On May 8, 2011, at the tail end of his senior year at Perspectives Charter School in Chicago, when Los Angeles Lakers teammates Andrew Bynum and Lamar Odom were ejected for cheap-shotting the Dallas Mavericks in Game 4 of a second-round playoff sweep, an 18-year-old Anthony Davis tweeted:
Now, after requesting a trade from the New Orleans Pelicans, the 25-year-old NBA superstar is expected to “deliver word throughout the league that Davis’ preferred destination is the Lakers and he’ll become a rental player until 2020 with a trade anywhere else,” per ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski.
In between, Davis embraced New Orleans like no NBA player before him. So, how did we get here, where a Chicago native and adopted New Orleanian supposedly only wants to play for the Lakers? People change, of course, especially between the ages of 18 and 25, and there are myriad reasons why L.A. is an attractive destination. The Lakers carry their own cache, too, mostly with an NBA generation raised on Kobe Bryant highlights, but there is one reason Davis is hot on them now: LeBron James.
Against the best wishes of the Pelicans, Sports Illustrated’s Chris Mannix reported, Davis fired his longtime agent this past summer to hire James’ agent and friend, Rich Paul of Klutch Sports Group, in a move that signaled to everyone that the five-time All-Star would soon orchestrate his exit from New Orleans, most likely to L.A. That came to fruition Monday, when Paul informed ESPN that his client did not intend to sign a five-year, $240 million supermax extension with the Pelicans and wanted a trade.
En route to missing the playoffs for the fifth time in his seven seasons, Davis “desires to play in a big market that’s committed to winning,” per Yahoo Sports’ Chris Haynes. The timing of Davis’ declaration is unmistakable, offering the Lakers a leg up on the biggest market and winningest franchise. The New York Knicks cannot make their best offer until June, when the draft is set, and the Boston Celtics cannot make any offer until July, when NBA rules would allow Davis and Kyrie Irving to join forces.
The Pelicans insisted any trade “will not be dictated by those outside our organization,” but even if they wait until this summer, when everybody’s best offer is on the table, Paul has one more card to pull. Should Davis’ agent alert the league that Davis intends to sign with the Lakers in 2020, as Wojnarowski suggested, that would severely limit offers to New Orleans. Case in point: Jayson Tatum may well be the best player presented to the Pelicans, but, according to Mannix, the Celtics would not offer their prized prospect without assurance Davis would re-sign in Boston beyond next season.
This same thing happened to the San Antonio Spurs in July, when Kawhi Leonard’s camp made clear his desire to play in L.A. The Lakers reportedly resisted trading a package of Brandon Ingram, Kyle Kuzma, Josh Hart and draft picks to the Spurs in hopes of signing Leonard outright in 2019 free agency. The Spurs likewise reportedly resisted trading Leonard to the Lakers and were fortunate that the Toronto Raptors were willing to risk dealing their franchise player for the hope of retaining Leonard.
Davis is different. Lakers president of basketball operations Magic Johnson will not hesitate this time around to deal any combination of Ingram, Kuzma, Hart and Lonzo Ball to land Davis now. They cannot afford to waste the next two springs of potential title contention and wait to pair the two MVP candidates until 2020, when LeBron is 36 years old and entering the final guaranteed year of his deal.
Without the promise of Tatum or a No. 1 pick, the Pelicans may not receive a Raptors-like offer for Davis if the rest of the league is convinced he would be an 18-month rental. And, unlike San Antonio, New Orleans cannot afford to accept a lesser offer if the Lakers’ is the best on the table. The franchise’s future in the city may hinge on what the Pelicans get in return. There is no guarantee that Ingram and Ball form the basis of a playoff team in the future, but they may be their best chance.
There could be little the NBA can do to prevent Paul from orchestrating a partnership between his two highest-profile clients in L.A., and that is sure to be a point of contention around the league. This is not 2011, when the NBA owned the Pelicans and then-commissioner David Stern vetoed the deal that would have sent Chris Paul to the Lakers “for basketball reasons.” (That, too, drew heavy criticism.)
