We have the facts: Anthony Davis won’t be re-signing in New Orleans and wants a trade, he is represented by Rich Paul, who also represents LeBron James, who plays for the Lakers, who definitely want Anthony Davis. Some team other than New Orleans, it seems, is getting him. Now, the primary question is when, and that’s something only the Pelicans can decide. With Davis’s camp having gone public and his current employer now on the clock, the Pelicans do have the ability to dictate the timeframe of a trade.
What they should avoid is letting this situation drag into next season, where they risk losing leverage as Davis gets closer to free agency, and with a drawn-out departure likely casting a pall over the organization. They cannot be left holding the bag, or they’ll lose it entirely. Led by Dell Demps, Pelicans' brass must essentially handle two tasks at once: scouring the market for an attractive Davis deal before the Feb. 7 deadline, while also assessing the value of waiting until after the season, as the draft takes place on June 20, and free agency opens on July 1.
In concept, there is something to be said for moving quickly on a Davis trade—nobody benefits from an extended (and very public) on-court divorce—but at this point, the Pelicans shouldn’t feel like they have to do any deal they don’t love ahead of the deadline. The only person in a rush to get Davis out of New Orleans should be Paul, who carefully kick-started the process with his announcement to media outlets Monday. With LeBron already on the Lakers, speculation has centered on Davis—who switched representation to Klutch Sports in the offseason—angling to join him, and around the league it’s no secret that L.A. will be in the mix. The NBA is even looking into tampering possibilities. It’s that big a deal. Davis is a transcendent talent who will reshape the league’s landscape in the right situation. But barring someone blowing them away, the Pelicans have no need to rush into things this second.
Hanging over everything is the fact that the Celtics—who are armed with multiple first-round picks and young players, have long held interest in Davis and are viewed as the team with the most to offer in any package for a star—cannot move for Davis this season unless they choose to trade Kyrie Irving first. Both are presently on Designated Player Extension contracts, and teams are not allowed to roster more than one such player at a time. The two players could be traded for each other, or simultaneously in a multi-team structure, but the former makes no sense, and the latter would be a delicate, risky exercise. The Celtics and Pelicans could pre-agree to a Davis trade, then execute the deal on July 1, when Irving is expected to opt out of his deal and become an unrestricted free agent. For now, their hands are somewhat tied, and the timing of Paul and Davis’s announcement of intent can be reasonably read as a means of temporarily circumventing a pathway to Boston.
Whether the Pelicans intend to deal with Boston or not, the threat of waiting and bringing the Celtics to the table is a valuable negotiation tactic to accelerate current talks. Davis can create leverage by refusing to give interested teams a long-term assurance he’ll re-sign next summer, but much like Kawhi Leonard last year, he’ll still have to report and play wherever he’s traded. If New Orleans can convince teams that things are serious with Boston (and they could be), it helps create a market and establishes a more team-friendly timetable. However, it’s also worth considering the possibility—as reported by Yahoo Sports’ Chris Haynes, and corroborated by recent rumblings around the league—that Irving decides to go back on his preseason stance and leave the Celtics this summer. Any level of uncertainty there makes sending Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown and/or draft assets much more difficult.
Regardless, the Pelicans might find the widest range of options by waiting until after the draft lottery, when the order is locked in and individual picks can be properly valued. Consider the possibility of a team with established talent like the Mavericks or Wizards winning the top pick, then having a giant trade chip to dangle in front of New Orleans if it wants to jump directly into the mix in their conference. The Lakers can offer Lonzo Ball and Kyle Kuzma-centric packages, but adding Davis ostensibly helps their win total and directly diminishes the projected value of their first-round selections. The Clippers, Knicks and even the Raptors all have movable assets, big aspirations and cases to try and get involved in talks right now. A winning team could move for Davis, make a run in the playoffs, then flip him again later. There will be plenty of interest in Davis in June, and New Orleans can afford to wait and see. For a player this good, someone is bound to get desperate.
Whether the Pelicans will actually make the right decision is another question, as the team’s overall track record has been less than stellar over the years as they’ve struggled to put the right personnel around Davis on a consistent basis. The Pelicans’ front office and coaching staff received two-year extensions last summer, but their fates might ultimately be tied to that of their star player—or Demps could be replaced after the season. He has long been on the hot seat, briefly empowered by last year’s brief but effective run of play. Regardless, the timing and sequence of each of New Orleans’ cards will define the arc of the franchise. That reality, at least, is immediate.