After five months of sloppy, unsatisfying foreplay, the long-rumored Anthony Davis-to-L.A. deal was finally consummated on Saturday. Before we could all fully process the fallout from a league-altering NBA Finals — especially as it pertains to the futures of Kevin Durant, Kawhi Leonard, and Klay Thompson — the superstar sands have shifted beneath our feet yet again, with The Brow set to team up with The King in L.A., and the Pelicans coming away with a war chest of riches to pair with Thursday’s presumed no. 1 overall pick, Zion Williamson. There are a ton of angles to this thing, so let’s get started. We’ll get to what the deal means for the Lakers and the league at-large, but first, it’s important we talk about how…
The Pelicans are now insanely, absurdly, ridiculously set up for the future. We cut now to a live shot from new Pels’ head honcho David Griffin’s office:
Of course losing a megawatt superstar like Davis hurts, but if landing Zion didn’t change AD’s mind, then nothing was going to, so trading him now was the only option. And damn, did it turn out to be a good option. The haul they extracted from the Lakers for what is, technically, only one year of Davis (I know, he’s almost certain to re-sign, but it does bear mentioning), is completely unprecedented. Simply put, it is the most expansive trade package for a single player in the history of the NBA. We’ve seen a lot of top-tier superstar trades over the years — Wilt twice, Kareem, Barkley twice, Webber, McGrady, Shaq, Kidd, Melo, Dwight, Harden, and Kawhi — and in most cases, the team acquiring the superstar doesn’t end up regretting it. To wit:
[Quick side note: Kawhi opting to sport the “Board Man Gets Paid” t-shirt is both incredible and perhaps the first clear indication we have that he is, in fact, a flesh-and-blood human being and not a humorless basketball robot sent from the future to end dynasties.]
It would be foolish to argue the team who is receiving one of the very best players in the league right as he enters his prime got fleeced, but when you see the haul for New Orleans, it is scarcely to be believed:
- Lonzo Ball
- Brandon Ingram
- Josh Hart
- Lakers’ 2019 first-round pick (#4 overall)
- Lakers’ 2021 first-round pick, if it falls in the top 8. If it falls 9-30, the Lakers keep the pick and it rolls over to an unprotected 2022 first-rounder. [2022 is projected to be the famed “double draft,” the first year when high school players will again be draft eligible, so depending how things play out, this pick could be incredibly valuable.]
- The option to swap first-round picks, unprotected, in 2023
- Lakers’ unprotected 2024 first-round pick, which the Pelicans have the right to turn down at some agreed-upon point in the future and convert into an unprotected 2025 first-rounder
New Orleans didn’t get Kyle Kuzma, and they didn’t get L.A. to take on the last year of Solomon Hill’s blasphemous contract, but otherwise, Griffin plundered the Lakers of everything not nailed down. As it stands right now, they are sitting on a core of Ball, Jrue Holiday, Ingram, Zion, E’Twaun Moore, Frank Jackson, whatever the no. 4 pick turns into (hold that thought), and somewhere in the neighborhood of $30 million in cap space. They have all of their own picks going forward, and ummm, did you SEE all those picks they now have to work with from the Lakers? If things work out for the purple and gold (as they historically tend to), then those 3-4 first-rounders end up not hurting too much, but the reality is this: L.A. has aggressively sucked for the last six years, and the net result of a full decade of draft picks, including a metric shit-ton of lottery luck, will be Anthony Davis and cap relief for Timofey Mozgov. If the Lakers win a title or two over the next few years, then the blank check is obviously worthwhile. However, with a competent pro like Griffin now in charge in NOLA, and knowing what we know about how the Lakers’ brass have botched nearly everything over the last six years outside of the LeBron signing, if someone put a gun to your head, which of the two teams would you expect to win more titles over the next decade? The answer isn’t as clear-cut as it might at first seem.
