A weekly dive into the NBA’s hottest topics.
Take One: LeBron James, Anthony Davis and the limits of player power
In 2014, LeBron James wrote his own version of reality into existence. He left Andrew Wiggins out of the letter announcing he was returning to Cleveland. Within months, Wiggins was with the Timberwolves and the Cavs had Kevin Love. In 2017, James publicly made it known multiple times that he felt the Cavs needed to shore up their playmaking. He even tweeted about it.
For the past five years, these have been the twin pillars of LeBron’s front-office maneuvering: blunt force and passive-aggressive signaling. All that seems quaint in the face of his new tenure with the Lakers, where he averages more tampering accusations than assists. In late December, James told reporters it would be “amazing” to play with Anthony Davis. Davis’ agent, Rich Paul, is also LeBron’s. Paul also happens to be one of LeBron’s best friends and business associates. Ten days before the deadline, Davis requested a trade from the Pelicans. From then on, the Lakers went on a full-court press to acquire Davis, while multiple reports surfaced about Davis’ lack of desire to play for the Celtics, one of the few teams that could outbid the Lakers’ best offer — but they’d have to wait until summer, thanks to a CBA snag. James and his camp could be as aggressive as they wanted. The crown is heavy — these were supposed to be some of its perks.
But the deadline passed and Davis remained a Pelican. It’s s worth keeping this in mind amid a budding sense that star players are exerting too much power over the direction of the league: There are certain things even LeBron James, tampering into the lane with no regard for human life, can’t control.
LeBron couldn’t quell Celtics GM Danny Ainge’s eye for Davis, nor any conversations Ainge had with Pelicans GM Dell Demps. He couldn’t control the Pelicans’ desires, either, or that the Lakers — despite that they threw the kitchen sink at New Orleans — don’t have any players or draft assets as compelling as the Celtics’ Jayson Tatum. In the modern NBA, stars have never had more leverage. But leverage is only soft power.
Here’s what you need to know about the state of player authority: The Pelicans control where Anthony Davis plays for the next 16 months, and it likely won’t be anywhere he wants to be.
Take Two: The Lakers’ offers were good, but they lacked a centerpiece
The Lakers offered everything they could for Anthony Davis, and they did it all at once. Their best offer would have sent Brandon Ingram, Lonzo Ball, Kyle Kuzma, Josh Hart, Ivica Zubac and two first-round picks to the Pelicans for Davis. And the Lakers would take on Solomon Hill’s salary. That’s five promising young players, draft picks and salary-cap relief. My gut — the part of it that I’m shouting down because when it’s a generational talent like Davis, you just do it anyway — is flirting with the idea that it might even be too much.
But the Pelicans rejected it, like they rejected all the Lakers’ advances. It’s increasingly being suggested the Pelicans never entertained any real offers from the Lakers, that they just wanted to cause some internal malaise in retaliation for perceived tampering by the Lakers.
That might be true. But front offices, even when they’re being petty, are prudent. If the Lakers had something that could turn the Pelicans’ heads, they would have listened. But value-wise, even their best offer was hard to discern. It could very much end up being a haul, with all that promise hitting its ceiling. It could also look a lot like the deal that sent James Harden to Houston: a series of scrap parts that turned into nothing more. We won’t know until five years from now. With no centerpiece, the Pelicans have no certainty, even if the deal is packed with nice secondary assets, which is why Jayson Tatum is so tantalizing. He’s the trade chip closest to a sure thing. Ingram, at his best, can approximate a centerpiece, defending with energy and scoring over the top of opponents at will. But he hasn’t been consistent enough to run with Tatum.
It’s a lot like the math behind the draft: In theory, six second-round picks are worth more than one No. 1. But nobody’s making that trade. An analogy for poker fans: The Lakers had suited connectors, a great hand whose success is dependent on the flop, a factor that’s out of its control. The Celtics, on the other hand, have pocket aces waiting in the summer.
Take Three: The heroes are slinging mud. Can fans handle it?
Today’s stars grip the harness when it comes to taking control of their future. They exercise their free-agency rights liberally. They request trades before the final year of their contracts is over. They are fighting back against organizations that won’t think twice about uprooting their lives for a slight edge. As a result, a litany of proxy wars popped up in the media in the lead-up to the trade deadline, injecting drama — perpetually welcome — into the season, but they’ve also made both sides look a little like soulless mercenaries and have drawn the ire of some fans.
Evening the playing field threatens an important fabric of the mythology that powers professional sports. Fans have historically never liked front offices much. They’re seen as callous, calculated and sometimes cheap, so it’s not surprising when they make ruthless and business-minded moves. The players, though … the players are supposed to be heroes, righteously marching for the same cause as the fans, bleeding for the name on the front of their jersey, no matter what the sacrifice — be it money or freedom or health. They’re now shattering that myth.
You can understand why players are no longer on board. Look what happened to Isaiah Thomas when he played injured and distraught for the Celtics in the playoffs two years ago. He’s now making the veteran’s minimum and perpetually nursing injuries.
All told, I think the league will be fine. Like any good scandal, the public will profess to hate trade drama while staying meticulously up to date with every new development. The NBA is indeed as popular as ever. It’s also a player-driven league, so fans are more likely to cheer for a star’s best interests than hope they swear fealty to a particular franchise.
I’m mostly just curious about what happens next. When the old stories become obsolete, we tell ourselves new ones.
Take Four: The Bucks are doubling down by trading for Nikola Mirotic
Nobody defends the rim like the Milwaukee Bucks, and nobody scores at the rim like them either. They allow the fewest shots in the restricted area, and when opponents do hoist them, they only make 57.4 percent — the NBA’s second-stingiest clip. When the Bucks collapse to the rim, they make themselves vulnerable to open threes, a supposed no-no in the modern NBA.
The Bucks’ formula has amounted to a tactical admission from Mike Budenholzer, one of the league’s most respected coaches. They have decided that there’s no magical elixir to shutting down the modern high-powered offense. You have to make trade-offs. And if you can only stop one thing, stop buckets at the rim. The Bucks take plenty of threes, too, because an offense is far likelier to put a defense to a hard choice than vice versa, and the strategy has wrought the league’s best defense, as well as the league’s fourth-best offense. On Thursday, the NBA’s most statistically dominant team doubled down on its success.
The Bucks traded Stanley Johnson, Jason Smith and a hodgepodge of second-round picks to the Pelicans for Nikola Mirotic. Mirotic is a sharpshooting big man who has scored 54 percent of his points from beyond the arc this season. Take a look at his shot chart in comparison to Milwaukee’s.
The Bucks shooting heat map vs. Mirotic's heat map: a seamless fit. pic.twitter.com/XNgHjZdzBT
— Seerat Sohi (@seeratsohi) February 7, 2019
Buckle in, folks.
Take Five: The All-Star Game should be pure entertainment
I love that Dwyane Wade and Dirk Nowitzki made the All-Star Game, because it’s a reflection of what the game — and the accolade — should be: fan service. The voting process for the game is and has perpetually been flawed. This year, DeMarcus Cousins got 450,000 votes despite missing most of the season. Kyle Kuzma almost got a million. Vince Carter got 423,000. Nowitzki’s and Wade’s presence only furthers the idea that the game is a reflection not of who the best players are, but of what fans want to see. Every year, the All-Star Game gets a little more demystified and a little bit more honest about what it really is.
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