For the final 27 games of the Pelicans’ season, Anthony Davis’s lingering presence in New Orleans will be a constant reminder of their inevitable split, a tough breakup for a couple with five months still left on their apartment lease. From Los Angeles to Boston, from the playoffs to draft night, the rest of the league will be on watch until Davis is moved this summer. Here’s a look at what it means for the NBA that Davis stayed with the Pelicans through Thursday’s trade deadline.
What Will Happen to the Pelicans Now?
New Orleans took the long view in passing on the Lakers’ offer of all their young guys and two first-round picks. There are more lucrative rewards waiting this summer if the Celtics can offer an “explosive package” headlined by Jayson Tatum, if a team wins the lottery and offers the right to draft prized no. 1 prospect Zion Williamson, or if a sleeper team with unexpected goods emerges, like the Raptors did for Kawhi Leonard and the Thunder did for Paul George. The promise of steeper offers is intoxicating, but make no mistake: General manager Dell Demps, his assistant Danny Ferry, and Pelicans ownership took a big risk in waiting. Los Angeles did, after all, offer a significant haul.
The Lakers offered Brandon Ingram, Lonzo Ball, Kyle Kuzma, Josh Hart, Ivica Zubac, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, and two first-round draft picks for Davis and Solomon Hill, according to multiple reports. A few executives told me they would’ve been happy to take that deal for Davis; one even said they still consider Ingram, 21, a potential cornerstone in his prime. Few would have blamed Demps for accepting the deal, but in exercising patience, the team will soon have a full array of offers at its feet. Odds are, they’ll be even richer than they were before the deadline. But before New Orleans even has a chance to reap any rewards for its patience, a lot must break right.
The first order of business: Escape the season with Davis still intact. The 25-year-old All-Star wants to play out the rest of the year, and New Orleans will acquiesce to Davis’s wishes (and the NBA’s). Executives and media alike had speculated that the Pelicans might opt to rest Davis to keep him healthy and maintain his value. It’s technically legal; teams decide which 13 players are active and who receives minutes. The NBA has frowned upon resting star players (looking at you, Gregg Popovich) and has made an effort to curb any willful withholding of talent on the floor, going so far as to change the lottery odds to reduce the incentive to tank.
This wouldn’t be a normal tank job, though. New Orleans entered the season with pure intentions of making a playoff run with its present-day core until its superstar requested a trade in late January through his agent, Rich Paul of Klutch Sports. Davis has every right to want to play elsewhere. The Pelicans should also have every right to protect their franchise.
There is nothing the Pelicans or the league can gain from Davis playing out the season that would outweigh the potential long-term losses due to a major injury. The Pelicans have everything to lose should they keep Davis on the floor to help win more games. They’d benefit from losing to increase their lottery odds; with luck, Zion could be their own draft choice instead of the return on a trade. The Pelicans have approached trade offers for Davis this season from a position of leverage, but that would disappear should Davis be sidelined for health reasons. The Pelicans would replicate the Spurs’ situation last summer, dealing with Kawhi Leonard’s shaky health status and the possibility that he’d flee in free agency, a threat Toronto still faces even despite their success.
A paltry return for Davis and no real reward in the draft would leave the Pelicans gasping the humid air of New Orleans as the media starts gossiping at deafening levels about how the team should move to a new location. Short-sighted choices and bad luck got the Pelicans into this situation, but it’s not too late to dig themselves out. The risk of serious injury could be an irrational fear even with a big man who’s missed an average of 14 games per season, but anything is possible, and playing him to close the season risks it all. Davis just saw his ex-teammate DeMarcus Cousins tear his Achilles and sign for $5.3 million; isn’t there part of him that wonders whether it’s best for him to play?
It may not be worth resting Davis when it could frustrate his teammates and coaches, while angering the All-Star himself. The increased ticket sales over the Pelicans’ final 27 games matters, and so does the necessity to “preserve the integrity of the game.” That’s the terminology New Orleans used in its statement announcing that Davis would play out the season, silencing the whispers they would rest him. It’s probably no mistake: The Pelicans are owned by Gayle Benson and run by Mickey Loomis, the owner and general manager of the New Orleans Saints. The NFL preaches protecting the “integrity of the game” like it’s the word of God. The NBA is perceived as the antithesis to the NFL, but it’s easy to see where the inspiration came from.
The Saints have dealt with their own controversies over the years. In the throes of Bountygate, head coach Sean Payton said that the late Tom Benson was pressured by two other owners to fire him. It would’ve been an easy call, since Payton was suspended one year by the NFL. Despite calls for a move, Benson and Loomis did what they felt was best for the team, stayed patient, and kept Payton. The Pelicans are effectively taking the same approach, keeping Davis instead of caving to pressure to trade him now.
In a twisted way, Davis’s presence could help force James out of his first postseason since he was 21 years old; the Pelicans and Lakers play three more times this season, including twice this month, and every game matters for that eighth seed out West.
