The Lakers, a voice from the corner said, and some 20-feet away, inside the sealed draft lottery room last month, Los Angeles GM Rob Pelinka clasped his hands together and let out a deep breath. The Lakers had absorbed some losses in recent months, from the 45 they took in a disappointing regular season to Magic Johnson’s abrupt resignation to the media tour Johnson went on afterward. They needed a win. On lottery night, they got one, riding a 9.4% chance of jumping into the top-four to land the fourth overall pick. On Saturday, they picked up another, agreeing to terms with New Orleans on a trade that will send Anthony Davis to Los Angeles.
The deal—first reported by ESPN—shakes up the Western Conference. And while there will be time to dive into what this means for the Pelicans (GM David Griffin has his hands on an awful lot of draft picks) and for would-be Davis suitors like Boston (adios, Kyrie Irving), there is one clear takeaway:
This is a win for LeBron James.
And this is a win for Rob Pelinka.
The Lakers gave up a lot—as of this writing it’s still unclear if any pick swaps are involved, which could sweeten the deal even further—but they were supposed to. Davis is Herschel Walker, a transcendent, 26-year-old super talent. In 1989, Walker fetched the biggest haul in NFL history. Davis was always going to cost the same. There’s a risk that the deal could backfire (see Howard, Dwight and his disastrous one-year stint in L.A.) and the Lakers could fork over premium picks to the Pelicans for years to come.
But come on—this was a deal L.A. had to make.
The Lakers cast their lot with James when they signed him to a four-year deal last summer, and from then on every decision they made needed to be with him in mind. At 34, and with a birthday in December, James is running out of years at the top. Already a part-time defensive player, James needed a talent infusion to ensure his final years as an elite offensive power weren’t wasted.
In Davis, they got it, and just think about the lineups Frank Vogel can put on the floor. A small-ish frontcourt of Davis, James and Kyle Kuzma—the latter Pelinka was able to keep out of the Davis deal, keeping much needed shooting on the roster—will be terrifying. Davis is a bona fide MVP candidate with room to grow. He attempted a career-high 2.6 three-point attempts last season—shooting a respectable 33.1%—a number that will likely swell playing alongside James.
Surrendering future picks is scary (just ask Brooklyn) but Davis is a safeguard against any kind of catastrophic collapse. Assuming he sticks around—and there’s no reason to believe Davis won’t sign a five-year, max-level deal with the Lakers next summer—L.A. will always have a franchise tentpole. Injuries happen—James is coming off a season where he suffered the most significant injury of his career—but the likelihood of the Pelicans landing another top-five pick in this deal seems to be slim.
Pelinka still has work to do, of course. The roster will need to be filled out, but the Lakers will enter free agency with sizeable cap space ($27.8 million or $32.5 million, depending on what Davis does with his $4 million trade bonus, per ESPN’s Bobby Marks) and Davis as a free-agent magnet. Pelinka will have to decide whether to pursue one player with that room (Kemba Walker, if Charlotte nickel and dimes him, could be in play) or spread it around among several players who fit alongside James and Davis.
Pelinka has taken a public flogging in recent months, but Saturday was a career-defining moment. He has been branded a backstabber by his former boss and been the subject of speculation as to just how much power he had in an organization overflowing with advisors. He has had some missteps, for sure, but in two-plus years he landed Kuzma and Josh Hart with late first-round picks, maintained the Lakers' cap flexibility and now has added Anthony Davis to the roster. Not bad for a short period of work.
Here come the Lakers, and it’s not a stretch to put L.A. in the mix to come out of the Western Conference next spring. They will need the right additions and chemistry takes time. But a James/Davis pairing rivals any in the conference, and the crumbling of the Warriors' dynasty has left the league wide open. L.A. got its man, James got a new co-star and Davis is off to the city he preferred to play in. The Lakers are relevant once again.