Few in the league can remember anything like this Anthony Davis saga — the posturing, the ticking clock, the quirky rule banning one suitor (Boston Celtics) from getting in the action now, the uncertainty surrounding almost everything except that Davis is worth all of it, the tentacles touching so many franchises. It is, in a literal sense, one of the very biggest stories in the history of the NBA.
At the center of it are three players who do not even play for either Davis’ current team or the Lakers — the suitor of choice for Davis and his agent, Rich Paul: Jayson Tatum, Kyrie Irving and, perhaps of a bit less immediate importance, Zion Williamson. If acquiring Davis is even possible for the Lakers ahead of Thursday’s deadline, it is in large part because of those three names, directly and indirectly.
Tatum is the most valuable NBA player who has been credibly linked to the Davis trade sweepstakes. He is better today than Brandon Ingram, Lonzo Ball, or Kyle Kuzma, with more upside. He is worth waiting on.
Whether the Celtics have explicitly told Dell Demps, the New Orleans Pelicans’ GM, that they would be willing to include Tatum in a trade for Davis they can’t actually pull off for almost five months is perhaps the diciest and most uncomfortable question in this whole affair.
They “have promised to be aggressive with their wealth of draft and player assets to try to acquire Davis,” per a report by ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski. Sam Amick of The Athletic reported Tuesday that Tatum “has been discussed extensively by the two teams and is expected to be a major part of the talks when June rolls around.” But that is different than Boston promising clearly and explicitly to trade Tatum for Davis, and I am not sure they have been that explicit — nor have I seen any published reporting indicating they have.
Maybe they’ve implied it so strongly that there is almost no difference between what they have said and actually verbalizing the exact words, “Yes, you can have Tatum in July.” Maybe the distinction doesn’t matter. But there is a distinction.
Maybe the distinction is impossible to eliminate. This is unprecedented — teams almost pre-negotiating a trade five months before they can execute it. Think of everything that could happen between now and then. Tatum could get hurt. Davis could get hurt. Toronto could sweep Boston in the second round, and shove Irving further out the door into free agency.
Boston could plausibly tell Demps: We can’t guarantee to offer Tatum now because he could suffer some unknown injury, and a dozen other variables could flip a dozen ways. They also have morale issues to consider — the consequences of someone reporting that any specific Boston player has already been offered to New Orleans. Speculation about the general outlines of a plausible offer is one thing. Seeing your name in print as having been specifically offered might be another for some players.
Danny Ainge, Boston’s GM, might want to seek permission to talk to Davis before he promises Tatum. Demps could nod and understand. He could also say, OK, let’s assume you get to the conference finals, Tatum stays healthy, and everything else is normal or at least normal by NBA standards. What then?
What does Boston say to that? Is the question even worth asking?
You could argue there is no way Boston can deliver a definitive “yes” on Tatum’s availability today and know with 100 percent certainty that they could hold to that definitive “yes” in July, or that the Pelicans would even care about it by then. You could also argue if Boston stops short of that definitive “yes,” they are trying to live in a gray area — to have plausible deniability in every direction — and risk having Demps shrug and deal Davis to the Lakers before Thursday’s deadline. Both arguments could be right.
The Lakers would appear to have very little leverage. Their young players have not exactly lit the world on fire, with or without LeBron, and the whole team surrendered in Indiana on Tuesday night with a lethargy eerily reminiscent of last season’s pre-trade-deadline Cavaliers. The Pelicans have time, and they might have other suitors — win-now teams willing to go all-in on Davis; teams willing to deal for him now and flip him for more later; and a new potential suitor in the Clippers, having loaded up on draft picks in Wednesday morning’s Tobias Harris deal with Philadelphia.
(It’s unclear if the Clippers can get in the Davis race now, or if the Pelicans consider Shai Gilgeous-Alexander a good-enough centerpiece for a deal at some point. They could still try in the summer if the Lakers don’t get Davis now. The Clippers could build a competitive package around Gilgeous-Alexander, Montrezl Harrell and three or four first-round picks. They do fear the embarrassment of dealing their best stuff for Davis only to watch him walk across the Staples Center hallway in a year — even if they are on Davis’ list of teams to which he would sign an extension.)
And there is this basic reality the Lakers are trying to overcome — the fundamental truth they must insist is just a little untrue: The best offer the Lakers dangle on Thursday will still be there on July 1. They must push back on that. They must give the Pelicans some reason to doubt the sky is blue.
Irving might have inadvertently given them the teensiest opening. Last Friday, he expressed uncertainty over whether he will re-sign in Boston. The Lakers can grab hold of that, and present New Orleans a doomsday scenario that vaporizes Boston’s trump-everything Tatum-centric offer before the Celtics have a chance to make it: Boston underperforms in the postseason, Irving telegraphs his intention to leave early — like around the draft — and Boston concludes it cannot deal Tatum without any confidence that Irving would be around to play with Davis.