To a large extent, it will depend on whether the Pelicans decide to slow-play things with their young core or attempt to microwave a contender, as the previous regime did, to mostly disastrous results. There are two main forks in the road: what to do with the no. 4 pick, and what to do with Jrue Holiday. The two decisions are inextricable. If they trade the pick for immediate help — most speculation has them seeking a rim-running big to pair with Zion, like a Clint Capela/Steven Adams type — then chances are they would also keep Holiday around for his veteran presence and elite defense. He represents an interesting back court pairing with Lonzo Ball. Both can play on or off the ball (though Lonzo’s floor spacing remains mostly theoretical at this point), and with apologies to what San Antonio has brewing, it might immediately be the best and most versatile defensive back court in the league. Also, neither guy is particularly ball dominant, and having two guards who don’t suck up a ton of usage could be the ideal incubator for the on-ball development of Ingram and especially Zion. [There are some very intriguing, Giannis-like “Zion as point-center” permutations of this roster, especially depending what they do in the draft and free agency.] This version of the roster is a likely playoff team in Year One, though it probably falls short of an actual contender. Behind Door Number Two is a more uncertain future, though one with perhaps a higher ceiling. Griffin could trade Holiday, maybe as soon as this Thursday, for additional picks or young assets, and go all-in on a youth movement. [Holiday’s contract remains a bit onerous, but he’s a top-30 player and could realistically help get a number of playoff outfits over the hump right now given the state of flux in the league.] In this scenario, they certainly keep the no. 4 pick and go for the best guy available on their board — most mocks tie them to either Vandy PG Darius Garland or Texas Tech wing Jarrett Culver, though I find Virginia combo forward De’Andre Hunter to be an interesting fit — then plug the hole at center in free agency with any one of the glut of big, live bodies out there on the market. It’s super tempting to think there is some nascent Lob City 2.0 potential lurking in the current iteration of the roster and to try to build that out right away, especially considering how wide-open the league is about to be. But with the war chest of future draft compensation they now possess and Zion, for all his prodigious talent, being several years from becoming the centerpiece of a title team, the slow-and-steady route is probably the more prudent one. In addition, no one wants to foster a culture of losing — and the presence of Zion alone probably limits the Pels’ floor to some degree — but letting the young talent incubate for the next couple years would only further enrich the value of their draft capital, putting them in the driver’s seat for trades and free agency for the next half-decade. There’s a reason David Griffin must be laughing; his team-building options are virtually limitless. He’s the kid in the NBA candy store.
The Lakers are fully playing the Game of Thrones now; they either win or they die. I can’t stress it enough: I’m not knocking this trade. When you have a chance to pair two of the best ten players in the league, you do it. Every. Single. Time. With that said, the way this deal shook out, it ultimately looks like the Lakers were bidding against themselves, and now they are boxed in to an absurd degree for the next handful of years. Beyond the somewhat fluid amount of cap space they’ll have this year — more on that in a bit — L.A. will have no flexibility whatsoever to bring in marquee talent, whether in the summer or with in-season trades, until sometime in the middle of the next decade. The Lakers assumed every ounce of the risk in this deal (even the pick protections put in place are there to protect the Pelicans, not the Lakers, an unusual framework), and there’s a King-sized elephant in the room: L.A. is absolutely counting on LeBron to stay both healthy and elite for at least the next two years. While both of those things have been givens for as long as your average Gen Z-er can remember, the times they are a-changing. LeBron still put up his usual stat line last season, but he also suffered the first major injury of his career, and he is on pace to move into third place in total career minutes this coming season. The dude is a cyborg, but even machines wear out eventually.
If LeBron starts aging like a normal human being, the Lakers are in TROUBLE. We have basically seven years of evidence of what an “Anthony Davis plus a bunch of detritus” roster looks like, and if a couple things break the wrong way in free agency or with Bron’s health, the Lakers could easily turn into New Orleans West. It was brilliant for New Orleans to push the draft compensation from the trade out as far as humanly possible because there is virtually no way LeBron is still an elite player by 2024 or 2025, and maybe well before then. If the Lakers don’t win a title in the next two years and drop into the lottery for any length of time during this extended period when the Pels control all their draft picks, this trade quickly becomes the most disastrous deal of all time, full stop. This isn’t the 2013 Nets/Celtics debacle because AD is a full decade younger than Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett were at that time, but the Lakers have leveraged themselves even more to the hilt than did Brooklyn in that ill-conceived deal. GM/serial liar Rob Pelinka is either going to be the savior of Lakers Exceptionalism or the one to drive the final nail into its coffin. There is no in-between.