Reports suggested there is a plan in place: Davis may not play in back-to-backs, of which the Pelicans have four, and he may see a reduction in his 37 minutes per game, Adrian Wojnarowski said. Before the deadline, Yahoo Sports’ Chris Haynes said Davis would file a grievance against the team if it tried to rest him while healthy. If Davis gets banged up with another injury over the final 27 games (which can’t be counted out, given his history), it’ll be worth watching how both the league and the Pelicans respond. Davis has had a tendency to play through injuries; how might that change given the circumstances? Things could get a whole lot messier.
How Should Laker Nation Be Feeling?
Lakers fans rode a roller coaster of emotions on Thursday. The day began with fading, but existent hopes of a blockbuster deal for Davis and ended with a single trade that sent Zubac and Michael Beasley to the Clippers for Mike Muscala. Davis is out of reach until the summer, possibly even forever; trade suitors armed with assets are looming. It was a somber day, but the Lakers closed the night by beating the Celtics on the road, thanks to a buzzer-beater by Rajon Rondo. The win was a morale boost after the week of calculated rumors unsettled the team. Still, Los Angeles came away with a defeat that transcends the win-loss column.
Davis and his agency prefer a trade to the Lakers, but with the deadline expired, Los Angeles is no longer the front-runner. It’s proof enough that New Orleans passed on Los Angeles’s offer. Think what you want about the youngsters on the Lakers, but the sheer number of quality players and picks made their package worthwhile. Ingram and Ball are still only 21 and have flashed two-way potential, while Kuzma, 23, already looks like a longtime veteran because of his size and scoring sensibility. The Pelicans may not even want to deal with the Lakers; Brian Windhorst’s comments on ESPN’s The Jump suggested they were just getting revenge for what they perceived as blatant tampering. Imagine Demps ending phone calls like Leonardo DiCaprio did selling stock in The Wolf of Wall Street. It didn’t work out for Leo in the end, but it could for the Pelicans if they can find a better offer.
It’s not hard to find better trade packages, on paper. Contenders with young assets, like the Raptors or Nuggets, could decide to go all in this summer, despite the risk that Davis may leave in 2020. A funky CBA rule prevented the Celtics from acquiring Davis because they already had one designated player in Kyrie Irving under contract, but Boston can make an offer once Irving opts out of the final year of his deal this summer. No promises were made by the Celtics to the Pelicans during their trade discussions prior to the deadline, league sources said. And as the Boston Globe’s Adam Himmelsbach reported, no player is off limits, which means Tatum and Jaylen Brown would be available. Tatum is one year younger and already a more complete scorer than Ingram. Shooting is a premium skill: Tatum has hit 40.5 percent of his 3s, while displaying go-to scoring abilities off the dribble. Ingram is skilled, but shoots only 32.1 percent from 3 and hasn’t shown the same consistency from all levels of the floor. The Celtics can beat the Lakers’ offer with a superior top prospect, better draft picks, and comparable complementary pieces.
Other suitors could emerge May 14, the night of the draft lottery. Duke’s Zion Williamson is the top projected no. 1 pick to enter the draft since Davis in 2012, so the team that wins the lottery will have a 285-pound chip to offer for Davis. Williamson is a versatile, do-it-all player who could be the NBA’s next great point center. He’d immediately vault to the top tier of any trade value list. Should the Knicks, who currently have the league’s worst record, land the top pick, they’ll have a difficult decision on their hands: keep Zion or dangle him to secure one superstar. A true Knicks optimist (an endangered species) might ask: Why not both? It’s unrealistic, but New York has the cap space to conceivably sign two max players—like Durant and Irving—and still have the assets necessary (multiple first-round picks and young lottery talent in Dennis Smith Jr., Kevin Knox, and Frank Ntilikina) to make a strong offer for Davis. That it’s even a possibility speaks to the depth of the team’s cap flexibility.
The Clippers have also created an impressive blank slate for their offseason push. They’ve been heavily linked to Durant and Kawhi Leonard and were on Davis’s list of teams he’d commit to long term. Whether that list means anything is questionable, but the bottom line is this: Teams will have their war chests ready for the Pelicans during the summer, and more than a few will be coming out of left field. There is no shortage of teams that would immediately become contenders in the Davis sweepstakes based off another team dropping out or off the luck of the draw.
Not all is lost for the Lakers, though. They’re still the Lakers. They still play in Los Angeles. Magic Johnson can still walk into a free-agent meeting and seduce a player to sign on the dotted line just by flashing his smile. They can overpay for Timofey Mozgov and Luol Deng, whiff on draft picks, have organizational alignment issues, and still sign the best player on the planet. Because they are the Lakers. And these Lakers can create over $38 million in cap space, enough to sign any free agent this summer.
