The Lakers recorded an uninspiring, 125–119 win over the Pelicans on Wednesday. LeBron James rebounded from a dismal finish in Memphis, closing against New Orleans with a key and-one, a critical stop, and a big-time three down the stretch. It was a much-needed win for L.A., which needs all the victories it can get. (LeBron also needed a reprieve from a growing chorus of criticism.) The bigger takeaway from Wednesday night, however, was that the entire contest felt like a farce.
For some reason, the Anthony Davis trade saga is playing out more mind-numbingly than maybe any trade demand before. Even the Minnesota Timberwolves—who fired their coach/president Tom Thibodeau after the Jimmy Butler fiasco—somehow managed to handle themselves better. Davis was great when he played Wednesday, scoring 22 points in 21 minutes. But in a tight game, he was firmly planted on the bench during the decisive minutes, watching his overmatched teammates trying to overcome a desperate Lakers team. The sight of Davis reacting to James’s last three was absurd, and at this point, the NBA deserves more blame than AD or the Pelicans.
It’s the league that’s forcing New Orleans to keep Davis active and on the court. The result is something even worse than tanking. At least when teams outright sit their best players (think Phoenix shutting down Eric Bledsoe a couple years ago), younger guys can soak up the minutes and have a chance to improve their game. Teams that are openly tanking may not have their best players on the floor, but they aren’t coaching to lose. That’s not what’s happening with the Pelicans. The NBA is putting Alvin Gentry in an awkward position, forcing him to play Davis while the organization has to also protect its most important asset ahead of an incredibly critical offseason for the franchise. Seeing a completely healthy Davis watch his team lose after he flashed dominance for three quarters was more insulting than if he had not played at all.
There is a super easy fix for this, and it’s the obvious one every person has already suggested: The league should let the Pelicans sit Davis if that’s what they want. Maybe that means you reimburse fans instead of paying the NBA a fine. But if the league’s reasoning for mandating New Orleans keeps Davis active is competitive balance, then what the hell do you call Wednesday’s game? Were the Pelicans employing the most optimal strategy by having Davis sit the entire fourth quarter? At the same time, does anyone with a brain blame the team for being cautious with him when the front office knows it can’t afford anything less than a massive haul when he’s traded?
The situation is a joke, the NBA is making it worse by meddling. This seemingly all goes back to Adam Silver and his distaste for tanking and trade requests. Silver seems to be discounting the savvy of his fans when he gets heavy-handed about these issues. The Sixers blatantly tanked for years and the fan base was as rabid as ever when The Process bore fruit. Are Pelicans fans really going to feel cheated if Davis gets shut down after he gave it his all for six seasons? I can’t imagine those people felt any less cheated Wednesday when their best player couldn’t make an impact in the final moments.
This in-between nonsense needs to stop. The Pelicans should either a) try to win games and actually utilize the best player in franchise history during the fourth quarter or b) be allowed to sit Davis completely and hand the team over to the guys who will actually be a part of the future. As long as the league office inserts itself into the situation, we’ll endure more nights like Wednesday, which was embarrassing for everyone involved. Anthony Davis won’t be a part of the Pelicans’ future. The NBA needs to stop forcing him to be a part of their present.