The Anthony Davis trade sweepstakes seem to change by the day. The one constant presence has been the Lakers, the one team who can pair AD with another superstar (LeBron James) and not think twice about offering a package of young players and draft picks to the Pelicans, knowing that Davis would re-sign with them when he becomes a free agent in the summer of 2020. The Celtics were supposed to make a Godfather offer for Davis this summer, but the suddenly uncertain future of Kyrie Irving has put their carefully laid plans in jeopardy. Now the question is whether anyone else will come out of nowhere to make a run at Davis in the last few days before the trade deadline on February 7.
It would be a massive gamble. There’s no point in attempting to build around Davis if he’s going to leave in only 18 months. The team that acquires him has to be done building. They would have to be ready to contend for a title immediately, even after giving up multiple high-upside young players to the Pelicans and at least $25 million in matching salaries. The only way the risk would be worth it is if that team had a vision to sell to Davis. The easiest thing to sell is another superstar. Davis won’t win a title by himself. He’s won one playoff series in five seasons in New Orleans with Jrue Holiday, one of the best two-way guards in the league. Even playing with an All-Star-caliber player wouldn’t move the needle in comparison to playing with LeBron in Los Angeles. Davis needs to be paired with another MVP candidate in his prime. The chance to play with someone that good for the next decade might be enough to keep him around.
There are two teams that have enough young talent to make a fair offer to the Pelicans and the type of player who might be a long-term draw for Davis: the Raptors and Kawhi Leonard, as well as the Nuggets and Nikola Jokic.
Davis and Kawhi
Toronto already went all in six months ago, when it traded for Kawhi even though he was going into the final season of his contract and managed to play only nine games in 2017-18 due to a lingering quadriceps injury. It has worked so far. Kawhi has been as good as advertised, leading the Raptors to a 38-16 record. Nothing really matters until the playoffs, though, where they will likely have to get through some combination of the Bucks, Celtics, and 76ers just to make a potential NBA Finals showdown with the Warriors. Fizzle out at any step along the way and their pitch to Kawhi this summer might not look that compelling.
Davis would change everything. He would give Kawhi the chance to relive his days with Tim Duncan in San Antonio, except this time he would be on the same timetable as his star big man. Kawhi is 27 and Davis is 25, and they are both averaging more than 25 points per game this season. If they were on the same team, they would be only the seventh pair of teammates to do so since 2000. None of those previous pairs had as much defensive upside as Kawhi and Davis. The Raptors could have a front line with two Defensive Player of the Year candidates who could also take over a game on offense without getting in the other’s way. Even the Warriors would have matchup problems with that combination.
Toronto has the pieces to make a trade work. The centerpiece would be Pascal Siakam, a 24-year-old big man averaging career highs in points (15.4), rebounds (6.9), assists (2.8), steals (0.9), blocks (0.7), and field goal percentage (55.9). This is just the beginning for Siakam. At 6-foot-9 and 230 pounds, he’s an electric athlete with the ability to defend players at all five positions and a well-rounded offensive game. He can get to the rim and finish over anyone, and he can make plays on the move for his teammates. He’s even shown significant growth as a shooter, averaging 33.1 percent from 3 on 2.2 attempts per game and 79.9 percent from the free throw line on 3.4 attempts per game. Siakam was taken at no. 27 overall in the 2016 draft, but he has been better this season than either Brandon Ingram or Jaylen Brown, top 3 picks in that draft who have long been expected to headline offers for Davis.
Toronto could round out the deal with OG Anunoby, potentially giving New Orleans its frontcourt of the future for the next decade. Anunoby hasn’t taken the leap that many people expected in his second season in the NBA, but he’s still an intriguing prospect whose floor is one of the best 3-and-D players in the league. Like Siakam, he has the size (6-foot-8 and 232 pounds) and athleticism to be a five-position defender, but he has a higher baseline as a shooter, with a career average of 35.2 percent from 3 on 2.9 attempts per game. Throw in an established young point guard like Delon Wright or Fred VanVleet and the Raptors could make an offer at least as good as the Lakers’ offer, if not better.
Filling out the rest of the trade would be simple. Toronto could package Siakam, Anunoby, and one of its point guards with the salaries of reserve center Jonas Valanciunas ($16.5 million) and wing C.J. Miles ($8.3 million) while the Pelicans would send back some warm bodies on minimum-salary contracts, like Tim Frazier and Kenrich Williams, to balance out the rosters. The negotiating would come down to future draft picks and the benches of both teams, and whether Toronto would have to sacrifice more of its depth to absorb the final season of Solomon Hill’s contract ($12.3 million). Either way, there is a path to a deal that would give New Orleans a fresh start while creating a potential dynasty in Canada.