Sooooo….what is the rest of the roster going to look like? What the Lakers do in the next two-plus weeks is going to be nearly as critical as what they did on Saturday, and the track record of this front office in free agency isn’t exactly pristine. There are two important factors to consider here: 1) it’s unclear exactly how much cap space they are going to have; and 2) they currently only have FIVE players under contract, two of whom may not be ready to take on a heavy minute load. The former issue is due to when the actual Davis transaction becomes official. If the trade consummates on July 6th, when the league’s moratorium on transactions ends, as the Pelicans would prefer, the Lakers would have significantly less cap space to use because the salary of the player they drafted at no. 4 on behalf of New Orleans wouldn’t count against their cap yet, so they would be taking back a higher net amount of money in Davis’ salary. If the deal doesn’t go through until July 30th, when drafted players become trade-eligible, then the Lakers go from having as little as $22-23 million in room to something approaching a max slot. [The number also depends on whether or not Davis picks up his $4.2 million trade kicker. It’s strange to think he would turn down what is quite literally free money, but I’ve long since learned to stop expecting rational behavior from the actors in this drama.] These are obviously crucial details if L.A. is looking to pursue a third star — Kawhi, Kemba Walker, and Kyrie Irving are all names being floated — as none of those guys will have much interest in taking a discount to be a third fiddle.
It’s no less of a problem if they decide to forgo another big name and instead attempt to remedy the second issue by signing a cadre of role players. As the NBA Finals just brought into crystal clear focus, you need 7-8 trustworthy dudes to consistently win playoff series, so how do the Lakers get there, knowing they have to make this year count? Sixteen-game players, as Draymond Green so succinctly dubbed them, don’t generally come cheap on the open market, and we have no idea if either Moe Wagner or Isaac Bonga is anything close to one of those guys, so there is work to be done. [Also a thing to watch: New Orleans could try to extract one of the young guys from L.A. as blood money for allowing the Davis deal to sit until July 30th. They have no particular incentive to play nice or help out the Lakers, and it’s not as though L.A. is going to start playing hardball now.]
Bringing back Rajon Rondo on the cheap makes some sense, as the team currently has no usable guards, and Rondo jibed well with AD when the two played together in New Orleans a couple years ago. [FYI, the Lakers do not have Rondo’s Bird Rights because he was previously signed to a one-year deal, so they would have to sign him using cap space.] They could recycle a couple of the minimum salary and/or two-way guys from last year’s team, but those would probably just amount to warm bodies rather than anyone who would actually move the needle. L.A. will badly need shooting, and good shooters who can also defend don’t come cheap, so this may be where they’ll need to spend their cap space and room exception. [Older vets like Darren Collison, JJ Redick, Danny Green, and Terrence Ross have been bandied about as options here.] If everything lines up cap-wise and they are able to convince a third max-level guy to come (with Kyrie and Kemba seeming like the snuggest fits), they will be the most top-heavy roster in recent memory. It wouldn’t be a death knell for their chances of competing, of course, but one suspects the way Golden State — a team of similar construction — saw its dynasty crumble over the last week under the weight of injuries to its stars would be fresh in the minds of the Lakers’ execs. It will be fascinating to see how they attempt to thread the needle and fill all of those available minutes beyond James, Davis, and Kuzma over the next few weeks, especially since they won’t be able to trade any of their first-round picks to make in-season improvements until LeBron is in the middle of filming Space Jam 7. [Wait, who is that shadowy figure in the hoodie draining wide-open long 2’s in an empty gym?] I’d be inclined to give almost any other front office the benefit of the doubt, but, well, you know.
