Anthony Davis is one of those generational talents who any team should pursue at almost any cost. If he’s available, it’s imperative to at least try and get him. And Davis’ actions, for their part, are making it clear his preferred destination is the Lakers. It doesn’t hurt that his agent is also LeBron James’ best friend.
Davis and James together could and should propel the Lakers back to the former glory that the new management of Magic Johnson and Rob Pelinka are desperate to recapture. But it also exposes the lie that the Lakers had to tell when they acquired James — the lie that the Lakers’ young core had any future with the team.
When James moved to the Lakers, he signed a four-year contract, which was a departure from the one-year contracts he signed and re-signed when he returned to the Cavaliers. The longer deal was seen as a testament to his faith in the Lakers as a rebuilding project. He preached himself that he would need be to be patient with the Lakers’ young players in a way he hasn’t always been throughout his career.
”When you have three kids, you have to be patient,” he told Bleacher Report. “I’m not calling these guys kids; they’re young men here, and some of these men have families as well. But you learn that you have to be patient and you have to gauge everyone individually very different to get the most out of them.”
Yet by the end of October that patience had began to run out. After a 2-5 start to the season, James expressed his disappointment in the young Lakers continuously making routine mistakes:
”We gotta get better,” he said. “We know that. We talk about patience, but we can’t have recurrences of the same thing. Doing the same things over, and over, and over again and expecting a different result, that’s insanity. We have to get better. We can’t keep having the same mistakes over and over.”
When he was asked what happens when his patience runs out, he issued a warning: “You probably don’t want to be around when my patience runs out. I’m serious.”
We’ve seen James do this before. In his 2014 “I’m Coming Home” exclusive with Sports Illustrated, he said the right things — that he knew he’d be “tested,” that he sees himself as a “mentor,” and that getting the Cavaliers back to winning would be a “long process.” Then in his first two years, he was instrumental in getting head coach David Blatt fired and forcing major roster restructuring (and winning an NBA Championship).
Now, midway through his first season with the Lakers, it’s been reported that his camp wants Luke Walton out as coach, which isn’t the first time that James has used his influence to change the leadership of a team. And in the wake of Davis’ trade request, the price for teaming him up with James is reportedly at least Lonzo Ball, Kyle Kuzma, Ivica Zubac, and a first-round draft pick — the young players who were supposed to learn, develop, play alongside, and help James.
There’s no reason to be shocked that the players who were supposed to be the Lakers’ future have become trade assets. Last month, James admitted that he had been actively trying to recruit players, including Davis, to the Lakers, keeping in line with the Lakers’ historical tendency to pursue stars. Despite what they’ve said, James, Johnson, and Pelinka haven’t acted much differently than they otherwise have in recent years.
The idea from the start was to get multiple established superstars on the Lakers. In a story published Tuesday, Johnson told the Washington Post:
“The hardest part has been the fact that we were over the salary cap when I took over. I had to trade a lot of guys I liked, but I had to create the cap space flexibility to be in line to get LeBron James. We were able to do that. Now I have enough cap space to bring in another superstar.”
James’ age means that the mission has to be accomplished as soon as possible. Davis wanting out of New Orleans is a perfect opportunity to acquire a talent almost as tremendous as James himself. No need for patience — all it took to get the plan in motion was half a season.
At the beginning of the season, I wrote that James and young players do not mix well. The conclusion was that because James can do so much on a basketball court, he impedes the development of young players who need to have the freedom to try and fail often, and in the process realize the limits of their ability. With James on the team, they’re consigned to being helpers, which often means specializing in a certain skill and staying out of his way.
The other reason James and young players don’t mix is the situation that we’ve arrived at now. Unless they’re already superstars like Kyrie Irving, or a plug-in piece to an already established team like Mario Chalmers, any young player next to James is expendable. The moment that James came to the Lakers, there was no longer room to see players like Ball, Kuzma, Zubac, or even Brandon Ingram grow on the team — not without Davis, and certainly not with him.
That said, being traded could turn out better for the players in question. Just as Julius Randle and D’Angelo Russell have begun to realize their potential away from the Lakers, so could the Lakers’ current young players in a nurturing and patient environment.
There’s nothing wrong with that reality. A trade could in theory be beneficial to both the Lakers and the traded players. But it does mean that over the last few years, the Lakers have landed a handful of talented youngsters, and have done the fans and players the disservice of managing not to develop even one of them to their potential.
That in itself should be concerning to the Lakers. Being able to build young players into stars is a sign of a structurally sound organization. It shows that the team understands process needed to turn potential into excellence. That there’s space for the future as well as the present.
Beyond that, there’s the special connection between fans and players who become stars with the teams that drafted them. That was one of the wonderful things about the Warriors when they won their 2015 championship with Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, and Draymond Green. Fans can look at those players and say, “those are our guys.” And the organization can be proud of building something special from the ground up. That connection speaks to a mutual belief among all parties involved that greatness is a long process that involves helping young players grow.
The goal for the Lakers and any team will always be foremost to win championships, of course, and the Lakers have historically been better than almost every other team at doing that. Trading young players for superstars is a way to skip the uncertainty of development and skip straight to contending for titles. But it’s still a sad to see young players never truly get a chance to deliver for the people who they once thought believed in them.