A slim 6% chance at the No. 1 pick materialized into the rights to Zion Williamson last week as the Pelicans snagged their second top pick since 2012. The upset victory provided a moment of Déjà vu in New Orleans. The franchise lept from a 13% chance at the top pick to the No. 1 slot seven years prior to this year’s Williamson sweepstakes, earning the rights to another consensus elite prospect, Anthony Davis. The moment could not have come at a more complicated time.
Williamson’s assumed arrival could coincide with the departure of New Orleans’ last No. 1 pick. The pre-trade deadline sage that gripped the NBA for part of the regular season took a brief hiatus after Feb. 7, but is now back with an added twist. Can Zion Williamson reasonably convince Davis to stay? And if Davis is on the outs, who could receive his services? Newly-minted general manager David Griffin is inheriting a franchise-altering decision.
Parsing the tea leaves on Davis’ future is presently a worthless task, though Griffin and head coach Alvin Gentry have signaled (pretty loudy, in fact) they will try and convince Davis to give Williamson a shot. Perhaps the prudent move is to wait until February and see if Williamson can help return New Orleans to the postseason. Davis and Jrue Holiday clamped down the Blazers in a first-round sweep just last year. AD rolled with DeMarcus Cousins for a brief period, and a similar chemistry could bubble with Zion. If Davis is willing to play at full tilt—something avoided at all costs last season—winning a playoff round is in play.
There is the inherent risk of waiting to deal Davis. The Pelicans are outside the top tier in the West by a sizable margin unless Williamson channels rookie LeBron, and another No. 10 or No. 11 seed will mark a firm end to the Davis era. Waiting to the trade deadline could very well sink Davis’ value, especially compared to the lucrative packages potentially offered before 2019-20 begins. Griffin and Gentry seem gung-ho about the Davis-Zion duo. Their excitement could prove foolish.
The safest play is to make Davis’ next game in New Orleans begin inside the visitors' locker room. Quality packages are likely available, and a bidding war could ensue on draft night. It’s hard to get full value for a superstar, frankly it’s almost impossible. But there are assets to be seized, especially from big-market teams ready to make a splash. The Pelicans can dive headfirst into the next decade with a crew of youngsters next to Williamson. Best-case scenario they become the next decade’s Thunder (without Durant and Harden’s departures, of course).
So if dealing Davis is the healthiest route for the franchise moving forward, who are the potential suitors? We at The Crossover detailed the key candidates below, including a few dark horse options.
The Glamour Markets
Los Angeles Lakers
Perhaps Gayle Benson will make this hypothetical irrelevant. Subtracting any personal animosity between Pelicans—well, Saints—ownership and Los Angeles, this deal remains one of the most logical moves. The pieces fit, and both organizations can fulfill some crucial needs.
LeBron James has little use for the No. 4 pick, and honestly, it’s questionable how much use he has for Brandon Ingram, Kyle Kuzma and Lonzo Ball. All four assets are of quality, though it’s likely Los Angeles sees its pathway to a title through star chasing. Landing LeBron was step one. Davis could complete step two, albeit after a slate of self-inflicted errors.
Ingram is probably the most valuable return piece for New Orleans even after an uneven 2018-19. He’s the best isolation scorer of the group and the most likely All-Star. Kuzma should remain a malleable scorer independent of location. Ball’s value in New Orleans is the most interesting question. His size, skill and defensive potential are all encouraging, but just how broken is the jump shot? Ball and Williamson clanking triples for years on end is not a pretty future to consider.
It’s hard to imagine a price tag too high for the Lakers after their exhaustive pursuit of Davis. Maybe cooler heads will prevail and AD will suit up next to James in purple and gold next year. Though as of now, Los Angeles’ dream summer remains firmly in question.
New York Knicks
New York snagging the No. 3 pick adds a sizable potential wrench into its pursuit of Davis. Assuming the Grizzlies hold firm with Ja Morant, R.J. Barrett will be in position as the third name off the board. New Orleans could very well reunite the former Blue Devils in New Orleans, snagging the No. 3 pick from the Knicks in addition to potentially any other name on the roster. Kevin Knox, Frank Ntilikina and fan-favorite Mitchell Robinson will likely be offered. Any player aside from Kevin Durant (and possibly impact free agent X) can be acquired.
The Barrett carrot is likely the only way a deal will get done to send Davis to New York. None of New York’s other youngsters are appealing enough, especially after a certain Latvian center was shipped down to Dallas. Land Durant and the Knicks’ summer is a success. Finding a way to acquire Davis would be a healthy dose of icing on the cake.
It would be good to know how often Danny Ainge is speaking with Kyrie Irving. If Boston’s mercurial point guard bolts, a Davis deal becomes far less tenable. Dealing a valuable package for Davis (let’s say centering around Jayson Tatum) without Irving lands the Celtics in a troubling no-man’s land. They’d be without Irving and Tatum and potentially Al Horford, all with Davis’ free agency looming. The roster wouldn’t rank among true Finals contender. Why would Davis stick around?
Boston should do everything in its power to keep Irving. Its season was an unmitigated disaster, with Irving at least partly culpable for the Celtics’ dour season. But Irving unlocks the key to luring other stars, chiefly locking up Davis long-term. Irving is not without his faults, but he and Davis for the next five years is far better than any alternative. The flood of criticism toward the 2016 Finals winner may look increasingly unfair in a few years.
A deadline deal looms in Philadelphia if Jimmy Butler and/or Tobias Harris re-up with the Sixers. Elton Brand could ship one of the two re-signees out of town Masai Ujiri style, dealing a controllable contract for a high-risk, high-reward rental. As for New Orleans, Butler isn’t perfect, but pairing him with Williamson could land some playoff revenue and at least partial relevance. The same degree of success doesn’t necessarily apply to Harris (though he is younger), but his contract could work in this scenario nonetheless.
The more interesting potential deal could come before the season. Would New Orleans swap one No. 1 pick for another? Ben Simmons is a potential top-10 talent, although one with severe three-phobia. He’s the highest-upside option the Pelicans could land, and he’s on the same timetable as Williamson. Would Philadelphia dare make the move? The Simmons-Joel Embiid combo fizzled again in the playoffs and the partnership’s long-term viability is in serious jeopardy. Davis and Embiid would be a ridiculous combo, forming perhaps the most talented twin towers in NBA history. A Simmons-for-Davis deal seems like the most fun option for all parties.
Portland Trail Blazers
Even a sweep at the hands of Golden State won’t crush the good vibes in Portland, but could the Blazers resist dealing C.J. McCollum for the chance at a Davis-Lillard partnership? An offer could seriously test Neil Olshey’s loyalty.
This would likely produce an ugly end to the GarPax era. Deal a package centered around Lauri Markkanen for one year to convince Davis, lose in round one of the East playoffs (or miss out entirely), then watch the hometown kid escape to sunshine one year later. Patience is presently a virtue in Chicago.
Pat Riley will always go down swinging, though the ceilings for nearly all of Miami’s pieces are underwhelming. It’s hard to see Griffin excited about any combo of Josh Richardson, Justise Winslow, Bam Adebayo and James Johnson. They’re nice players, but they pale in comparison to other potential offers.