A few weeks ago, most people in the NBA anticipated a sleepy little Feb. 7 trade deadline. Sure, there would be the usual tinkering around the margins and requisite clearing of cap space. That happens every year.
But with a mega class of free agents ready to be unleashed on July 1, along with the prospect of a fully operational Golden State Death Star lineup in place, and a potentially robust buyout market on tap, why bother with trading anything away?
On course, that was before Anthony Davis and his representative Rich Paul went public with a trade request, which opened the door to an infinite amount of fantasies fueled by endless trade machine machinations.
So now we’re here, waiting for hoops armageddon to carry us through the winter.
Let’s begin with Anthony Davis, since everything from here on out is really about him.
It’s not surprising that AD wants out of New Orleans. The Pels had almost seven years to build a contender and a championship infrastructure around him, and they have only themselves to blame for the way things have unfolded. The only twist was the timing.
Those who know AD, or at least those who think they do, never got the sense that Davis was up for pulling this kind of power play. That, frankly, doesn’t seem his style. Like most people, Davis likes being liked and he’s well aware of the damage his departure will do to basketball in the Big Easy.
But you don’t hire Rich Paul to play it safe. You hire Klutch to call your shot and exercise your power as a franchise player. As uncomfortable and awkward as it appears at times coming from him, this is AD’s flex.
Is he worth it?
In a word, yes. AD’s ultimate destination has the potential to tip the balance of power for a decade. Superstar players have been traded before, but you have to go back to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in the mid-70s to find a franchise center at his age wanting out. Davis is a top-five player now, a game-changer at both ends, and he’s still getting better.
The only real leverage he has at the moment is the threat of leaving once a trade is finally consummated. Hence, the magical list of preferred destinations that he’d be willing to sign on long-term appearing on Monday. The fortunate four include the Lakers, Clippers, Knicks, and Bucks.
So, what of this list?
The Lakers, you knew about. It’s no secret that getting AD into purple and gold is the goal and the Lakers seem prepared to offer pretty much everything up to Jack Nicholson’s court side seats. The issue, of course, is they’ll be equally prepared to do so again in July.
Even in their worst moments, the Knicks always find their way onto these types of lists and that’s before they had honest-to god trade assets to throw into a deal. New York has to be seen as a viable threat, but their prospects could get a whole lot better depending on how the lottery shakes out. Again, there’s no real value incentive for New Orleans to deal AD there now.
The Clippers could try to throw something together, but they have been patiently waiting for Kawhi Leonard to hit free agency. Outside of Shai Gilgeous-Alexander (an admittedly terrific piece of any trade puzzle), they lack the one premium asset that would get New Orleans’ attention.
The Bucks are the most intriguing option because good god could you imagine a team featuring Giannis Antetokounmpo and AD? Cool, now stop daydreaming because it’s not happening. To get there, you’d have to really, really like D.J. Wilson and think awfully highly of Thon Maker’s still-untapped potential. Even then it’s a long way way from coming close to matching the kind of value New Orleans could extract from other teams.
So, that’s two teams who don’t have the capital to do the deal, one whose offer will attain clarity this spring, and one whose deal won’t change regardless of the timing. The most interesting thing about the list is the one team who isn’t on it.
It sure seems as if Paul’s play with AD has as much to do with keeping him away from Boston as it does routing him to the Lakers.
The Celtics are the only team prohibited from trading for AD at the deadline, and while the merits of a potential Boston trade package can be debated, no current player being mentioned in an AD deal has as much star-level potential as Jayson Tatum. The smart play for New Orleans would be ride it out and see what the C’s are willing to give this summer.
Boston has planned for this for years and all indications are they would still make the effort if AD is available past the deadline. Danny Ainge doesn’t scare easy, and that’s the problem.
