The Los Angeles Lakers offered up a would-be blockbuster deal in exchange for the service of superstar center Anthony Davis earlier in the year. A proposed deal could have reportedly sent Lonzo Ball, Kyle Kuzma, Brandon Ingram, Rajon Rondo, Lance Stephenson, Michael Beasley, AND two future first-round picks to the New Orleans Pelicans in exchange for Davis and Solomon Hill.
But we all know how that ended – a public embarrassment of the Lakers that hasn’t stopped unraveling and only escalated once Magic Johnson stepped down as the President of Basketball Operations. Since then – what feels like years ago – the Pelicans have tripped into some good fortune. New Orleans snagged the first overall selection in the 2019 NBA Draft with only a six percent chance to do so and they fully intend on selecting Duke forward Zion Williamson.
With or without Davis, Williamson is a player the Pellies will plan the next 10 years around. When the franchise hired David Griffin to run the team (the same guy that the Lakers should have offered any amount of money to run its team) they brought in a brilliant basketball mind that knows the inner workings of the business side of the NBA better than most. If there was ever to be a figure with enough knowledge, determination, and reputation to pull off something like getting Davis to rescind his public trade demand, it would absolutely be Griffin.
So with that said, what is the actual possibility of Griffin convincing Davis to stay? And how much influence does the potential of teaming up with Williamson add into that?
Let’s first briefly outline what we know about Davis and his contractual situation with the Pelicans.
Davis won’t be an unrestricted free agent until the summer of 2020 at the earliest, so no matter who he plays for in the 2019-20 NBA season, he’ll be under contract for that team for just the one season. After that, he can go as he pleases for as much money as the league permits.
He does have a player option for the 2020-21 season, but he is expected to opt-out of that in order to sign a Supermax deal. This summer, Davis is eligible to sign the Supermax Extension that only the Pelicans can offer. It includes designating 35 percent of the entire team’s salary directly to Davis over a five-year span. At the moment, Davis is not expected to sign that deal and the consensus is he would only sign the Supermax Extension if he is traded.
The real conundrum here is that Davis is under contract for at least one more season. So no matter what he does, the Pelicans have him under its control for the foreseeable future. He can’t necessarily sit out games willingly and I don’t think Davis would do that if he doesn’t get traded right away. We saw last season that he wanted to play despite the fact that it was an intensely awkward situation and the Pelicans were clearly headed for the lottery. But if it comes down to it and his agent Rich Paul is in his ear telling him to sit out until he gets his way, it could potentially come to that. Although, I don’t think that’s a tactic that would play out in anyone’s favor.
But let’s say Griffin doesn’t trade Davis to start the season in the fall, or maybe he doesn’t even trade him all year. The team drafts Williamson and begins working with a trio of him, Davis, and point guard Jrue Holiday. The surrounding pieces aren’t anything to get excited about, although that’s an enticing core on its own.
Keeping Davis and drafting Williamson probably means that Julius Randle, one of the most improved players last season, will probably look to upgrade from his $9 million player option set for next year. The team would be a bit handicapped as far as salary goes since Holiday and Davis are both locked into their current max deals. Also, Hill and E’Twaun Moore are set to make over a combined $20 million next season. That ends up costing roughly $73 million for just four guys, two of whom are low-level starters. The idea of adding enough pieces around those four plus Williamson and making a playoff run in the Western Conference is a pipe dream. But once again, if there is anyone who can manipulate the salary cap and find a way to improve this team, it would be Griffin. He was the one who kept the Cleveland Cavaliers as championship contenders despite the endless internal drama and a stressful team financial situation. He’s dealt with Rich Paul and Klutch Sports when he and LeBron James both worked in Cleveland.
Here’s another weird possibility: what if the Pelicans trade the pick but keep Davis?
Trading the No. 1 pick in the upcoming draft is the same as trading away Williamson. Which means the return value on that pick will be monstrous. It won’t be anything like what the Lakers offered for Davis back in February, but future first-round picks and high-level prospects will absolutely be included. What if the Pelicans trade the pick and bring back another first round pick (or even two), a starting-level veteran, and a budding prospect? Can they shed some of the bad contracts (like Hill and Moore) in that deal, too?
For the first time in what feels like a long time, the Pelicans have significant leverage on the league. This is a completely different version of the Pelicans from when Davis first requested to be traded. The franchise is improving in several areas, starting with the basketball minds in charge and finally bringing in a trusted and basketball-specific medical staff. Davis has reportedly not moved from his stance of being traded, but there is a lot of time left before that deadline draws near.
Because there is always this potential situation, where the Pelicans either keep Williamson or trade him for players/picks, Griffin improves the team’s shooting and overall roster, and the team starts the season something like 15-5. Davis has stood incredibly firm on his decision and I wouldn’t anticipate anything such as that to keep him from leaving, but I can guarantee it will make him stop and think. And that goes double if the Lakers get off to a poor start.
But here’s the thing about Griffin, he isn’t going to be petty with how he goes about this trade. The Pelicans all but refused to do business with the Lakers after Magic Johnson complained to the media that he wasn’t getting his way. And honestly, I don’t blame the team for not wanting to do business with Johnson. However, the reality is that the Lakers offered the best possible deal back in February and they’ll likely have the best pool of assets to complete a deal once free agency hits this summer. Especially when you consider that Kyrie Irving might be heading for the door in Boston and the Celtics might be wary about trading away half its treasure chest for a one-year (or even less) rental of Davis. Griffin isn’t going to scoff at the Lakers offer. He doesn’t care that the public might perceive a potential Davis-to-LA trade as helping out LeBron. Griffin knows that doing so is probably within the best interest of the organization that he is now tasked with running. And if he doesn’t get anything worthy of the value he’s putting out there, he won’t trade him. Simple as that.
The New Orleans Pelicans are finally a competent organization, just about seven years too late. Even still, there might be hope that Griffin and the front office can keep Davis. But if not, trading him for the best possible deal and drafting Zion Williamson isn’t a terrible way to start a rebuild.