That is what the Lakers will probably say, anyway: If Boston’s Tatum offer goes away in July, maybe our best offer — the one sitting in front of you right now, Dell Demps — goes away in July, too. That is their play. Irving has helped them make it. They could stretch the same reasoning to apply to the New York Knicks: If you are waiting to see if New York wins the No. 1 pick, just know that you are passing on our best offer to see if a 14 percent wager hits. None of the other teams in the running for the top pick — Cleveland, Phoenix, Chicago, Atlanta — would seem to have the wherewithal to trade Williamson for a Davis rental. Some would-be suitors place great value on what Davis would bring them for the remainder of this season; the Lakers could argue the offers would decline or vanish in the offseason.
Boston would surely counter that the greater the uncertainty surrounding Irving, the greater their urgency to get Davis. Will Irving really tell Boston he’s for sure out until he sees whether they can acquire Davis on July 1 — or agree to a deal for Davis before then?
Perhaps not. Irving has been hard to read. Obviously, his public posture toward the Celtics has changed since declaring at a season-ticket-holder event in the fall he planned to re-sign in Boston. It may be unwise for New Orleans to expect clarity from Irving before he puts pen to paper somewhere, or before the Davis situation is resolved.
(Boston, for its part, remains cautiously optimistic about keeping Irving, though the events of the past week — Irving’s comments, New York opening up a second maximum salary slot — have shaken them. But Boston is always confident. That is Ainge’s default mindset. The league at large is much less confident, but it is hard to say who knows what, and with what level of reliability. The postseason could be really telling for so many of this summer’s headliner free agents.)
And that is why what happens, or doesn’t happen, on Thursday may hinge on the simplest question: How much do Demps and the rest of the Pelicans brain trust like Brandon Ingram, Lonzo Ball, Kyle Kuzma, Josh Hart (whom the Lakers prefer to keep) and whatever draft picks L.A. has on the table when it is go time?
Maybe that ends up being two first-rounders — where the Lakers reportedly topped out before talks splintered on Tuesday — and a couple of extra second-rounders. Maybe New Orleans can coax an extra unprotected first-rounder out of Los Angeles if and when talks resume. The Clippers gave them a tick more leverage today.
You can scoff at the value of any future first-round picks — 2021, 2023, 2025, whatever — coming from the team with LeBron and prime Anthony Davis. You might be right. But LeBron is already 34, with 55,000 career minutes under his belt. Davis is in his prime now, and his team has made the playoffs twice. Sure, health issues explain a lot of that futility. Every team suffers health issues to varying degrees every season. Injuries aren’t some anomaly. They are the rule — something you have to fortify your team against.
Three unprotected picks is a haul, almost no matter what. Toss in one extra pick swap, and you have a bounty. (Remember: The league in late 2017 was kicking around the idea of straight-up banning pick swaps in the years between drafts in which one team owed picks to the same rival, sources have told ESPN.)
Boston can of course offer just as many picks, and probably more. They own a bunch of extra picks from other teams. They also have good young players beyond Tatum in Marcus Smart, Jaylen Brown, Terry Rozier (though he’s headed to free agency, and thus tricky to deal in July), and even Robert Williams.
Boston might contend it can build a better offer than the Lakers’ without including Tatum: everything but Tatum. Take it all: Brown, Smart, the Kings pick, the Grizzlies pick, the Clippers pick, Lucky the Leprechaun’s dumb hat, whatever else you want aside from Tatum.
Even if Ainge never promises to trade Tatum before the deadline, Demps must know that whatever the best version of the “everything but Tatum” offer is on July 1 will be available to him then.
The Pelicans have to decide whether that offer is better than whatever the Lakers offer on Thursday. Without Tatum, it’s at least an argument. Even skeptics of Ball, Ingram and Kuzma would concede that — even if no single L.A. pick has the upside of the Grizzlies pick Boston owns (top-eight protected this season, top-six next season, unprotected in 2021).
It’s a conversation — if Demps is on the high side when it comes to Ball, Ingram and Kuzma. There are human dynamics here. No front office or ownership group likes to live in a circus for months. The situation in New Orleans if the Pelicans stand pat would be uncomfortable whether Davis plays, or the Pelicans send him away. The league changes every day. There is value in knowing that I can, for sure, have this thing that is sitting in my hand right now. Maybe it’s not Tatum, or Williamson, but it’s still good, and I have it, and I know it, and I can just get this over with, and begin planning my team’s future right away.
From the outside, of course the Pelicans should wait. Waiting brings the possibility of Tatum. It brings clarity with New York’s draft position, and on the Clippers’ around the draft and July 1. The Lakers aren’t going to play hard ball and take Ingram or Kuzma or whomever off the table in July. Come on. They don’t want to wait until the summer of 2020 to sign Davis in free agency, because doing that could require keeping cap space open — and possibly going through LeBron’s age-35 season in 2019-20 with another makeshift temporary roster. They may not be the frontrunner for any of this summer’s star free agents — not one.
From the inside of these things, it’s messy and emotional. People in Demps’ position worry about their job security: Will I even be there to make this deal in July? Is this trade the way I save my job?
On the flip side, there may be some within the Pelicans brain trust who will simply refuse, out of spite, to deal Davis to the Lakers now.
The smart money remains on the Pelicans waiting. It always has been. But that doesn’t mean it’s an easy, simple decision.