“I’d take legacy over money,” Anthony Davis told Chris Haynes of Yahoo Sports back in December. “I want to have a legacy. All my people that look up to me, the younger kids, I want them to know about AD’s legacy. [...] Don’t get me wrong, money is amazing. But I think in that sense, money or legacy, I think my legacy will win that battle every time.”
Money officially lost on Monday. Rich Paul, Davis’s agent, told ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski that his client “has no intention of signing a contract extension” with the New Orleans Pelicans and was requesting a trade. One of the five or so best basketball players in the world, a 25-year-old All-NBA first-team superstar, has made it clear that he wants out; the sweepstakes that promises to shake the league has begun.
You have questions. We have answers:
Why Do This Now?
For one thing: to lay the cards on the table, and dispense with any pretense that the Pelicans can do something in the next four months that will convince Davis to stay in New Orleans. If you know you’re going to break away, the best thing you can do is try to make the break clean.
When you’ve already settled on saying, “Nah, I think I’m all set, actually,” to a $239.5 million supermax contract extension, you’re about as done as done can be. Making this public and unmistakable now is Davis and Paul’s way of letting the Pelicans know that they shouldn’t swing a Band-Aid deal ahead of the February 7 trade deadline. Six games back of the West’s eighth seed, with Davis, Nikola Mirotic, and Julius Randle all battling injuries, the Pelicans have watched their playoff odds continue to dwindle; FiveThirtyEight gives them a 23 percent chance of making the postseason, while they make the playoffs in fewer than 10 percent of Basketball-Reference.com’s simulations. Monday’s pronouncement made it clear that New Orleans needs to read the room, keep that first-round pick, and start the rebuild now.
It’s cold comfort in the wake of a superstar saying goodbye, and it might only be a small mercy, but the Pelicans should thank heaven for it all the same. They can’t fix what’s been broken, can’t redeem the catastrophic roster-building that largely scuttled six and a half seasons of a future Hall of Famer’s ascent. What’s left now is to try to learn from it all, to endure the pain, and to start laying the groundwork for what’s next from the ashes.
The timing also makes it clear that prospective suitors should start making their best offers. Which is to say ...
Which Team Is Davis Sending Up the Bat Signal For?
… Davis and Paul appear to be letting Magic Johnson and Rob Pelinka know that now would be a good time to make a phone call or two.
Rumors connecting Davis to the Los Angeles Lakers intensified in preseason when Davis hired Paul—who, famously, also represents LeBron James—to be his new agent. At the time, Paul told ESPN’s Brian Windhorst that Davis’s decision shouldn’t be read as an indication that he was planning to switch teams. Whether or not that was true at the time, it clearly isn’t anymore, and the Lakers “have been determined to acquire Davis in a deal,” according to Wojnarowski. (We already know LeBron would be down, thanks to the “Duh” heard ‘round the world.)
Paul told Marc Stein of The New York Times that he has not “given the Pelicans a preferred trade destination for Davis.” But by making this public pronouncement five months before the Boston Celtics can legally engage in trade talks for AD—we’ll get to that in a second—it’s hard not to see Monday’s report as a move aimed at giving the Lakers a head start. The question, then, is whether Johnson and Pelinka are ready to put every asset they’ve got—Brandon Ingram, Lonzo Ball, Kyle Kuzma, Josh Hart, the expiring contracts of Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Rajon Rondo, and Lance Stephenson, and whatever draft capital New Orleans wants (the Lakers own all of their own first-round picks moving forward)—on the table to get him.
Waiting is not an option this time. If the Lakers need a reminder of that, all they have to do is look up clips of Paul George and Kawhi Leonard playing at MVP levels in Oklahoma City and Toronto, respectively, or take another look at the length of LeBron’s contract. The message that Davis and Paul seemed to be sending on Monday was: Come and get me, and don’t be too cute about it.
Which Teams Might Jump Into the Mix Now?
