The most pertinent framing of Anthony Davis’s request to be traded from the Pelicans is not why it happened, but when. Trade demands are a fact of NBA life, a time-honored tradition practically as old as the league itself. Wilt Chamberlain. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Hakeem Olajuwon. Shaquille O’Neal. There is a lineage of players (and, apparently, all-time great centers) who publicly attempted to force their way from one team to another. None of them caused anywhere near the level of commotion that Davis and his representatives did this month. The request itself was straightforward and, if anything, less incendiary than previous versions. What had changed was the league—from a tape-delayed afterthought to a year-round entertainment machine borne of heightened visibility.
O’Neal called up reporters to force his way out of Los Angeles in 2004. Davis, by contrast, sat at a podium at All-Star Weekend in Charlotte, fielding questions left and right about what teams he would like—or like not—to be traded to. It was there that Davis confirmed that “whatever list” had gone public was true. He debated semantics with reporters as to whether the Celtics were included. Then, Davis sat down live with the league’s own official broadcast network to clarify his remarks on the air. “All 29 other teams are on my list,” Davis said, either contradicting his earlier comments or tiptoeing around them, depending on your read. “I don't have a preferred destination.”
The NBA, of course, would rather he not discuss the matter publicly at all. Davis was hit with a $50,000 fine when his agent, Rich Paul, publicly requested a trade in the first place, violating the league’s collective bargaining agreement in the process. Considering how awkward Davis’s situation has been in the weeks since, that particular protection seems understandable. It just may not be all that realistic.
Recall that all of this comes in the wake of one of the most public trade discussions in league history: a reported series of escalating bids for Davis from the Lakers, picking up players and picks as it went but no steam at all. Lakers president Magic Johnson is on-record as saying that the Pelicans, a team hearing offers for a superstar they never wanted to trade in the first place, negotiated in bad faith. On the periphery of those talks, an aggressive information campaign consumed the league. Whispers regarding the future of Kyrie Irving, who could be Davis’s teammate next season, intertwined with the machinations of the trade request. The market was flooded with every scrap of intel, turning an already enormous story with league-altering ramifications into a saga evolving by the hour.
So much information has been shockingly above board, much of it in a way that reflects the modern media landscape. Even if Davis had made his trade request to the Pelicans in private, it likely wouldn’t have mattered. There’s just no way for New Orleans to canvas for the best possible offer without tripping alarms around the league, and there are entirely too many parties with their own agendas involved to keep a development of this magnitude quiet. There are too many shrewd reporters and too many clever information brokers. Float the idea by even one other team and the news of Davis’s potential availability will jump between franchises with synaptic haste. Once Davis made the decision that he would like to move on, that information could only be public.
Regardless, there’s no use in trying to conceal that message when the writing is so plainly on the wall. At the time of Davis’ request, New Orleans (22–28) was six games out of the playoff hunt with the 13th-best record in the West. Davis himself was out of the lineup with a finger injury that proved devastating under the circumstances. If the Pelicans’ season wasn’t over, it was at least blotted out by the vultures circling overhead. A device of the NBA’s own doing had made this the moment of truth. In 2017, the league negotiated for the creation of a “supermax” contract extension for the expressed purpose of helping small-market teams retain high-end talent. The NBA deliberately moved up the decision point as it relates to players like Davis by making them eligible for this sort of extension. Were he to decline it, the thinking went, the Pelicans would then have a year to sort out their trade options. Obviously that has not been the case; even though Davis is technically under contract with the Pelicans through 2020 (or, by his option, 2021), the extension deadline accelerated the timing of a potential trade demand and put New Orleans in the exact sort of position the league had hoped to avoid.
The last round of collective bargaining was full of these sorts of unintended consequences. When the new extension rules aren’t actively working against the interests of a team (as when the mere possibility of the supermax becomes a negotiating issue), they tend to be an objectively poor option for the star players who would actually be worth extending. NBA commissioner Adam Silver, in speaking to the media at All-Star weekend, copped to this problem explicitly. “I don't like trade demands, and I wish they didn't come, and I wish all those matters were handled behind closed doors,” he said. “But don't forget, even part of it maybe, the league has to take responsibility.”
Many trade demands are, at their core, expressions of competitive imbalance. “I recognize that there's very little I'm going to do to ever stop [trade demands] completely,” Silver said. “I think this goes back to the earlier question, though, about the system elements. I think the question is: Can we do a better job creating a league in which the competition is fair for all 30 teams?”
Davis might be an enthusiastic Pelican today if his team were even slightly better, or if the Warriors weren’t quite so stacked. If New Orleans had any kind of chance, this could all be so different. There will always be players who gravitate toward different cities, but in a more balanced league, there would be fewer of them maneuvering with far less urgency. In that way, this particular request is a reflection of its time. It’s the logical result of a rule change that backfired. It’s a power grab in the age of player agency. It’s a negotiation carried out in open air, cast in the light by the rigors of modern NBA reporting. This may only be the latest trade request, in a sense, but it’s also the first of its kind.