Anthony Davis is a Laker. By becoming a Laker, AD is obviously not a Celtic. Even with the benefit of 48 hours to let it all settle, the deal still comes as a surprise after a year’s worth of posturing and maneuvering between two of the league’s superpowers.
There’s so much to get into here, we’ll have to take it piece by piece.
AD and LeBron and what, exactly?
When the Lakers added LeBron James last summer they did so with the promise that more free-agent superstars would be on the way. There were three prime players available in this loaded class of superstar talent: Kevin Durant and Kawhi Leonard, who are free agents, and AD who is a year away from such status.
The Lakers had cap space, but neither KD nor Kawhi have shown much interest in taking it and KD’s future took an unfortunate turn during the Finals when he ruptured his Achilles. Paul George didn’t take LA’s money either, electing to sign with OKC long-term last summer rather than return home.
The Lakers simply couldn’t fritter away another year of LeBron. Rather than be left holding the bag the Lakers went all-in to acquire Davis, surrendering much of their young core and the next five years worth of draft rights. It’s a heavy price but Davis is the kind of transformational talent who is worth it, assuming he signs on for the long term. (Don’t laugh. This league, as you may have heard, is crazy.)
When healthy, Davis is one of the five best players in the league, and arguably the league’s best big man. He’s also the kind of player who should do well playing with LeBron. With apologies to Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, neither AD or Bron has played with a talent of this magnitude. It’s an interesting spot for both players.
Davis never played with another star in New Orleans, while LeBron has never taken a backseat to anyone on a basketball court. AD is not a peer like D-Wade or Bosh, he’s a young alpha like Kyrie Irving and we saw how that turned out. This situation should be different because LeBron and AD need each other and it will be on both to make the relationship prosper.
The question now is what the rest of the Lakers roster will look like along their two superstars. They held onto Kyle Kuzma, which is nice, but there are no guards to be found. They have some cap space, but it’s not clear how much they’ll have after the ink is dry. AD has a trade kicker and asking him to give up $4 million after walking away from a lucrative long-term extension may be easier said than done.
The timing of the deal is also important. If the teams wait until July 30 to complete the transaction, that would open up more cap space for the Lakers to spend. There’s nothing compelling the Pelicans to wait longer than the lifting of the July 5 moratorium. Perhaps they can squeeze something else out of the transaction.
These are the kind of details that experienced general managers catch during the negotiation and it’s unclear whether Laker general manager Rob Pelinka saw those items clearly. This is the same general manager that signed a roster full of non-shooters to play with LeBron, so you’ll forgive me if I’m skeptical of his ability to skillfully execute a blockbuster or put together a competent basketball roster.
LeBron and AD is a hell of a start, but it can’t be the end point.
As an aside, don’t misinterpret Masai Ujiri’s blueprint.
The lesson from Toronto’s championship is not to throw caution to the wind in the chase for a transformational star. The lesson is that there’s a time to make that kind of bold move. By trading for Kawhi Leonard, Ujiri added the missing piece to what was already a strong foundation. Simply stockpiling superstars hasn’t always yielded such strong results.
This was a David Griffin move, all the way
When Griffin agreed to take over a President of Basketball Operations with the Pelicans, he did so with the assurance that he’d be able to run the franchise his way and make decisions that were in the best interest of the club. The word at the trade deadline was that New Orleans would never deal with the Lakers, but if getting the best possible return meant dealing with the Lakers, then so be it. Griff was clearly calling the shots.
In Lonzo Ball, Brandon Ingram, and Josh Hart, Griff didn’t get back a potential superstar to pair with Zion Williamson, yet all three certainly have potential. The idea of Zo and Zion running pick-and-roll lobs all the live-long day has tremendous appeal. This is a wonderful opportunity for Ball to get his career back on track.
Hart can fit in anywhere. He’s just a good player. Ingram is the wild card. While some still see untapped potential in his skinny frame, others see Andrew Wiggins. He’s still young and growing, so let’s see what he can become before passing judgment. Ball and Ingram, especially, stand to benefit from the change in scenery.
