Anthony Davis opened the NBA season with the kind of game that makes you wonder about his place in the league. He was playing last year's MVP winner, James Harden, and he had to watch from the sidelines as Harden accepted that trophy in a pregame presentation. Then the game started, and Davis was everywhere. He shut down the paint and helped guard out to the perimeter. Around the rim on offense, he made the Rockets defense look helpless. When extra defenders collapsed on him, he found open shooters. He finished with 32 points, 16 rebounds, and eight assists. The Pelicans beat the Rockets by double digits. At one point Jeff Van Gundy asked, "Can we just have James Harden give Anthony Davis the MVP trophy that he got pregame?"
Earlier in the preseason Davis called himself the best player in the NBA, and he might be right. The question is whether New Orleans will ever give Davis a chance to prove it. Fair or not, Davis is now so good that he's put himself in a category of superstars for whom regular seasons can only take them so far. It's great to be mentioned alongside LeBron, Durant, Steph, and Harden, but the hierarchy within that group is determined by playoff success. This is why half the NBA has spent the past few years speculating about the future of AD and the Pelicans. New Orleans isn't bad, but Wednesday's 131–112 win over the Rockets notwithstanding, AD's battles with his MVP-caliber peers have rarely been a fair fight.
I'll probably spend the entire year wondering about the next step for Davis. I don't feel great about admitting to this obsession, and I think that some of this speculation should make everyone uncomfortable, but we'll address that problem at the end. For now, the future of Anthony Davis is probably the biggest story of the next 12 months. It's definitely the most interesting. This story is where a half-dozen of the NBA's most interesting questions are wrapped into one year-long guessing game.
The Pelicans will do their very best to keep Davis. Earlier this week Alvin Gentry was explaining how valuable his 25-year-old big man has become, and to illustrate his point, Gentry said New Orleans could trade him for anyone in the league. “When you have someone who you can trade for anyone," Gentry explained to Pelicans beat writer Andrew Lopez, "I think that makes him the best [player]. Or at least most valuable. ... Now, we aren’t considering that. We wouldn’t trade him for anyone. Even Beyoncé. I think that makes him untouchable.”
While throwing Beyoncé into the trade machine is a new wrinkle, Gentry was expressing the same stance the Pelicans have had all along. They don't intend to deal Davis unless they have no other option. Offers have been ignored, and though Davis has occassionally hinted at dissatisfaction, he generally says the right things. At the moment, everyone wants to make this work. Also, thanks to the new collective bargaining agreement, New Orleans can pay Davis $230 million on a "supermax" extension that he'd be eligible to sign next summer. That's significantly more guaranteed money than he'd find anywhere else.
That brings us to the the first league-wide question that will come to the forefront in New Orleans: Does the supermax actually work? The supermax provision (technically the "Designated Player Exception") was added to the NBA's CBA as a response to Kevin Durant's OKC departure. It allows incumbent teams to pay more money than any other team to keep superstar players (who in turn must satisfy various criteria, like making an All-NBA team, to be "designated" for the extra salary). This option was added to the league's bargaining agreement specifically so that teams like the Pelicans could keep players like Anthony Davis.
Two years later, without re-hashing various columns that have already been written, there haven't been many supermax success stories. We've seen more teams trade supermax-eligible superstars (Jimmy Butler, DeMarcus Cousins, Kawhi Leonard) than successfully use the option to keep franchise cornerstones. Likewise, among teams who do keep their stars and pay them 35% of the salary cap, there are immediate ramifications that complicate the victory. The extra supermax money counts against the cap just like any other contract, and once a franchise has spent one-third of its money on one player, it becomes harder to build the rest of the team. And of course, any superstar making $200 million is expected to contend for a title, but that becomes even harder when the team has no room to pay star teammates. In that way, supermax deals can be as onerous for superstars as they are for teams.
Where will that leave Davis? If he signs a massive deal to stay in New Orleans, that's obviously a win for the Pelicans. But then, at the same time, Davis and New Orleans wouldn't necessarily be any closer to winning in the playoffs, and there would less financial flexibility moving forward. If Davis can make nearly as much money signing for a traditional max contract elsewhere—30% of the salary cap, instead the DPE 35%—and that new team offers an opportunity to chase a title alongside superstars, maybe sacrificing the supermax money would be worth it.
For the sake of argument, let's say that's the choice Davis makes. In that case, he would turn down a Pelicans extension offer next summer and signal that he intends to leave the following summer. New Orleans would have no choice but to trade him or risk losing an MVP-caliber talent for nothing. This is when things get interesting.
Would Kevin Durant really leave for the Knicks next summer? It's a wild proposition for lots of reasons, but it's also a real possibility that NBA insiders have been discussing since July. If that actually happens, or if Durant signs with anyone other than the Warriors next summer, the door would be open for a handful of teams to make a real run at Golden State, and the team that finds a way to land Anthony Davis would be off to a better start than just about anyone. The Lakers will make a very hard push. Just last month, Davis signed with Klutch Sports, the sports agency run by LeBron's business partner, Rich Paul. If nothing else, the Klutch news means there will be conspiracy theorists buzzing all year long about where Davis wants to be next season.
