Even by NBA standards, Anthony Davis suiting up for a game against the Lakers on national television is quite the farce. Davis effectively brought the Pelicans’ season to an end on Jan. 28, when his agent, Rich Paul, publicly requested a trade. It was well within his power to do so; there is enough leverage in playing basketball at a superstar level for Davis to maneuver his way out of New Orleans, even if he isn’t exactly in a position to dictate terms. He tried anyway. The timing of Davis’ request—made 10 days before the trade deadline, at a time when a suitor like the Celtics wouldn’t be able to make their best offer—tilted negotiations toward the Lakers. When a list of Davis’ preferred destinations was reported by Shams Charania of The Athletic (and later confirmed by Davis himself), it included the Lakers and three other teams ill-equipped to actually make a legal, sensible offer for him. In all, the episode seemed a rather naked attempt to unite one of Paul’s clients with another.
Davis and LeBron James could have been an incredible tandem. Instead, they’ll meet on Wednesday as opponents, with Davis stuck in limbo and James living through a mutiny of indifference. Davis hasn’t played in the fourth quarter of an NBA game in over a month. This is not for lack of need, but lack of want. The Pelicans are obligated to play Davis (“League rules made it clear Anthony has to play,” interim general manager Danny Ferry told reporters last week), but not to finish games with him, leaving both team and player in an awkward middle ground where neither’s interests are served. In some compromises, both parties lose. Davis has so little to gain from playing at half-speed for 20 minutes a game, and yet that is exactly what he has come to do.
When fully engaged, Davis is a game-changing force on nearly every possession. If less inclined, he somehow disappears from view, observing from afar as Julius Randle goes to work. One of the league’s best rebounders will now only shrug at any missed shot that doesn’t fall directly into his zone. It is impossible to see his play as anything other than a series of business decisions. The sole directive of his 20-25 minutes is to avoid injury—and understandably so. Everything else comes secondary.
Who, exactly, does this serve? If Davis actually wants to play, he rarely shows it. The Pelicans, for a variety of reasons, would be better off not playing him. Fans in New Orleans and elsewhere aren’t buying tickets to watch one of the best players in the league stroll through his time on the court. Davis can sleepwalk his way to 15 points and eight rebounds because he’s Anthony freaking Davis, but don’t mistake that kind of per-minute production for actual investment. Davis is logging minutes for a team he requested to leave long after he thought he’d be gone. The NBA is and will always be a business. No player in the league illustrates that more clearly than Davis, whose fascinating, explosive game has been reduced to punching a clock.
The Lakers, for reference, are in 11th place in the West to the Pelicans’ 12th. It turns out that offering up the majority of the roster in a trade never consummated can have adverse effects. It was in the wake of Davis’ request—and the rumored offers out of Los Angeles—that the Lakers suffered the biggest loss ever for a LeBron James team. Negotiating any deal in public comes at a cost. “You can’t really escape these things,” Lakers forward Kyle Kuzma told our own Chris Ballard. “You can’t look at your phone without someone sending you a text. You can’t go on social media...I felt like the whole team got very tense.” Several of L.A.’s games since have been case studies in disconnected play, including a loss to the Pelicans without Davis on Feb. 23. No Laker on the court seems especially connected to the others. As one pulls, another strains.
In the two months since Davis made his request, the Lakers have been one of the five worst offensive teams in the league and one of the five worst defensive teams in the league, per NBA.com. A good night from Kuzma or Brandon Ingram can be easily undone by a complete lack of synergy. There may be something rotten in the reserves. To play well with so many poor shooters and questionable decision-makers was challenge enough. Now, the same structural issues persist and the chemistry that might otherwise bind the team has turned fraught.
Davis is not responsible for the Lakers, though he is party to all this. It would be impossible to tell the story of L.A.’s season without him. It was the Lakers’ brazen pursuit of Davis that seemed to irk the Pelicans in the first place, charging any interaction between the two franchises. It was the bids for Davis that created tension in the Lakers’ own locker room, fueled by LeBron’s proximity to the whole affair. Perhaps it’s only right that with Laker drama at its fever pitch, Davis will again be involved—this time by appearing in a game he shouldn’t to guide the Lakers’ waning playoff chances, one way or another.