In those three, along with Williamson and veteran Jrue Holiday, Griff now has the outline of an intriguing basketball team, one that should be able to grow with Zion as he develops. The Pelicans aren’t better without AD, but they’re better positioned to maximize Zion’s prime years than they did for Davis.
A lot has been made of the fact that this deal looks a lot like the one the Pelicans turned down at the deadline. But it’s not the same deal because the draft picks have changed. When the Lakers landed the fourth pick in the lottery, it upped their package considerably. Conversely, Boston’s draft assets looked a lot worse once the ping pong balls settled.
The fourth pick in this week’s draft has value, either as a means to adding another talented young player or in acquiring one. The deep end of the pick pool is where it gets interesting. New Orleans gets LA’s top pick in 2021 unless it falls in the top eight, at which point it becomes unprotected in 2022. The Pels have swap rights in 2023 and an unprotected first in 2024 that can be rolled over to 2025.
All those future picks are liquid gold on the trade market. If the Lakers bottom out, they can be cashed in on high value choices. Even if they don’t, unprotected first-round picks carry enormous trade value in a league where picks are most valuable before they’re made. Griff did well here, especially considering the Celtics balked at the last minute.
This is very bad for the Celtics, but it’s not a total disaster. It’s still bad though.
For the last few years the Celtics have been hovering around AD, loading up on picks and other assets to use in an eventual blockbuster. The letters AD were whispered around the Garden so frequently it was as if they were attempting to speak it into existence as an inevitability.
And so Danny Ainge built the Celtics on parallel tracks. On the one side was a competitive team with a penchant for overachieving, and on the other was a locomotive filled with assets hurtling toward New Orleans. Where one began and the other ended made for an occasionally uncomfortable existence, but it was generally understood that the team was a means to an end, and that endpoint was Anthony Davis.
That was never more evident than the decision to acquire Kyrie Irving from Cleveland. Not only was Kyrie an exceptional player, he was also exactly the kind of personality that the C’s envisioning bringing other players to Boston. Like Anthony Davis.
That all changed during a wild February sequence when AD demanded a trade and Kyrie backed away from his verbal promise to re-sign. The Celtics proceeded to implode and all those years of careful planning and asset hoarding went by the wayside.
Irving is almost certainly gone after a bizarre season that saw him publicly blame his younger teammates for not living up to his standard. It ended with his oddly disengaged postseason performance. “Who cares,” indeed. The Celtics held out hope that a pairing with AD would swing Kyrie back to Boston, but even that appeared to hold little promise. After all that, the Celtics are left with neither.
This is bad, really bad. It’s not a complete disaster, however. Had Ainge gutted the roster only to see Kyrie sign with Brooklyn and AD opt out after a year ... that would have been a disaster. That he blinked was a win for agent Rich Paul, who spent the last few months telling everyone that AD would not be long for the parquet.
Instead, Ainge will enter the offseason with a roster that includes Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, and Marcus Smart along with Gordon Hayward and Aron Baynes. They would like to bring Al Horford back into the fold and maybe now there’s room for free agents like Marcus Morris and even Terry Rozier to return.
That’s not a contender necessarily, but it’s still the guts of a team that went all the way to Game 7 conference finals just over a year ago. It’s also the one that nearly lost in the first round to Milwaukee and has seen the rest of the conference load up on star power.
Tatum and Brown hold the key. Their developments were stunted by Irving’s arrival and all of last season’s weirdness. Getting them back on track is vital if Boston is going to contend with this core. Still, this team needs more talent and Ainge still has all those draft assets to pursue another disgruntled young veteran star. (Bradley Beal, maybe?)
No matter who Ainge is able to get, it won’t be of the order and magnitude of Anthony Davis. Those kind of players don’t come around very often and this was yet another opportunity lost. They’ve been roasted in the past for not pulling the trigger on trades for players like Leonard, George, and Jimmy Butler. Most of those non-moves worked out just fine. Still, AD was supposed to change all that and now AD is gone too.
It’s been a very strange few years in Boston. Maybe now they can focus on what they have instead of what they hope to acquire.