Though intel suggests that they aren’t front-runners for Kevin Durant, Klay Thompson, Kawhi Leonard, or Kyrie Irving, there is still plenty of time for all the stars potentially entering the market to change their minds. LeBron already tried to start that process by selecting all four of those aforementioned players in Thursday night’s televised All-Star draft; Davis was his first pick in the second round, followed by Klay Thompson and Damian Lillard, all of whom have been rumored targets of the Lakers for years. LeBron did everything but nickname his squad Team Tamper.
But the Lakers are just one fish in the sea. Odds are they’ll have to settle for pursuing Jimmy Butler, Kemba Walker, DeMarcus Cousins, or even a lower-tier player like Tobias Harris or Khris Middleton. Los Angeles would have a big decision to make in July: With James five months from turning 35, would it be worth signing any of these players when Davis could always join up in a year? Could they sign someone to a one-year guaranteed max to punt space to 2020? Cousins would fit the bill; he still hasn’t quite returned to form yet. Under these circumstances, the Lakers should probably sign the best player that they can to maximize the 2019-20 season with LeBron. Cap space can always be manufactured, or sign-and-trades can be negotiated, if in 2020, Davis and his brain trust are still hell-bent on playing in Los Angeles.
If the Lakers do sign a star free agent, it’ll be a massive win, since they’ll retain the assets that they dangled for Davis. Their desperation pursuing the Brow could set a precedent that would require the Lakers to overpay for other stars, especially ones within the conference, like Lillard. The trade market is likely also dry with few top-tier stars projecting to hit it over the next 18 months. Still, signing a star and slightly overpaying to shake loose a player from the Lillard or Bradley Beal tier could better position the Lakers for their ultimate goal. It could beat dumping every single piece that New Orleans supposedly wanted for Davis—all the youth, four first- and second-round picks—and then not having the cap space or assets to make any other impactful additions.
Would these second-tier stars really be so bad? Durant’s presence on the Warriors has distorted our concept of what makes a championship contender. Golden State is a juggernaut formed because the salary-cap stars aligned. The league will return to normal if Durant heads to New York. A team led by LeBron with two strong supporting players and depth could fit the new formula for contention. The Lakers don’t need Davis to win a championship during the remainder of LeBron’s prime; Davis is just the player who would immediately give them a cornerstone to buoy the team once LeBron is old and gone. That’s what the Lakers lost out on Thursday: security.
Where Does Davis’s Heart Lie?
One hour after the trade deadline passed, and four hours before Lakers-Celtics tipped off, Celtics director of player personnel Austin Ainge tweeted “17 to 11.” Those numbers, respectively, represent the number of NBA Finals won by the Celtics and the Lakers when they played in Los Angeles, excluding the five from the franchise’s 12 seasons in Minneapolis. Lakers fans will be happy to point out that the team has 10 titles to four for the Celtics since the absorption of the ABA in 1976. Nonetheless, Ainge’s tweet was a smoke signal that Boston was back in contention for Davis, a player each franchise hopes will lead to its next banner.
Eastern Conference contenders leveled up this week. Boston stayed quiet, moving only Jabari Bird to open a roster spot, which it could fill by signing a player whose salary could be used in a trade for Davis. There has also been a quiet confidence in Boston since Davis’s trade request became public January 28, despite Davis’s father saying he didn’t want his son to play for the Celtics and despite multiple reports indicating that Davis himself won’t re-sign if traded to Boston. Davis had only the Lakers, Knicks, Clippers, and Bucks on his list of teams he’d commit to long term, but that could change soon. The Celtics could be on the table soon, because Irving is one of Davis’s close friends in the NBA. Irving has spoken to Davis about teaming up in Boston, The Athletic’s Jay King reported in October. Though Irving’s future with Boston is murky now, with LeBron teasing a reunion in Los Angeles and the Knicks angling for Durant and Irving to join forces, if Davis were acquired, league sources believe Irving would stay, which, in turn, would also help retain Davis for the long haul. Irving’s contract prevented Boston from pursuing Davis now, but a new deal with Boston could keep them together.
Other teams should feel the same confidence as the Celtics. Davis’s wandering eye might hold steady on a true contender outside of his preferred list of destinations—the Raptors, for instance, if they retain Leonard, flip future assets for Davis, then make a Finals run, or if the Nuggets form a supersize frontcourt with Davis and Nikola Jokic, then broke through the West. No matter where Davis is, Davis can become the lure, instead of the one who’s being lured. Regardless of which team acquires Davis, the same question should be raised: Would he really leave in 2020 to team up with LeBron, who’d turn 36 entering the third year of his contract?
LeBron has many superpowers, but he can’t control minds. Klutch Sports could offer more off-court opportunities under the bright lights in a big city, but Davis will make his own choices, just like he did by signing with Klutch in the first place and then requesting a trade from the team and city he’s been with since 2012. A lot will still be decided for Davis in the coming year, but after more than six years toiling with the Pelicans, one of the best players of his generation is inching closer and closer to a true freedom of choice. What he does with it will define the league in 2019, 2020, and beyond.