LeBron James may exit the trade deadline slightly wounded after Los Angeles failed to acquire Anthony Davis on Thursday. But don’t expect The King to abandon his recruiting efforts anytime soon. LeBron dove right back into the free-agency waters during Thursday’s All-Star Game draft, spending his first three picks on 2019 free agents. LeBron’s draft picks could be seen as a mere coincidence, though that’s more than a touch naive after the past three weeks. Why not use the All-Star draft as a winking free-agency pitch?
A winner on the court will emerge on Feb. 17 as Team LeBron and Team Giannis square off at the Spectrum Center in Charlotte. For now, though, we’ll settle for choosing All-Star winners and losers from Thursday’s draft, a fitting nightcap after the trade deadline chaos of the afternoon.
Not to brag, but one fearless writer predicted James would go full recruiter mode when the All-Star reserves were named on Jan. 31. And the look into the future proved prescient on Thursday. James selected Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving and Kawhi Leonard with his first three picks. He selected Anthony Davis for his first reserve spot, ensuring at least one game side-by-side with Davis before July’s free agency. James even traded Russell Westbrook for Ben Simmons after the draft, stacking Klutch clients much to Rich Paul’s delight.
The final three months of the season will test James similarly to last year. He’ll be forced to carry a sagging supporting cast, with a first-round victory perhaps on par with his run to the Finals last year. The West is a gauntlet, and there’s no guarantee James makes the playoffs. But even if James spends May and June at home, he’ll be back in the news in July, ready to pounce on the free-agent and trade market.
Durant may be the top free agent in July, but Irving is the straw that stirs the drink. The rumor mill revolves around Irving, with his free-agent decision potentially altering the futures of Boston, New York and Los Angeles. A commitment to Boston should land Davis, creating the league’s best duo outside of Curry and Durant. A trip to New York could bring Durant to the East coast. And if a reunion with LeBron is in the works, the arms race for a third star will begin. Irving is at the center of the NBA universe.
James’s All-Star selection further advanced the narrative surrounding Irving’s free agency. The pair’s bad blood looks to be a thing of the past, and a summer recruitment looms. Expect the reunion rumors to heighten at All-Star Weekend. The chatter surrounding Irving will continue through the postseason and into the summer.
Antetokounmpo was far-removed from politicking and recruiting with his draft picks, eschewing Davis with his opening reserve selection in favor of teammate Khris Middleton. It wasn’t an unexpected pick, but it was further confirmation of the pair’s bond, and the general good vibes surrounding the Bucks. And why wouldn’t things be rosy in the Cream City? The Bucks have the best record in the East. Giannis is dunking over everybody. Middleton earned his first All-Star appearance, and the Mike Budenholzer era is off to a wonderful start. Good on the former second-round pick for his early selection in Thursday’s draft.
It’s hard not to feel bad for Beal right now. He’s having the best statistical season of his career only to see the Wizards at 22–32 entering Thursday night, 10th in the JV Eastern Conference. John Wall is out for 12 months and Otto Porter is on his way to Chicago. Things didn’t get better Thursday when Beal was picked last in the All-Star draft, sheepishly given to Team LeBron after Giannis made his final selection. Even when Beal is an All-Star he can’t win.
Maybe Beal can force a trade and escape his situation, but Washington’s cost-cutting measures over the past week will likely allow the Wizards to keep his $127 million contract. The future in the nation’s capital is bleak, and Beal is likely a prisoner of poor management.
While the Pelicans GM earned a share of credit on Thursday for keeping Anthony Davis through the trade deadline, it’s unlikely he’ll be able to keep James out of the picture until July. Los Angeles looks to have free reign to tamper over the coming months, so much so that it became an open joke on TNT’s selection show. Say what you will about the merits of the NBA’s tampering policy, but it’s enforcement and penalties are of little deterrence. Demps may have won the battle Thursday afternoon, but if the evening’s draft is any indication, the war has only just begun.
Shaquille O’Neal and the TNT crew
Inside the NBA is largely a delightful program, one of the most entertaining studio shows in sports despite the occasional dose of antiquated opinion. However, Thursday’s jokes regarding the pronunciation of Antetokounmpo’s name weren’t in great taste. Giannis has been in the league for six years. There’s been plenty of opportunity for practice. Props to LeBron for his impressive pronunciation, but that should be the norm more than it is a running joke.