The Celtics and Knicks are left holding the bag. Two of the other long-rumored suitors for Davis will now have to regroup in a serious way. The C’s spent the last half-decade carefully cultivating their young assets and draft capital for this exact moment, only to blow it because 1) according to some reports, they wouldn’t pony up their best asset (Jayson Tatum) for what would have been a one-year rental of Davis; and 2) they didn’t properly account for the fact Kyrie Irving is a fucking weirdo. [Boston is basically the guy in your fantasy league who sits on his hands all night during the auction draft, then after two hours he still has like $74 left but there are no players worth more than $5 remaining.] If Kyrie bolts in free agency (as recent reports indicate he will), all Danny Ainge’s scheming and hoarding will have netted him an interesting young team and a bunch of non-premium draft picks, a far cry from the decade-defining juggernaut into which many of us thought they would be coalescing. Boston has those three mid-round picks in Thursday’s draft, along with the lightly-protected future Memphis pick, so they could try to consolidate those assets into another high-end player (Mike Conley, perhaps?), and they’ll probably get a better version of Gordon Hayward back next season. But damn, life comes at you fast in the modern NBA, and the Celtics may have gotten left behind because they played it too slow.
As for the Knicks, well, you know what they say about the best laid plans. Long-suffering Knick fans distracted themselves from the team’s execrable play by fantasizing about a superteam magically coming together in Gotham over one audacious summer. Then they didn’t luck into Zion. Then their top free agent target, Kevin Durant, snapped his Achilles and probably won’t be an impact player for two years even if he does sign with New York. Then they found out Kyrie is more interested in signing with the cross-town rival Nets. [Many Boston fans would argue this qualifies as good fortune for the Knicks, but that’s another story.] Then they were never a serious bidder for Davis, and suddenly, all of their copious cap space and young assets seem unlikely to amount to a whole lot.
Sure, they have the no. 3 pick on Thursday, which most draftniks assume they’ll use on Duke swingman R.J. Barrett (a marriage of player and team about which I have my concerns, but let’s put that on hold until later in the week). They also have a couple potentially valuable future picks from Dallas they scooped up in the Kristaps Porzingis trade, though they could become less lucrative should the partnership of the “Lativian Gangbanger” and Luka Doncic prove fruitful in the near term. And they could conceivably convince a couple of the B-list free agents — say, Kemba Walker and/or Jimmy Butler — to take their cap space, but where does that really get them? There are theoretical avenues to contention for them over the next few years, but it would take a lot of things falling into place, which hasn’t exactly been the norm under the “stewardship” of owner/earnestly terrible musician James Dolan. Hope has become a four-letter word for Knicks’ fans.
Teams are about to light their cap space on fire again. The first week of July isn’t going to rival the orgiastic excess of 2016, but with AD now ostensibly off the board next summer, teams who might otherwise have considered keeping their powder at least a little bit dry will now be more likely to open their checkbooks, perhaps in questionable ways. The persistent Kyrie-to-Brooklyn rumors mean incumbent Nets’ point guard D’Angelo Russell will probably be available on the open market, and he will have a number of suitors who could throw a max deal his way. [The Jazz have been heavily linked to D-Lo, a move which would make sense if they don’t trade for Mike Conley, given Utah’s need for another perimeter scorer and the relative ages of their core players.]
Once the obvious big-money guys set the terms of engagement at the beginning of the moratorium, lower-tier vets will start to get overpaid as the market for “guys you could actually give real minutes to in a playoff series” dries up. We’re only two weeks out from the annual “Wait, Bojan Bogdanovic/Kevon Looney/Delon Wright/Terry Rozier/Brook Lopez/Ed Davis/Pat Beverley/Dewayne Dedmon/Julius Randle/Darren Collison/Terrence Ross/Michael Kidd-Gilchrist/Robin Lopez/Jonas Valanciunas/DeAndre Jordan got HOW MUCH?” conversation, and I can’t wait. As if the Finals weren’t bat-shit crazy enough, things are about to take an even wackier turn. Let’s get weird.
Top Photo Credit: Andrew D. Bernstein/2018 NBAE