The national television cameras are coming to New Orleans on Thursday night, and boy isn’t this the type of game the NBA wishes it could flex out. Knicks at Hawks, anyone? The chances to see Vince Carter play could be dwindling. Hornets at Magic? It’s an All-Star matchup between Kemba Walker and Nikola Vucevic, with seeding in the conference playoffs at stake.
How about a replay of that hilarious All-Star draft? Or three hours of Shaq and Barkley hurling insults at each other?
Anything to avoid putting the Pelicans under the microscope.
To recap: In late January, Anthony Davis publicly requested a trade in a transparent attempt to get New Orleans to ship him to the Lakers. The Pelicans didn’t, Davis declared his desire to play out the season and New Orleans—reportedly fearful of incurring a recurring $100,000 fine for keeping Davis on the bench—have played three awkward games with him, punctuated by a lifeless performance in a 30-point pasting by Orlando on Tuesday night.
“We sucked,” Davis said, after a dismal, three-point on 1-9 shooting effort. “Nobody was interested in playing, is what it looked like.”
What a mess.
Is this the Pelicans fault? New Orleans did have 6 1/2 years of Davis and could only muster a pair of playoff appearances and one series win. Years of whiffing on draft picks some years and trading them away in others weakened the roster around him. Cap strangling contracts have limited New Orleans flexibility and the Pels decision to lowball Rajon (Playoff) Rondo last summer helped choke off any chance of building on the momentum of a surprising second round run in last year’s postseason.
Is this Davis’s fault? The decision to take his trade request public backfired, putting the Pelicans in this position. That Davis took this tact is puzzling. Handled quietly, and the Pelicans might have been more open to dealing with the Lakers, sources familiar with the situation told The Crossover. But Davis’s attempt to bully his way to LA, coupled with internal questions about whether the Lakers, who are headlined by LeBron James, who is represented by Rich Paul, who also represents Davis, had a hand in all this only served to cement the Pelicans resistance to dealing with Los Angeles—for now, anyway.
There will be plenty of time to play the blame game, but for the immediate future, cooler, saner heads need to prevail. Think Tuesday night’s tattooing by Orlando was rock bottom? Well here comes Oklahoma City, winners of four straight, 11 of its last 12 with an MVP candidate in the frontcourt (Paul George) and a triple-double machine (Russell Westbrook) in the backcourt. Davis will be booed by the smattering of fans that bother to show up, TNT cameras will pan to wide swaths of empty seats and near certain double-digit deficits will give broadcasters plenty of time to dive into the Davis story.
This needs to end. Now. It can end with the Pelicans telling the NBA to go ahead, fine us, but we can’t let this go any further. Let the players association file a grievance—we’re done. New Orleans was 3-6 in games Davis missed with a hand injury, but they were a feisty bunch that upset Houston, pushed Denver and lost narrowly to Indiana. The Jahlil Okafor redemption arc was real. There wasn’t the endless negativity around the team, and Alvin Gentry wasn’t forced to answer Davis-related questions like a prisoner in a hostage video.
It can end with Davis playing against the Thunder, suiting up in the All-Star game before finding himself dealing with a pesky knee issue that keeps him out for the rest of the season. Those that know Davis across the league believe this has to be killing him. Davis took great pains to protect his reputation in New Orleans, never grumbling despite never having the talent around him to compete at a high level. He had to think he was doing the right thing in declaring his desire to finish out the season, but he has to see now just how toxic it has become.
Besides—the risk of continuing to play Davis is enormous. The Pelicans path was irrevocably altered last year, when DeMarcus Cousins snapped his Achilles, ending the dream of a long-term partnership between the two ex-Kentucky stars. A Davis injury would be even more crippling for the franchise, which needs the assets Davis will bring back to rebuild. And Davis—who in requesting a deal is declining a super max extension worth nearly a quarter of a billion dollars—is putting his own financial future at risk.
Thursday night figures to be a low point for the Pelicans and nationally televised train wreck for the NBA. Here come the Thunder, fighting for a top seed in the conference playoffs and equipped to embarrass New Orleans on its home floor. There is likely no stopping it. All the Pelicans, the NBA and Davis can do is prevent there from being another one.
Programming note: The Pelicans play the Lakers, in LA, on ESPN at the end of the month.