Three key moments to watch in upcoming Anthony Davis trade drama

Kurt Helin
NBC Sports

Anthony Davis will be traded. Before next season.

Just because it didn’t happen at the trade deadline last week — as Davis, his agent Rich Paul, and the Lakers wished and pushed for — doesn’t mean the Pelicans will keep him into next training camp. New Orleans understands it needs to get as much back for Davis as it can to help jumpstart a rebuild, and the Pelicans believed they could get a better deal this off-season than they could in February.

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Now what happens?

First, Davis plays the rest of the season for the Pelicans. He’ll have reduced minutes, likely sitting out back-to-backs, and those things could hurt his All-NBA/post-season awards status a little. However, that’s the only real price — so long as Davis stays healthy. Everyone involved will just hold their breath every time he steps on the court, hoping he avoids injury.

After that, there are three key moments to watch.

1) The NBA Draft Lottery on May 14. There is a potential franchise-changing star at the top of this draft in Duke’s Zion Williamson. After that, there’s a drop off in talent and questions about the guys next on most draft boards — R.J. Barrett (Duke), Ja Morant (Murray State), Nassir Little (North Carolina), Cam Reddish (Duke) — which means the Pelicans may not be wowed by pick No. 3 or No. 5 (unless they fall in love with one of those players).

If the team that wins the draft lottery is potentially willing to deal the pick — we’re looking at you, New York Knicks — the Pelicans will listen. Most likely, especially with the new, flattened out lottery odds, the winner of the lottery will be a team that would keep it (Cleveland, Chicago, Atlanta) but the Pelicans are interested to see the lottery outcome and how it could impact the offers coming their way.

2) The Eastern Conference playoffs. So much of July’s free agency could hinge on the taste left in players’ mouths by the postseason. For example, Kawhi Leonard may feel very differently about staying in Toronto if the Raptors make it through to the NBA Finals than if the team is bounced in the second round.

In the Davis saga, this becomes mostly about the Boston Celtics. The Celtics lobbied the Pelicans to wait, not to trade Davis at the deadline, to give them a chance to get in on the bidding and fulfill GM Danny Ainge’s dream scenario of pairing Davis with Kyrie Irving. Talk to front office people/scouts around the league and they believe almost to a man the Celtics can put together the best offer the Pelicans will see. (Some Lakers’ fans push back on this idea every time I write it, I will tell you what I’ve heard from sources in the league: Jayson Tatum is higher rated because of his potential than any Laker youngster, the Memphis pick is not only more valuable than any Laker pick it could be the second-best asset offered to New Orleans, and most have Jaylen Brown right in the mix with the Lakers Lonzo Ball/Brandon Ingram/Kyle Kuzma core.)

However, Ainge’s dream of pairing Irving with Davis only works if Irving stays and re-signs with Boston this summer. Ainge is confident it will happen, but he’s on an island with that one. The Celtics have played like individuals, Irving has called out his young teammates for not sacrificing enough of their games (while he has sacrificed almost nothing in terms of shots and usage rate), and rumors persist around the league that Irving wants to join Kevin Durant in New York. If Irving leaves the Celtics the calculus changes for Ainge — he probably can’t put Tatum in any offer. And that makes it difficult to put together a clear best offer.

Bottom line: If Irving is frustrated and disgruntled and wants out of Boston, the Lakers and everyone else are in the game. (And everyone else could now include the Los Angeles Clippers, who can put together a package based around Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Lou Williams, plus a bunch of first round picks, including the Miami 2021 unprotected pick. That might tempt New Orleans.)

3) Can the Lakers make a trade to get back in the Davis game? Will they need to? From the day it was leaked Davis had asked for a trade out of New Orleans, sources with an understanding of the Pelicans’ thinking told me the Pelicans were not going to rush the process. They would be patient. One part of it was they liked the idea of multiple bidders getting involved. Another part was they didn’t want to feel pushed and bullied into a trade.

Another aspect was the Pelicans were not that high on the Lakers’ young players — they were good, but not as good as the Pelicans wanted.

After the season ends for the Lakers, they may quietly explore a trade that could send some of those young players out to bring back someone the Pelicans’ value more highly. Who is that? Likely someone we don’t know is available. However, if there is a mystery “team X” that highly values Ball or Ingram, and a pick gets thrown in the trade, it works for our mystery team. If the Lakers can add a couple better first-round picks it might help, too.

And it might not matter.

The Pelicans are going to do what they believe is best for the franchise this summer — and that could mean changing general managers, bringing in a new front office for Magic Johnson, Rob Pelinka and the front office to negotiate with. What that new front office is looking to get back in a trade, and how they value certain players, could vary from the people the Lakers have been negotiating with so far.

Which means there’s just a lot of uncertainty around the coming Anthony Davis trade.

We’re all just trying to read the tea leaves. Which is why we’ll be watching these three areas closely.

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