Virtually every team in the league will probably at least check in. To hear Paul tell it, though, only teams “that [allow Davis] the chance to win consistently and compete for a championship” need apply, because those are the only teams Davis will reportedly consider re-signing with once he can enter unrestricted free agency in the summer of 2020. That limits the likely suitors, though how much remains to be seen; according to ESPN, “several” contenders are “weighing the possibility of making offers for Davis,” hoping he’d boost their odds of winning a title this season and still serve as a premium trade asset before he can opt out of his current deal.
The Lakers rate, because we will continue to believe all things are possible through LeBron James. The Warriors obviously do, too, and they’ve long been enamored of the idea of making Davis the next plank in their Win Forever platform. But Klay Thompson’s going to be a free agent this summer and Draymond Green’s not enough on his own to be a centerpiece of any deal. (Should Davis stay put until the summer, Golden State could get more creative with its offers, potentially building something around a re-signed Thompson.) It’s tough to see the East-leading Bucks getting involved, because the only piece they’ve got that New Orleans would probably consider is the one that Milwaukee would never consider moving.
The 76ers are a fascinating possibility, because Ben Simmons might be the best individual player New Orleans could get in a deal for Davis. Philly’s also got Miami’s unprotected 2021 first-round pick, which might be the best sweetener on the board. But Simmons, like Davis, is a Klutch Sports client, which could muddy the deal-making waters. They’d also want some assurance that Davis would re-sign come 2020 before making yet another massive wager on an All-NBA free-agent-to-be.
The Raptors are a spicy little thought experiment. Masai Ujiri already declared his intention to go all in for the Finals this season with the Leonard blockbuster, and Toronto’s got a mix of movable salaries and interesting young pieces to at least get into the conversation. Might an offer starting with something like Jonas Valanciunas, Pascal Siakam, OG Anunoby, Delon Wright, and a future pick get the attention of a Pelicans team entering a rebuild?
Similarly: Would New Orleans pick up a call from Denver’s Tim Connelly—who was once Dell Demps’s assistant general manager—if he was offering something like Jamal Murray, Michael Porter Jr., Malik Beasley, and future picks, plus Mason Plumlee’s contract to make the salaries match? Would the Nuggets risk the upheaval to what has become one of the NBA’s best young cores in pursuit of the kind of superstar who never comes to Denver in free agency? Davis would be a mind-bending fit alongside Nikola Jokic, and a player who could vault the Nuggets from a nice story into the ranks of serious contenders.
CJ McCollum plus young assets and picks probably isn’t enough to get Portland involved, even though the Trail Blazers find themselves at a crossroads. Part of me loves the idea of a deal built around (the currently injured) Clint Capela, but the luxury-tax hell that would ensue for Houston makes me wonder whether that’s a feasible path. Teams like Miami, Chicago (Davis’s hometown), and New York might be able to get in the mix—for the Heat, something based around rising swingman Josh Richardson and rejuvenated point guard Justise Winslow; for the Bulls and Knicks, a package including what could wind up being the no. 1 pick in the 2019 draft—but might not offer the “win consistently and compete for championships” double that Davis is reportedly looking for.
All of which brings us back to the Lakers … and to their eternal nemeses on the East Coast.
What About the Celtics, Though?
Boston can’t trade for Davis right now. Like, it’s in the rules of the league.
When Davis signed his maximum-salary extension back in 2015, he did so under a provision in the NBA’s collective bargaining agreement that allows players coming off their rookie-scale contracts to earn up to 30 percent of the league’s salary cap, as opposed to the 25 percent max to which most rookies are limited, if they meet certain criteria. That provision—typically referred to as the “Rose Rule”—includes the stipulation that a team can’t trade for more than one player signed to a “Rose Rule” extension. The problem: Kyrie Irving, for whom Boston traded in the summer of 2017, is still playing on the Rose Rule deal he signed with Cleveland in 2014. That means the Celtics can’t import another player on a Rose Rule deal until either Irving leaves or he signs a new deal. With Irving on the roster until he decides whether or not to exercise a player option this summer, the earliest the Celtics could make a trade to bring in Davis would be July 1.
