, or even other big-market teams.
May 14, the night of the 2019 NBA draft lottery, could be one of the most important dates in recent league history. It will not only determine the destination of Duke prospect and presumptive no. 1 pick Zion Williamson, but also play a central role in determining Davis’s destiny. The Lakers could be Davis’s preference, but they don’t have as many assets as other teams, and given their current pace (20-14), they have nothing to gain on lottery night. A team that lands a top pick could move into pole position for Davis.
Celtics point guard Kyrie Irving is one of Davis’s closest friends in the league, and he has already spoken to Davis about being teammates on the Celtics, The Athletic’s Jay King reported in October. The Celtics could own up to four first-round picks in the 2019 draft, including Sacramento’s top-one-protected first. The Kings are vying for a playoff spot, but only 3.5 games separate them from the NBA’s seventh-worst record. It’s a long season ahead; Sacramento’s current early-season surge could soon feel like a distant memory. With young assets like Jaylen Brown, Marcus Smart, and Robert Williams—or a sign-and-trade including Terry Rozier, a restricted free agent this summer—the Celtics also have various young players to dangle. Jayson Tatum could trump all other assets were the Celtics to make him available.
The Knicks own their own first-round pick and are currently tied for the league’s second-worst record, which would give them a 14 percent chance of landing the no. 1 pick. The Knicks don’t have as many assets as the Celtics—Kevin Knox, Frank Ntilikina, and Allonzo Trier are their main three pieces—which makes their results on lottery night all the more important.
A surprise team could always enter the sweepstakes. If the Kings pick ends up no. 1, it will convey to the Sixers, and there’s nothing stopping them from putting that on the table along with Markelle Fultz and other assets, including Zhaire Smith or Miami’s unprotected first in 2021. The Suns have inquired about stars traded in recent years, such as Irving and Kawhi Leonard, so they could realistically make a push for Davis. Other big-market teams like the Nets or Davis’s hometown Bulls would at least call the Pelicans if they were to land a top draft selection.
A picks-based package wouldn’t necessarily be most appealing to the Pelicans anyway. New Orleans is the NBA’s smallest market and the team ranks 26th in attendance this season, despite having a megastar in Davis. The front office could theoretically prefer to receive an established player, so the team’s fan interest and attendance doesn’t dwindle. Contending teams with lesser stars, such as the Trail Blazers with CJ McCollum, could surprising us by entering the Davis sweepstakes, much like the Raptors did for Leonard by dangling DeMar DeRozan or Oklahoma City did for Paul George. New Orleans, an unexpected destination for Cousins, knows this all too well. The Lakers were ironically considered favorites for all three of those stars at one point.
Any team interested in Davis would need to package about $24.9 million in salary to acquire AD if he picks up his $4.1 million trade bonus (or about $21.6 million if he doesn’t), unless they have cap space to absorb his salary. The Pelicans would need to pay that bonus, unless Davis waives it; Klutch Sports could theoretically use the possibility of saving New Orleans that financial burden to get Davis to a team of his choosing. However, teams looking to trade for Davis can offer cash to overcome the difference, or simply offer more than the Lakers.
The Pelicans’ Last, Best Hopes
Davis could always decide to stay in New Orleans because of his loyalty to the city and the franchise, plus the financial security it can offer—much like another Klutch client, John Wall, decided to do with the Wizards. But even if this season continues to go sour and the Pelicans miss the playoffs, and even if Davis goes on the record that he wants out of New Orleans, it doesn’t guarantee that the Pelicans will make a trade.
We’ve seen this story before. In 2009, the Raptors knew their odds of re-signing Chris Bosh were slim, but they tried to convince him to stay anyway by improving the team with a trade for Hedo Turkoglu. It didn’t work: Bosh left for Miami the next summer.
Calling a player’s bluff is often the worst move—see: the Raptors with Bosh, or the Timberwolves with Jimmy Butler—but teams do it. The Pelicans could always attempt to improve the team and make another run with Davis. The front office can create close to maximum cap space by renouncing rights to the team’s free agents (including Nikola Mirotic and Julius Randle, if the latter opts out of his final year) plus trading or waive-and-stretching Solomon Hill’s expiring contract. Or, if Mirotic were re-signed to around his same salary this year ($12.5 million), they could create roughly $20 million in cap space to pursue second-tier free agents like Tobias Harris and Khris Middleton, or even players like Ricky Rubio and Danny Green. These options may seem like lateral moves, and they probably are, but the Pelicans could try a last-ditch effort. It’s worth noting, though, that the Pelicans have never gone into the luxury tax, and front-office executives don’t expect them to in the foreseeable future. It will be easy for Pelicans fans to direct their anger at Davis once he inevitably demands a trade, but Davis didn’t choose to trade a first-round pick and then overpay for Omer Asik, or sign Hill to a millstone contract. But Davis values his legacy above all else, and New Orleans’s recent roster-building missteps an an ownership that won’t spend freely have hampered his team’s ability to win at a high level.
The night of the 2019 draft lottery could also have an impact on the Pelicans if they miss the playoffs. They currently have the NBA’s eighth-worst record, which would give them a 6 percent chance at the no. 1 pick and a 26.3 percent chance at the top four. Missing the playoffs would obviously work against New Orleans’s case to keep Davis—the Pelicans have made the postseason only twice before in the Davis era—but it’s also the team’s only remaining path to realistically acquiring another star. The DeMarcus Cousins blockbuster failed, and then they missed out on Butler, despite discussing a trade with Minnesota. This is fantasyland stuff, but if the Pelicans were to win the lottery and land a top pick, suddenly they’d become a leading contender in the trade market for other stars. If the Blazers miss the playoffs, maybe they’d decide to deal McCollum or Damian Lillard. The Wizards could always move Wall or Bradley Beal. At the least, the Pelicans would have new ammo.