The Raptors wouldn’t just be a two-man team. They could surround Davis and Kawhi with an All-Star point guard (Kyle Lowry) and two of the best 3-and-D players in the league (Danny Green and Serge Ibaka). Their depth would take a hit, but they could stagger the minutes of Davis and Kawhi to always have one on the floor. They would be right there with Steph Curry and Kevin Durant as the best one-two punch in the entire NBA. Stars want to play with stars, and the best way to keep both Kawhi and Davis is to sell them on each other. Would Kawhi really want to go to the Clippers to play with Danilo Gallinari over staying and playing with Davis? And would Davis really want to play with a 36-year-old LeBron in the summer of 2020 instead of a 28-year-old Kawhi?
Davis and Jokic
There are a lot of people around the league not ready to put Jokic in this category. The 23-year-old center is having a career season, leading an injury-ravaged Nuggets team to the top seed in the Western Conference, but he’s still a former second-round pick who has never made an All-Star Game or a playoff appearance in his first three seasons in the league. It’s hard to picture a below-average athlete who doesn’t hunt for his own shot as an MVP candidate. Jokic is a historically unique player who impacts the game in unprecedented ways. Denver would be gambling that he would grow on Davis over the next 18 months.
It might not be as big a gamble as it seems. Jokic, who is averaging 7.7 assists and 3.6 3-point attempts per game this season, is a sweet-shooting point center who can score at will and pick apart a defense from the perimeter. He’s a one-man offense who makes life incredibly easy for everyone around him. Davis has never played with a playmaker like Jokic before, while Jokic would have no problem taking a back seat on offense to allow Davis to rack up huge scoring numbers. Davis would catch so many lobs from Jokic on cuts and pick-and-rolls, and Jokic could space the floor out to the 3-point line when Davis drove to the basket. There’s no ceiling to what the two could do together on offense.
The headliner of a trade would be Jamal Murray, whom the Pelicans passed on for Buddy Hield in the 2016 draft. Murray is a 21-year-old guard averaging 18.5 points on 43.2 percent shooting and 4.9 assists per game this season, and he might be able to handle an even bigger role in a system that didn’t run so much of its offense through its center. He’s a volume 3-point shooter who can score and pass out of the pick-and-roll, and he can also play off the ball and threaten the defense by running around screens for catch-and-shoot 3s. He has a usage rate of only 25.5 this season. Push that closer to 30 and he could put up massive scoring numbers.
The Nuggets also have a huge collection of young players whom they could throw into a deal. The most established is Gary Harris, but they might not have to give up their entire starting backcourt if they can convince the Pelicans to roll the dice on Michael Porter Jr., a 6-foot-10 wing widely projected to be a top 5 pick in last year’s draft before a back injury pushed him to no. 14 overall. My colleague Kevin O’Connor reported that Porter has impressed Nuggets executives during his rehabilitation process, and he’s exactly the type of lottery ticket that a rebuilding franchise needs. Murray and Porter could develop into one of the most explosive scoring duos in the league, and the Nuggets could balance out the injury risk to the latter with a first-round pick and one of Trey Lyles, Juancho Hernangomez, or Malik Beasley. Add Paul Millsap ($29 million) to match salaries and Denver could offer a compelling package for Davis.
The Nuggets would be giving up a lot. As my colleague Haley O’Shaughnessy wrote last week, they don’t need to do anything. Unlike the Raptors, who have to make every decision under the threat of Kawhi’s impending free agency, the Nuggets have Jokic locked up until 2022, and they have seven rotation players under the age of 25. The reason to make the trade is that Jokic makes the rest of the team expendable. He’s why they survived without Harris, Will Barton, and Millsap for huge stretches of this season. Even Murray is replaceable. Jokic has a significantly higher net rating with backup point guard Monte Morris this season (plus-8.1 in 591 minutes) than he does with Murray (plus-6.6 in 1,156 minutes).
Jokic needs help on defense, not offense. He has made defensive strides this season, but there’s still a ceiling to how good a big man with his limited athletic ability can be on that end of the floor. The Nuggets signed Millsap to protect him on defense, and Davis is what would happen if someone edited Millsap’s ratings in NBA 2K19’s “Create-A-Player” mode, enlarged his dimensions by 50 percent, and boosted his athleticism even more. Davis is one of the only big men in the league who can defend the 3-point line as well as he can protect the rim, and he can cover all the space in between the two in one stride. Denver will need someone with his defensive ability to win a title with Jokic. The odds of the Nuggets ever getting a player like that, one who can also score 30-plus points a game efficiently, are slim.
Denver is not a free-agent destination, and the team will never be bad enough with Jokic as their cornerstone to be in a position to draft someone like Davis. The only way they will be able to acquire a frontcourt player with his ability is to make a trade, and generational big men, by definition, don’t come on the trade block more than once or twice a decade. If they do, there is usually some risk involved, like there is in this situation. At the very least, the Nuggets would get two playoff runs with Davis and Jokic together. This is their chance to shift the balance of power in the league in an unlikely direction. They may never get a better one.