The writing has been on the walls in the French Quarter since September, when Anthony Davis hired Rich Paul to be his agent, but the clock started on this predictable process the evening Davis was drafted seven years ago.
Monday morning, the walls finally started talking as Davis formally requested a trade from the New Orleans Pelicans — and that polar vortex you felt was from small-market franchises shivering at another example of a superstar player wanting out from his original franchise.
The Pelicans have not been a model of consistency on the floor or on the business side since Davis was drafted in 2012. One could say “basketball reasons” were what led to New Orleans being in position to draft him No. 1 overall in the first place.
Regime changes, ownership changes, a little drama and intrigue have crossed Davis’ unibrow in his years as a pro. What’s missing? Winning. One playoff series win has been celebrated during the Davis era, and that isn’t nearly enough to keep a player of Davis’ caliber.
While Davis has missed time due to injuries his first few seasons, he’s arguably been a top-five player since the start of his second season. The better the player, the more pressure on the franchise to get things done around him.
And although the NBA has its share of examples in which players stuck it out through thin and thinner, the Reggie Millers and John Stocktons of the world are few and far between. But to be honest, they’re not on Davis’ level, talent-wise.
Some players belong to the day, others belong to history. Davis’ talent and production demand he belong to history, a fact that was obvious when he was wearing Kentucky blue — and it shouldn’t take long for him to be in Lakers gold or Celtics green for others to figure that out.
It was the gift and curse the Pelicans inherited when they were fortunate enough to take Davis, but the inherent pressure they couldn’t escape. By all accounts, Davis loves New Orleans — who doesn’t? — immersing himself in the community and investing in it.
That isn’t enough.
His bags have been packed for parts unknown for a while now, and although the NBA has put various mechanisms in place to keep superstar players in small markets, with longer guarantees and more cold, hard cash, it can’t stop players like Davis from the reality of choice: Whether it’s the bright lights of Los Angeles or the alluring ghosts of the Garden, it can’t tether anyone, anywhere for an entire career.
Seven years. That’s what teams have to build, cajole or persuade others to play with a superstar talent who may not yet be a superstar before the small ticking of time becomes a loud and unavoidable ringing.
Sometimes it means overspending to get complementary talent — New Orleans signing Jrue Holiday to a five-year, $126 million deal — which can look like salary-cap mismanagement when things go awry. And small-market teams, seeing this trend begin, was the reason for the nearly crippling 2011 lockout. Yes, small-market franchises have revenue sharing and other mechanisms to ensure they stay in the black, but by and large, most want to win and yet feel hamstrung by the way things are going.
LeBron James, the man who stands to most benefit from these developments, started this process years ago. Players usually rode out their below-market, rookie-scale contracts to sign for security, taking the seven-year max deals to set themselves up for life after playing for relative peanuts their first four years.
James and Dwyane Wade were the leaders in changing the paradigm. Fellow draftmate Carmelo Anthony opted to take every dollar that was offered to him, and one could say his present status is directly tied to that decision to take the long-term money.
Davis has won fewer playoff series than Anthony has to this point and has watched Anthony be ridiculed for not winning and for taking wrong turns — or simply making the common-sense move and choosing financial security.
With social media, round-the-clock sports news and the possibility of an investment or endorsement portfolio that can exceed an NBA salary, how much does money matter when a player like Davis can’t even start on the All-Star team?
The Pelicans find themselves in a similar position to what the Orlando Magic and Indiana Pacers faced earlier this decade. Dwight Howard took the Magic to the NBA Finals in 2009 and was generally surrounded by competence in the front office, sideline and locker room. But the second things started to slide, he used his leverage to get out in 2012 — and there was little the Magic could’ve done to keep him.
The Pacers nurtured Paul George and helped nurse him through a catastrophic leg injury. On its face, one would think the relationship would endure and that George would stay in the Midwest, like Miller.
But the better George got, the more he began to show his old form, and that clock began ticking for the Pacers. When the bell rung, they didn’t send him to his preferred Southern California destination but to the small-market Oklahoma City Thunder, who were still reeling from losing Kevin Durant.
It’s played out so unexpectedly, with George staying after Russell Westbrook committed long-term, so it doesn’t appear to be a total lost cause for small-market teams. But that appears to be the exception as priorities have shifted with players.
It’s rare emotion can sway a great player, and money can only delay the inevitable. So just as players have heard so many times in other situations, “It’s a business,” the rabbit now has the gun.
Seven years to build a winner, to find a complementary star, the right cast and the best coach. The pressure is on the day a transcendent player walks to the stage and shakes Adam Silver’s hand. Little does he know how much power he has in that moment, but you better believe the team should know how much time it doesn’t have to make it happen — even if they make the right choice at that moment.
The Pelicans are the latest example of this inevitability.
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