There’s no hiding Anthony Davis. There’s no quietly inserting him back into New Orleans’s starting lineup, as the Pelicans say they’ll do this week. He is, at 6-foot-10 with a 7-foot-6 wingspan, the most physically noticeable person anywhere he goes. Those 30-point, 14-rebound, three-block stat lines aren’t camouflaging him either. And after Davis demanded a trade last month, he became one of the most-watched players in the league. Couple that with the Lakers’ failed attempt to acquire him, and Davis is the unlucky winner of the high-visibility trifecta: the Lakers, LeBron James, and trade rumors. Alvin Gentry will start Davis against Indiana on Friday, his first game since he left the arena early against Oklahoma City, and he’ll walk to midcourt three times his size.
In Toronto, tipping off at the same time, a past high-profile trade will come full-circle. Kawhi Leonard will host the Spurs for the first time in his new arena. The anticipation doesn’t compare with that of Davis’s return; the Raptors traveled to San Antonio earlier this season, where Leonard was given a tribute video, some purgative boos from the crowd, and a postgame embrace from former pedagogue Gregg Popovich. Leonard and Popovich held on tight, then walked with their hands around each other’s shoulders, as if to say they’d decided long ago to set aside their differences, as if Popovich hadn’t said Leonard “wasn’t a leader” a month earlier, as if their separation hadn’t been one of the most execrable in recent NBA history, as if it hadn’t happened only six months ago. The Leonard saga is a best-case scenario for a rift like Davis’s. As of now, it doesn’t look like there’s a hug in his future.
Leonard had a brighter spotlight on him throughout the 2017-18 season than at any other point in his career. Not while he was scouted for San Diego State, not during his two years as an Aztec, not in projections leading up to the 2011 draft, not during the draft-day trade that gave San Antonio the rights to Indiana’s 15th overall pick, not during his rookie year, not when he gained notoriety as the 2014 Finals MVP, and not the two seasons that followed, when he, already voted the most important player on a championship team, made another leap into superstardom. Because by that point in Leonard’s career, we had accepted—loved, really—identifying Leonard as unreadable. He was the quiet guy. No social media. Leonard was a straight-A student in the Harvard of the league, the school of Popovich. Entire Reddit threads were dedicated to the few times he was caught smiling on camera. Leonard was dutiful. Deferential. Boring.
That persona, while one of the most well-known in the league, never felt manufactured like the carefully crafted images of so many other players. So when his amenability took a turn, it was a shock. Thousands of words and dozens of reported pieces put Leonard under the microscope before the Spurs honored his trade request in a superstar-for-star deal with the Raptors for DeMar DeRozan. In short: Leonard suffered a bizarre quad injury in the 2017 playoffs, one the likes Popovich had “never seen before” and was supposed to sit out the entire season. According to reports, Leonard was pressured back early by the organization; he later resisted and employed his own doctors outside of San Antonio’s medical staff, which created a divide in the locker room because the team felt like it had a chance at a playoff run. Leonard’s camp remained silent to the public throughout.
The saga was acrimonious and drawn out, and the attention was so uncharacteristic of both Leonard and the Spurs that a shift in the public perception of him seemed inevitable. Leonard had to field questions he didn’t before. Could he survive a year as the villain? Would a shift in his public perception stay with him after his free agency in 2019?
During Leonard’s introductory press conference as a Raptor, he was thrown a softball by a local reporter. “What would you like people to know about you?”
“Um,” Leonard said, deadpan, “I’m a fun guy. Obviously I love the game of basketball. I mean, there’s just more questions you’d have to ask me in order for me to tell you about myself.” Instantly, Leonard was endearingly boring again. Without any defensiveness or effort to regain affection, he returned to being interesting only within the 48-minute parameters of a game. When his New Balance commercial dropped this month, the selling point was that Leonard doesn’t need to talk, that he doesn’t need your “cameras” or your “hot takes,” because “Kawhi doesn’t need to get your attention.” He’s on camera only at the end. He puts a finger to his mouth, goes “shh,” and it cuts to black.
Leonard’s journey shows that forcing a trade doesn’t have to do permanent damage to a player’s image. Davis is becoming unpopular now for a multitude of reasons; the old-school crowd sees him as betraying the franchise that drafted him, and to those who think that players don’t owe their team unconditional loyalty, he’s just not being very respectful, perhaps at the cost of the sanctity of the game. The player-control era is warping free agency as we know it, emphasizing free and chipping away at the traditional time restraints. Like always, players can be loathed for leaving even without forcing a trade; James’s decision to join the Heat in 2010 and Kevin Durant’s to join the Warriors in 2016 followed expired contracts. Still, even that can be called unfair when it means forming a superteam, and both spent time as villains. Unlike Leonard, Durant has found it impossible to take the criticism silently. James is the better comparison for whatever future image issues that Davis may run into. The top criticism for his move to Miami—one still given when it’s discussed today—is that people “didn’t have a problem with his leaving, it’s how he did it”—an announcement on live TV and a parade. For the Cleveland fans he left behind, it was not two, not three, not four, not five, not six, but seven slaps in the face.
Davis is only beginning to live in the aftermath of his trade request. He left that Pelicans game before the All-Star break with an apparent shoulder injury, but in choosing to leave the arena, not just the court, with his agent by his side, Davis helped generate negative headlines for himself. He made eyes with James at All-Star. He went to Disney World and Instagrammed a picture in front of the Hollywood Tower Hotel ride, which drew scrutiny because of the word “Hollywood.” He will appear on James’s HBO show, The Shop, on Friday. Whether or not Davis realizes it, the slaps in the face are racking up.
The upcoming free-agency class is loaded at the top, including Durant, Klay Thompson, Kyrie Irving, and Leonard, whose decision has been talked about significantly less than Durant’s and Irving’s recently, most likely because the latter two can’t stop talking about how much they don’t want to talk about it. Davis is under Pelicans control through the 2019-20 season, but talk of his next destination has consumed the media in the last month. Then there’s Leonard, who was taken on by Toronto with the knowledge that he might be a one-year rental. If Leonard re-signs, it’s a massive win; if not, the fan base will direct any animosity—if there even is any—to the front office, not the player it acquired with an expiring contract. Were Leonard still with the Spurs, the conversation leading up to this summer would come with the weight of loyalty. He’ll have the luxury of bypassing that now, as his once-boiling relationship with San Antonio has since caramelized into nostalgia. Davis, and the coming wave of players to force future trades, will show whether the quick and quiet reconstruction of Kawhi Leonard is the exception or the rule.