Just in case anyone didn’t get the not-so-subtle hints, AD’s father blasted the Celtics in a text to ESPN’s Ramona Shelburne. The cause of his dad’s ire was Ainge’s handling of Isaiah Thomas, who was traded two summers ago after playing valiantly through the grief of losing his sister in a car accident and injuring his hip during Boston’s playoff run.
AD himself mentioned Thomas in December of 2017 to Adrian Wojnarowski, so this is not a new gripe. Lots of players around the league feel similarly, even if most would grudgingly concede that they would have done the same thing to get Kyrie Irving. Of all the players Ainge has traded over the years — and he’s traded almost everyone — Thomas is the one that keeps coming back on him.
It is interesting that the Clippers, who traded Blake Griffin to Detroit after signing a long-term deal, are on AD’s list, as are the Knicks, who just sent Kristaps Porzingis to Dallas. Loyalty is a loaded word in the NBA. It’s also rather meaningless considering AD himself has a year-plus left on his contact with New Orleans.
My favorite AD destination not on the preferred list is Portland, even if I can’t make a fully functional argument for the Pels to trade him there.
But let’s do it anyway.
Start with C.J. McCollum and Jusuf Nurkic. Throw in picks from now until eternity and whoever else to take back Solomon Hill, but try to keep Zach Collins out of it. The Pels get to stay relevant, which isn’t enough of a return, but at least it’s something.
My interest in this has less to do with New Orleans and more to do with the idea of Damian Lillard and Anthony Davis becoming a way-more-fun Stockton-and-Malone in one of the NBA’s most viable small markets. Rip City’s laid back vibe would also seem to be an ideal match for AD’s understated temperament.
This is a shoot your shot trade. If AD isn’t feeling Portland long-term, turn around and flip him for the Celtics package this summer.
There’s nothing stopping any team not on AD’s list from making this kind of move. Just a guess, but count on at least one mystery team suddenly emerging between now and Thursday.
Moving on from the land of make believe, we have the one team that looks primed to do something big that has nothing to do with AD.
Few teams operate in secrecy as well as Utah under general manager Dennis Lindsay, who is both well regarded and exceptionally quiet about his plans. It’s a little surprising, then, that the Jazz have already been linked to one major trade partner in Memphis for Mike Conley.
A player of Conley’s caliber and shooting prowess on the Jazz is a wonderfully tantalizing prospect, but there are a number of other directions Lindsay and company can go by Thursday. Utah has all its first-rounders and a couple of future second’s to throw into the pile, along with the non-guaranteed final year of Derrick Favors’ contract for matching purposes.
How about Nikola Mirotic, who is very much available in the wake of AD’s decision? For a team like Utah, who has been playing as well as anyone of late, any deal made now would have to be as much about a future as the present. Especially in the West where the Warriors have been frightening since DeMarcus Cousins joined the lineup.
Even the Warriors won’t last forever. Smart teams look ahead, and the Jazz are very smart.
The buyout market may be more interesting than the deadline.
You can pretty much assume that any well-paid vet at the end of their contract on a team that’s fallen out of serious contention will be available at the deadline. More than likely they’ll still be available after Thursday when teams cut the cord and send those vets out into the wild looking to catch on with a contender.
The 76ers are the most obvious destination. They could use a wing and a big man with range, just like last season when they added Marco Belinelli and Ersan Ilyasova for the stretch run. Oklahoma City and Houston are in a similar situation and the Warriors would like to bolster their depth. The Celtics already have too many guys and would have to lose someone from their current roster to work the buyout market.
A partial list of veteran prospects includes New York’s recently acquired DeAndre Jordan and Wes Matthews, Atlanta’s Jeremy Lin, Chicago’s Robin Lopez, and many others. With so much talent potentially available for little more than a few months of a veteran’s minimum contract, there’s not much incentive to give anything away at the deadline.
That’s where we were before the AD drama began, and that may be where we still stand when the smoke clears on Thursday. All that’s left are a million different rumors and the possibility of the biggest trade in the NBA in almost half a century.