That restriction, combined with the fact that Boston can likely put together the best package of assets for New Orleans, is why many think the Pelicans should wait until the summer to hold an auction for Davis’s services. If the Pelicans hold fast, they’ll give Danny Ainge a chance to open up his war chest and make an offer including cost-controlled young talent like Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, and Robert Williams, solid players on mid-tier salaries like Marcus Smart, potential sign-and-trade assets like restricted free agent guard Terry Rozier, and multiple future first-round picks, including a Grizzlies first that’s top-eight protected in 2019, top-six protected in 2020, and totally unprotected in 2021. Making a move now takes that option off the table.
What the Hell Are the Pelicans Going to Do?
Well, for one thing, they should probably completely clean house in the front office. In Demps’s reign as the team’s lead basketball operative, the Pelicans repeatedly made later-for-now moves designed to accelerate their timetable to contention around Davis—an understandable approach to take when you want to maximize your time with a transcendent talent, but one that can turn tragic if you biff enough moves. Demps’s tenure has been something of a biff-fest.
Landing Jrue Holiday for lottery picks hurt when Holiday missed parts of four seasons with various injuries, but Holiday was clearly someone worth building around, as he’s shown over the past two seasons. Demps misstepped when he kept dealing, trying to surround Davis and Holiday with “young veterans” who always fit better in theory than in practice.
Flipping Robin Lopez for the right to sign Tyreke Evans opened up a hole at center that Demps tried to fill by dealing a first-round pick for Omer Asik, and then by throwing $80 million at Asik and Alexis Ajinca just as the NBA was starting to move away from lumbering centers who couldn’t shoot or score. In 2016, with everyone flush with cash from the cap spike and New Orleans in desperate need of an answer on the wing, Demps spent $52 million on Solomon Hill, who had rarely sniffed league-average as a small forward in Indiana and has been even worse for the Pelicans. Players with some sort of value around the league—Eric Gordon, Al-Farouq Aminu, Ryan Anderson—were allowed to leave in free agency for nothing, rather than repackaged for future assets.
There were bad breaks along the way, too; who knows how last season plays out if DeMarcus Cousins doesn’t rupture his Achilles tendon? But luck is the residue of design, and the Pelicans just never seemed to have a coherent plan for how to move forward around Davis. Save for a couple of lightning-in-a-bottle runs—one to make the playoffs in their last season with Monty Williams; last year’s first-round sweep of Portland—they never really got anywhere. It seems reasonable to expect that Demps will bear the brunt of that once Davis is gone, if not sooner.
The Pelicans are currently 22-28, 13th in the West, and six games out of the conference’s final playoff spot. With Davis’s future all but written, now may be a good time to flip from deadline buyers to selling off just about everything that isn’t nailed down. New Orleans isn’t good without Davis; there is no reason to pretend otherwise. A fire sale would help the franchise load up on future draft capital and get this season’s team as close to the bottom of the standings as possible to improve their odds of landing a higher pick in June’s draft. Head coach Alvin Gentry told reporters Monday that, if he’s not moved, Davis plans to play out the rest of the season after returning from his fractured left index finger, but that wouldn’t seem to serve New Orleans’s purposes at all. The best thing the Pelicans can do right now is lose games, and if that means sending Davis home until they start talking deals in earnest this summer, well, so be it.
Holiday—in the second season of a five-year contract he signed in 2017, due in part to the presence of Davis and in part to the fact it will pay him $132 million—suddenly joins Mike Conley as perhaps the best guards who could be up for discussion over the next two weeks. E’Twaun Moore, on the books for an affordable $8.7 million for next season, could help a good team looking for some depth at shooting guard. Nikola Mirotic, Elfrid Payton, Wesley Johnson, Darius Miller, Ian Clark, and Tim Frazier will all hit free agency this summer. Julius Randle can, too, if he opts out of the second season of the deal he signed back in July.
The Pelicans should see what they can get for all of them. All that matters now is giving yourself as many bites at the draft apple as you can, in hopes of getting lucky. Who knows? Maybe you land a prospect who can change the fortunes of your franchise. And maybe this time, you get it right.