BOSTON — The media fished for a soundbite to feed the trade rumor mill that has linked New Orleans Pelicans superstar Anthony Davis and the asset-heavy Celtics so often over the past few seasons.
Hey, did you hear that Boston crowd cheering for you? How does that make you feel? Is this season going OK for you? All those injuries must be awfully frustrating. By the way, did you hear that crowd?
You could almost see the questions flip a switch behind his knowing eyes, turning on the robotic answering machine so as not to fuel sensational headlines, and even then we had our soundbite.
“I heard it tonight,” Davis said after his team’s 113-100 loss to a Celtics team sans Kyrie Irving, Gordon Hayward and Al Horford, among others. “I’m trying to do whatever I can to help this team get wins with the roster we have. It’s been a rocky season, so it’s on me to try to figure it out. I know the team follows me. I’m the leader, and I’ve got to be the one to make sure that we’re ready to play every night. So, for me, I just go out there and play with this team and try to have fun and get wins. That’s all I’m worried about is getting wins for this team, and hopefully we can get further than we did last year.”
In that generic response, Davis walked the tightrope of acknowledging the very thing that has so many wondering when he’ll flex his muscle and force his way out of town a la Irving, Paul George, Kawhi Leonard and Jimmy Butler: The Pelicans aren’t good enough to get him where he wants to go. On the bright side for New Orleans, he’s still talking himself into their ability to contend when healthy.
“We had everybody healthy the first four games, and we went 4-0,” Davis added after scoring 41 of his team’s 100 points. “Then, Elfrid [Payton] goes down, I’ve been out a couple games, Niko [Mirotic] — a lot of guys have been out. Every time we’ve had a full roster, we’re a tough team to beat, but we still have to find a way to win. Injuries are part of the game. You can’t control them. That’s why we have 12 guys on the roster. You just need five guys to play. As long as we have that, we have a chance to win.”
After two straight lottery campaigns, the Pelicans showed what they could do with that chance last season, sweeping the Portland Trail Blazers in the first round and taking a single game from the Golden State Warriors in the Western Conference semifinals. As they always do in search of surrounding Davis with enough talent to truly compete with the NBA’s most formidable teams, they retooled the roster over the summer, swapping out Rajon Rondo and DeMarcus Cousins for Elfrid Payton and Julius Randle. It’s hard to imagine them squeezing more playoff wins out of this group.
That’s why our ears perk up when Davis says stuff like, “I’m trying to do whatever I can to help this team get wins with the roster we have. It’s been a rocky season, so it’s on me to try to figure it out.”
In the face of the NBA’s super-team era, every superstar realizes he can’t figure it out on his own. We figured Davis was inching toward that realization when he asked in December 2017, “Does this organization really have my back?” Or when, a few months later, he wondered if he was walking the same path that led Kevin Garnett to regret not asking out of Minnesota earlier in his career. Or when he fired his agent over the summer to hire Rich Paul, the coordinator of LeBron James’ many moves.
It does not appear Davis has reached that point. At least, he’s not making it known through backchannels the way Irving, George, Leonard and Butler did. And he’s not telling us publicly after a mid-December loss against the Celtics that dropped the Pelicans below .500, two games out of a playoff spot with three-quarters of the season still to play. Davis professed confidence that Jrue Holiday, Randle, Mirotic, Payton and company could help get him back to the playoffs this season.
“We’ve been win one, lose one, win one, lose one for the past eight or nine games,” said Davis, whose team hasn’t won two straight games for nearly a month, “so we’ve got to put a string of wins together.”
The Pelicans were without Payton (fractured left pinkie) on Monday and will be until January. Mirotic left seven minutes into the game after re-injuring his ankle. Davis still thought they had enough to beat an undermanned Celtics team similar to the one that reached the Eastern Conference finals last season. They didn’t. The Pelicans looked so listless that Boston staffers said afterwards that they knew the game was theirs within minutes of the opening tip. Some of that can be assigned to New Orleans playing on the second night of a back-to-back, but it’s not the sort of performance you want to see when Davis knows full well one win can be the difference in missing the playoffs in the West.
There are those who believe this summer could be the beginning of the end for Davis in New Orleans, should he decline a super-max extension this summer that would make him the NBA’s highest-paid player. He won’t be a free agent until 2021, but there is a threshold where the return for star players who sour on their franchises yields diminishing returns. Just ask the Timberwolves about Butler.
With a handful of first-round picks in 2019 and a cache of recent lottery picks on the roster, the Celtics have the assets to make a deal if and when the Pels ever make Davis available, which is why they and the Los Angeles Lakers are most often linked to the 25-year-old. The rumors became so pervasive last year that Davis had to ask Pelicans general manager Dell Demps if there was fire to the smoke. “He told me that [Boston] was calling,” Davis said a season ago, “but nothing was going to happen.”
Around that time, a league source assured Yahoo Sports that Demps would rather trade his first-born than Davis. When we checked back Tuesday to see if we were any closer to Demps caving, the source said, “You should never trade Anthony Davis unless you have no choice.” As for diminishing returns, “He will be wanted by 30 teams, not two or three like Butler — plus by trading, he gets Bird rights.”
In other words, it seems we could still be a ways off from Davis trade drama, as low as the Pelicans’ ceiling seems and as hard as the media might have tried to make it happen in Boston on Monday.
“That’s what you guys do,” Pels coach Alvin Gentry told reporters in Boston. “You guys talk about it. He’s here. He’s playing on our team. We’re trying to win games. That’s the only thing that matters right now. It’s not anything that I’m going to have a say-so in … so we don’t bother with it. We worry about now. We worry about winning games and putting everybody in the best position to win games.”
That doesn’t mean the questions won’t be asked when New Orleans visits the Lakers next week.
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