This Lakers season can go any number of directions over the next nine months, but even the most optimistic timeline ends with a team that's clearly not good enough to compete for a title. When LeBron finishes this year with the earliest playoff exit he's had in a decade, he's going to enter the offseason ready to get very agressive. Davis is the best Lakers option available, and that brings us to another big question: Do superstars want to play with LeBron James? He has already been spurned by Paul George and Kyrie Irving. Kawhi Leonard appears to be indifferent to playing with him, and Jimmy Butler is interested in playing for half the league, but not the Lakers. Klay Thompson will probably stay with the Warriors next summer. Meanwhile, LeBron is a generation older than all of these players. He casts a giant shadow on teammates that may not be attractive for superstars just entering their prime. He gets all the credit for wins and his teammates take most of the blame for losses. If players weren't thrilled about sharing that spotlight, it would make sense.
When LeBron retires, we'll remember him as one of the three greatest players ever, but his power and influence might be more revolutionary. He understood his leverage better than any player ever, and he used to conjure superteams out of thin air. Now that he's in Los Angeles, he has his greatest challenge yet. There are long odds, lots of teammates who aren't quite ready to contend, and new questions about his recruiting power among his All-Star peers. But whatever happens this season, next summer will come with one giant opportunity to answer any skeptics. LeBron will be recruiting Davis, trying to leverage the Klutch relationship, offering him the biggest platform in sports, and pushing the Lakers front office to do whatever it takes to get a deal done. If he can make this happen, it would be his most impressive power play since 2010 in Miami.
Then there are the Celtics, who have been eyeing Davis for several years now. There's also Kyrie Irving, who has his own history with LeBron, and who has played with Anthony Davis in several USA Basketball settings. It was reported by Jay King and The Athletic that Kyrie has already been in touch with Davis about a long-term partnership in Boston. This, of course, raises the possibility of a cold war between Kyrie and LeBron that manifests as a recruiting battle over Anthony Davis, the most important puzzle piece for any team trying to own the post-Warriors NBA. That sentence sounds insane, but it might not be far off from how this actually unfolds.
The Pelicans would have some agency as well. If New Orleans were to trade Davis, would the front office prefer a few of L.A.'s young prospects (Kuzma, Ball, Ingram, Hart) or Boston's combination of players and picks (Jaylen Brown, Marcus Smart, Sacramento's 2019 pick, the Grizzlies top-8 protected 2019 pick)? That question offers its own riddle about the best method for building a team in today's league, particularly as a small market franchise. Of course, as players become more comfortable using the threat of free agency to dictate trade destinations, there's always a chance that Davis could test the limits of that leverage by demanding either L.A. or Boston. That could complicate the calculus (and trade return) for Pelicans management.
Beyond Boston and L.A., there will be other teams who may enter the fray. The Knicks could get involved, particularly if Durant commits and New York has a top-3 pick to offer up in trade talks. The Warriors have been mentioned as secret AD suitors for years, and while the mechanics of any deal seem untenable at the moment, murmurs about Durant-to-Golden State once seemed every bit as ludicrous. The Bulls are a complete mess, but Davis is from Chicago, and the team should have another high lottery pick to trade, not to mention cap space they could use to sign a running mate for Davis. Speaking of teams that are a complete mess: are the Kings going to be the worst team in the league? The Sacramento pick that's going to Boston is a top-1 protected, which means that if the Kings bottom out and land at No. 1, the Sixers will get that pick, not the Celtics. That alone could kill any Boston trade efforts. (And yes, that means the worst team in the league could have a dramatic impact on the 2020 NBA title).
All of this is the sort of speculation that happens every day in NBA front offices, where teams are preparing for any number of outcomes. That kind of thinking makes sense for front office employees; it's their job to think two and three years into the future. What's strange is how common it has become for everyone else to think about the NBA the same way.
There's something unseemly about watching Anthony Davis dominate for the Pelicans and immediately wondering whether he will demand a trade to the Lakers next summer. That vague uneasiness is part of the AD story, too. It's the natural reaction to the final league-wide question lurking beneath any AD 2020 speculation: Is talking about basketball transactions more interesting than actually watching great basketball players?
Obviously, watching NBA games and following NBA news is not a mutually exclusive choice. People can do both, and they do. That's why the league is in good shape. Still, there are times when it's hard not to wonder whether the modern era has conditioned fans to pay closer attention to front office transactions and offseason rumors than the games themselves. In the era of Durant on the Warriors, it's almost inarguable that wondering about the future is more interesting than watching the NBA playoffs. But this phenomenon may not be limited to the Warriors era or one flawed CBA. It probably has roots in the internet media economy and how we're all conditioned to follow sports now. It may not even be a problem for the NBA. Power is interesting, and it's wielded on and off the court in basketball, and both worlds are more entertaining than almost anything in sports.
None of these revelations are really new, but there are times when the broadened focus is disorienting.That's this year in New Orleans. Anthony Davis could spend the rest of the season carrying his team and looking like the best player on the planet, and what he does afterward will have a much bigger impact on the NBA.