Anthony Davis says he doesn’t regret anything. But Davis, his current team, and his purported future team are all in sticky situations after the trade demand that amounted to nothing. New Orleans doesn’t quite know how to operate with Davis still on the team, and Los Angeles is awkwardly moving forward with a roster of players who now know about their impermanence out west. There are no winners here.
New Orleans is in no-man’s-land. At 25-32, the team is not bad enough to have a good draft pick yet and likely not good enough to make up a six-game deficit and grab a playoff spot. The Pelicans would be better off resting Davis to keep his value high and improve their lottery pick. But they can’t. As ESPN’s Brian Windhorst reported last week, the league office contacted the Pelicans (after a call from Rich Paul, Davis’s agent) and threatened to fine them $100,000 for each healthy game they sat Davis.
On Friday, Davis played and did what he does best: He dazzled. For three quarters against the Timberwolves, he dominated, putting up an effortless 32 points in 25 minutes. The boos from the home crowd that accompanied his pregame introduction turned into cheers. But at the beginning of the fourth quarter, Davis sat at the end of the bench. It was a close matchup down the stretch, but the TV camera was almost focused more on Davis than the action. He never went back into the game. The Pelicans squeaked out a win. After it was reported that Davis wasn’t going to be playing many, if any, back-to-backs, Davis played 34 minutes Saturday and scored only 14 points. The Pelicans lost.
Davis has made it clear that he intends to play out his contract and become a free agent in 2020, but the move to request a trade over a week before the deadline signaled that Davis and his camp, which includes Paul (who is also LeBron’s agent), wanted to get the All-Star to the Lakers. Davis was fined $50,000 after Paul made the trade request public. The Pelicans, though, didn’t give in. Reports indicated that New Orleans never really engaged on talks; in hindsight, it seems like they just played the Lakers from the start. If so, it worked. The Lakers showed their hand, and, on Sunday, Magic Johnson said he didn’t think the negotiation between them and the Pelicans had been done in “good faith.” The whole ordeal was just one power play being answered by another.
In essence, the NBA is punishing the Pelicans for stonewalling the Lakers and wanting to protect Davis, the asset. But if Davis has the right to ask for a trade (he does), do the Pelicans have a right to sit him? Just this season, there have been plenty of teams that have kept players from playing and even sent them away. The Rockets kept Carmelo Anthony away for months before they traded him to the Bulls. Chandler Parsons was cleared to return from injury in late December, and the Grizzlies still didn’t play him. But as Sports Illustrated’s Michael McCann pointed out, articles in the league’s constitution allow commissioner Adam Silver to punish moves he deems to be tanking-motivated. Because Davis is the type of player who changes the competitive balance of a game on his own, sitting him would be a blatant tanking move.
So, for now, Davis is playing. New Orleans GM Dell Demps said that the franchise wants to “preserve the integrity of the game and align our organization with NBA policies.” I can only assume he said this while furiously knocking on some wood. If Davis gets injured, the league could be indirectly responsible for diminishing a trade return that could set up a franchise like the Pelicans to survive after parting with its superstar.
If the Pelicans are going to trade their superstar, though, they’re at least going to do it on their own terms, and that’s bad news for the Lakers, who are desperate to find a second star to pair with an aging LeBron. L.A.’s own fiasco is twofold. LeBron’s first season as a Laker will now likely end without a real chance of competing in the playoffs. This summer, the Lakers will have to find a way to get Davis and build a championship-level support system around the two of them.
Then there are the powerless players who were left behind. Unlike Davis, the young Lakers had no influence they could try to exert. Brandon Ingram, Lonzo Ball, Kyle Kuzma, and company were left to see their names in every report and not know whether the deadline would signal the end of their time in L.A. They also played like it. Johnson flew out to meet with the Lakers post-deadline in order to “provide an open forum” for the team to speak about the Davis saga. Players’ reactions to the meeting were reportedly “tepid,” and I’m not sure Johnson’s public approach to the situation helped either.
“Quit making this about thinking these guys are babies,” Johnson said pregame in Philly on Sunday. “Because that’s what you’re treating them like. They’re professionals. All of them. And this is how this league works. … This is a part of the league, you got the good side of the business that we get paid to be professional basketball players, but then there’s deals like this.”
Johnson is right, but this also applies to his “good faith” comment. This is a business, which is why Davis and his camp can request a trade if they want to. It’s also why the Pelicans can drag out the process, never engage, and say no if they want to, and why the Lakers can’t do anything about it. It’s why the league can get involved at its own whim, and it’s why the Pelicans can want to keep Davis on the bench, even if the league won’t allow them. Nothing happened at the deadline, but both teams were left hungover. The Lakers didn’t get what they wanted. The Pelicans got a lot more than they bargained for.