There may be no move that keeps Davis in New Orleans, but acquiring another front-line player could be enough to convince the franchise it’s worth keeping him into the 2019-20 season, pushing this drama to the 2020 trade deadline. It realistically won’t come to that, though; trade offers should be overwhelming enough for the Pelicans to find one worth accepting.
The Lakers’ Waiting Game
It would be naive to think the Lakers will automatically land Davis, but it would also be naive to think they don’t have a chance despite maybe not having the best assets. If Davis and his representatives indicate to other interested teams that he will leave for Los Angeles when he hits free agency, offers could drop and the Lakers can get into the mix.
It’s not like Los Angeles doesn’t have a lot to offer. The Lakers own all of their future picks, and a number of valuable young players, including Brandon Ingram, Kyle Kuzma, Lonzo Ball, and Josh Hart. Ingram is being treated like the ugly duckling of the Lakers’ young core because the team has thrived during his 11 missed games (due to suspension and a sprained ankle). And when the slender forward has been active, he’s struggled while sharing the floor with LeBron James, as recently detailed by The Ringer’s Jonathan Tjarks. Ingram is averaging 15.8 points per 36 minutes with a dismal 49.8 true shooting percentage while on the court with LeBron over 569 minutes, per NBA.com/Stats. James is at his most effective when the ball is in his hands and he’s surrounded by shooters, but Ingram has been reluctant to shoot 3s. James reportedly thought Ingram could be his Scottie Pippen, but Ingram has been more like his taller, skinnier Larry Hughes.
Growing pains are to be expected, though. Ingram turned only 21 in September, was a late-bloomer in high school, and has spent his entire life with the ball in his hands. At Duke he was at his best in an on-ball playmaking role, and that remains the case now. In just over 140 minutes without James on the floor this season, Ingram is dropping 27.2 points, 5.9 rebounds, and 4.4 assists per 36 minutes. Ingram’s best stretch last season—18.4 points, 5.5 rebounds, and 5.4 assists over 14 games—also coincided with Lonzo Ball being sidelined for 11 of them.
Unless the Celtics put Tatum on the table, or a team offers the no. 1 pick, Ingram might be best individual asset the Pelicans can be offered for Davis. Ingram is young, cost-effective, and has shown flashes of becoming a superstar with versatile scoring, advanced passing vision, and the length to defend multiple positions.
The Warriors have lost their edge, and they’re only one injury away from being extremely vulnerable in the playoffs. But just the chance of acquiring Davis this summer will likely cause the Lakers, and other teams, to pass on opportunities to maximize their shot at a championship this season. There’s been talk among the media and fans that the Lakers should use Ingram in a trade now for Beal. The Wizards, despite all the shenanigans that happened earlier this season, are trying to make the playoffs, so Beal isn’t exactly available now. But even if he were, adding Beal now doesn’t make the Lakers Finals favorites, and his acquisition would shatter their cap flexibility this summer.
With Beal, the Lakers would be projected to have only about $17 million in space, which would take them out of the running to sign stars like Kevin Durant or Klay Thompson, or even high-level free agents like Cousins, Harris, or Middleton. Beal might be better than any of the latter three players, but the chance at signing one of those star free agents while also retaining Ingram gives Los Angeles more options. It’s not that the Lakers should never trade Ingram; it’s simply about the timing. The Lakers, and any other team with a chance at Davis, are making decisions now based on the chances of winning this summer’s grand prize.
Davis’s Effect on the Next CBA
Davis is the greatest case study for the effectiveness of the supermax. During discussions for the current collective bargaining agreement, the NBA and the players’ union negotiated to increase potential earnings for players, including a designated veteran player extension that pays 35 percent of the cap and can only be given by the team that drafted the player. The supermax was supposed to give stars like Davis more incentive to stay on their teams, and teams more power to keep them, but that hasn’t happened as often as the sides may have expected. Durant left the Thunder for the Warriors, and the Kings traded Cousins to the Pelicans. There have been a few successes, like Stephen Curry and the Warriors, James Harden and the Rockets, and Russell Westbrook and the Thunder, but owners often don’t want to spend the money, or players aren’t interested in taking it.
The deadline for the NBA or the players’ union to opt out of the current CBA after the 2022-23 season is December 15, 2022. When CBA negotiations begin again, both sides should find better solutions. If the opt-out is exercised, Davis and other stars might be better off waiting until 2023-24 to sign long-term deals.
It’s impossible to predict what the cap will look like in the years to come, with legalized gambling becoming a revenue stream—a Nielsen Sports report projects the NBA to earn $585 million annually due to regulated betting. There’s also an uncertain future for the league’s broadcast rights deal. The current TV contract runs through 2024-25, and Google, Amazon, and Facebook are expected to enter the live sports arena. The pie only seems to be growing. Davis will undoubtedly be used as an example of the success of the current max-contract rules, one way or another, and his choice could as a result lead to a greater payday under a new CBA.
Davis stands at the center of the NBA’s uncertain future. Players of his caliber are rarely available, and with so many big-market teams in possession of assets and cap space, the Pelicans could be positioned to generate a bidding war. Whether Davis ends up staying in New Orleans or being traded to the Lakers, Celtics, Knicks, or some surprise team, his 2019 will be memorable.