Small-market teams have already expressed their displeasure with James for openly pining for Davis. LeBron told ESPN it would be “amazing” and “incredible” to play with Davis, and several general managers accused the Lakers star of tampering, including one Eastern Conference GM who described LeBron’s comments to Wojnarowski as “a campaign meant to destabilize another organization.”
LeBron responded the next day by saying, “They can’t control me, at all. And I play by the rules.” That night, he and Davis had dinner together after the Lakers defeated the Pelicans, according to Haynes.
The NBA has never enforced rules preventing players from recruiting opponents under contract. For example, Irving has also been complimentary of Davis, even reportedly recruiting him to Boston prior to this season, and the two apparently “text like every day.” But the league did issue a memo shortly after James’ recent comments to remind teams that their previous practice “may nevertheless constitute a violation if it becomes repeated or part of a broader collection of improper actions.”
You can bet the league office will have a keen eye on Davis, the Lakers, LeBron and Paul.
To wit, the NBA “commenced an investigation” into Davis’ violation of rules preventing players and their agents from publicly requesting trades and subsequently fined him $50,000 on Tuesday. Fellow Klutch client Eric Bledsoe was also fined $10,000 for making a less straightforward request in 2017, but such slaps on the wrist are not much of a deterrent for players working on nine-figure contracts.
Likewise, the Lakers have thrice been reprimanded for tampering over the past year. First, the NBA warned the Lakers when Magic wink-winked Paul George on “Jimmy Kimmel Live.” Then, the NBA fined the Lakers $500,000 when GM Rob Pelinka straight-up communicated with George’s agent. And finally, they fined Magic $50,000 just for complimenting Giannis Antetokounmpo. The discipline for a fourth violation would surely be harsh, especially if there is a pre-request link between the Lakers and Davis.
James and Paul have also been the subject of an NBA investigation before. The league reportedly looked into claims James had an ownership stake in Klutch and cleared him of any wrongdoing. They are business partners off the court, and there is a belief in basketball circles that their partnership grants each other mutual benefits, whether Paul offers James a lower commission on his $154 million contract or James serves as a closer for Paul’s recruiting efforts or any number of other possibilities.
It would be muddier waters for the NBA to wade if Klutch meddles on behalf of the Lakers. The agency has wielded enormous power with both LeBron’s teams and teams pursuing LeBron. It coerced the Cleveland Cavaliers to pay Klutch clients Tristan Thompson and J.R. Smith a combined $139 million in 2015. The Lakers have also paid Klutch client Kentavious Caldwell-Pope a combined $30 million over the past two seasons. Those three players had no other reported offers close to those figures.
The Lakers may not be able to tamper with Davis, but the NBA has yet to enforce a rule that would prevent LeBron from recruiting him, and Paul is free to advise his client however he likes — even if it means publicly requesting a trade at the cost of $50,000. Everyone is technically following the rules. James endorsed Klutch Sports for “changing the game” this past summer, and there is no doubt they have done that, igniting a player empowerment era that has altered the landscape of the league.
That won’t stop big-market front offices from joining their small-market brethren in crying foul if LeBron and Paul successfully lure Davis to the Lakers. Still, the league did not bat an eye when LeBron’s first order of business upon rejoining the Cavs was a call to Kevin Love, or when LeBron and Paul reportedly began recruiting Ben Simmons to Klutch as a high school senior, or when TMZ cameras caught LeBron and Paul on an L.A. coffee date with Duke freshman Cameron Reddish last year.
And maybe that’s all OK. There are no rules against USA Basketball teammates wanting to play together or even against agents contacting prep players. If Davis wants to play with James on the Lakers, he should be free to do so, as long as he does so above board or on the level with his peers. Either way, it will be another reminder that LeBron James is the most powerful man in basketball.
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