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Anthony Davis trade primer: Why can't the Celtics trade for A.D. right now?

Keith Smith
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Monday morning got off to a rollicking start when Anthony Davis reportedly requested a trade from the New Orleans Pelicans. Davis apparently wants to compete for championships and will turn down any extension offers from the Pelicans. While this wasn’t entirely unexpected, it came a little earlier than most thought it would. Most thought Davis would wait until the summer to make it clear he wanted to play elsewhere.

As it stands now, Davis is arguably the best player on the trade market since Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, considering his age, production and contract. Davis is still just 25 years old and will turn 26 in mid-March. He’s one of the top five players in basketball, and has some added trade value because he’s a true big and is under contract for another full season. It’s always painful to trade a generational talent, but if the Pelicans play their cards right, they can set up the franchise for years.

It’s that last part that makes this situation so compelling. There are a lot of pieces and parts that have to be understood with Davis, his contract situation and any potential trade offers. Let’s break them down.

Plenty of teams will be interested in acquiring Anthony Davis. (Getty)
Plenty of teams will be interested in acquiring Anthony Davis. (Getty)

The franchise

Davis is a top-tier NBA talent who probably hasn’t even hit his prime yet. Any one of the league’s teams (including New Orleans) would love to have him. That’s the easy part.

The hard part? How do you make a Davis trade work? Saying you want to trade for him is one thing, matching salaries is a whole other game. Here are the basics on Davis’ current contract:

2018-19: $25,434,262
2019-20: $27,093,018
2020-21: $28,751,774 (player option)

To get enough salary to trade for Davis before the deadline on Feb. 7, a team has to get to approximately $20 million or so in outgoing salary. That’s a challenge during the season. New Orleans isn’t likely to take back a bad contract, so that means putting together somewhere between two and four contracts to get to the $20 million mark. That’s likely to sap any team’s depth by a considerable amount. It’s the old story:

GM to coach: “I got you Anthony Davis!”
Coach: “I love Anthony Davis! Who did we give up?”
GM: “Two starters and two key reserves.”
Coach: “You killed my rotation!”

Because of that $20 million figure, these big deals are far more common in the offseason, when rosters and cap sheets are far more flexible.

What does New Orleans want back?

The Pelicans are starting over. Either as a lower-ceiling potential playoff team, or they are kicking off a full-scale rebuild. Trading Davis guarantees it. Maybe they can find a deal like the Indiana Pacers did when they traded Paul George for Victor Oladipo and Domantas Sabonis, but it’s unlikely. Most of the teams that will chase Davis will be looking to send out high-upside young players and picks.

And that’s probably what New Orleans is looking for. If you can get a couple of recent, high-profile draftees that are under team control for a while, plus a couple of first-round picks, you jump on it. That’s the ideal trade for pushing your franchise forward in the future.

The challenge with that approach? Dell Demps is the current Pelicans general manager and he would be making a trade that he likely won’t see come to fruition. When Celtics GM Danny Ainge traded Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett for a bucketful of draft picks, he had the cache to do it. He was safe in his job. If Demps kicks off a fire sale, he might set up New Orleans long term, but he probably won’t be around to make those draft picks and see those kids grow.

The other problem is the Pelicans are carrying some questionable money going forward, especially for a Davis-less team. They could really clear the books by insisting whoever trades for Davis also take on a player like Solomon Hill, who’s owed $13-plus million for 2019-20. If Demps and the Pels want to think really big, they could add Jrue Holiday and his remaining $78.8 million through 2021-22 to Davis, or, more likely, move Holiday in a separate deal.

Either way, the Pelicans are currently six games out of the playoffs. This season is probably over, and the future is up in the air. Even if Davis isn’t traded until the summer, New Orleans can now start moving its other pieces for future assets.

Should the Pelicans move Davis now or wait until the summer?

The trade deadline is looming. That’s not a lot of time to put together a blockbuster deal. And New Orleans is working in a limited trade market at the moment. Bad teams aren’t going all in on adding Davis because it would make them better, which would worsen the draft pick the Pelicans would get back. So, you can eliminate about 10 or so teams.

Teams that are already really good would have to sacrifice a ton of depth, so that eliminates a handful of potential suitors. In addition, without a guarantee that Davis is sticking around when he’s a free agent, the market is further limited.

Because of that, the Pelicans have two choices: (1) move now in a limited market but get this over with, and get the best package they can and set themselves up for the future; or (2) wait until this summer when the market widens considerably.

LeBron James and Anthony Davis would be a formidable pairing. (Photo by Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty Images)
LeBron James and Anthony Davis would be a formidable pairing. (Photo by Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty Images)

So where is Davis going?

The two most logical destinations for Davis remain the Los Angeles Lakers and the Boston Celtics. Both can offer attractive packages and both have long lusted after the superstar big man.

The Lakers can make their move right now. They’d have to sacrifice considerable depth, but they’d have LeBron James and Davis. That’s a one-two punch no one can match. And they’d immediately become destination No. 1 in buyout season. There would be minutes and roles available, as well as the chance to compete right now.

But can the Lakers offer the best package? That depends on what you think of Brandon Ingram, Lonzo Ball, Kyle Kuzma and Josh Hart. The draft picks wouldn’t be great. We’re talking 20s and later because the Lakers would be a good team. If you’re the Pelicans and you take the Lakers’ package, it has to involve at least two or three of the young guys. And you have to believe that they’ll become All-Stars.

The Celtics can’t even trade for Davis right now (more on that in a bit). But if New Orleans waits for the summer, it’s hard to see anyone beating Boston’s package. The Celtics can offer a bunch of first-round picks, including a Sacramento 2019 first, a future Memphis first (which looks like one of the most valuable assets any team owns) and a future Clippers first. And the Celtics own all of their own picks as well. Add to that young talent like Jaylen Brown, Robert Williams, and maybe Jayson Tatum, and Ainge can put it all together to get Davis.

Are there any dark-horse teams? Someone will emerge for sure. Maybe the Philadelphia 76ers and Elton Brand swing for the fences and offer Ben Simmons or Joel Embiid. Some desperate GM could put together a package and try to persuade Davis to stay long term. Everyone will call, but few will be seriously considered.

Why can’t Boston trade for Davis right now?

Because both Davis and Kyrie Irving signed designated rookie extensions, the Celtics are prohibited from trading for Davis this season. This is because they previously traded for Irving, and teams are limited to having one such player acquired via trade at a time. So, if Ainge and crew want to see Davis in Celtics green, they need to hope Demps will hold off on a trade until summer.

Irving will opt out of his current contract this season, and as soon he does so, the trade restriction expires. Irving could also sign an extension and that would eliminate the trade restriction as well. The challenge with that is Irving is sacrificing a minimum of $20 million to do so. And Irving has consistently said signing an extension is not something he’s going to do. He’s going to opt out and be a free agent in the summer of 2019, which will allow him to maximize his earnings.

So what does this all mean?

This leaves us with a situation that only Demps can navigate. Davis has asked for a trade, but even if he has a destination in mind, Demps controls things. Davis still has another full year under contract before he can be a free agent in the summer of 2020. That makes it different from acquiring an expiring contract, which is what Oklahoma City did with Paul George and Toronto is currently doing with Kawhi Leonard.

Davis probably wants out now, but the Pelicans’ best bet is to wait until this summer when the market for Davis widens and looks entirely different. That makes for an awkward few months between now and the end of the season, but so be it. The Pelicans need to focus on the future and not the present.

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