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As the clock crept toward 3 p.m. ET on Thursday and a trade that would send Anthony Davis to the Lakers died a slow, quiet death, front offices around the league watched with a vested interest. Especially those front offices located in cities not unlike New Orleans—cities that wear the NBA’s small-market albatross with both a sense of pride and dread.
When Anthony Davis’ agent, Rich Paul, revealed 10 days before Thursday’s trade deadline that Davis wanted out of New Orleans, it set the wheels in motion for a bold power play led by LeBron James. Paul, of Klutch Sports Group, also famously represents James. And James needs another superstar by his side to accomplish his goal of winning a championship in Los Angeles.
“[Davis] wasn’t asking to go anywhere but the Lakers,” a Western Conference executive told Bleacher Report. So James, Davis and their agent saw an opportunity: Put the pressure on the Pelicans to trade Davis now—to his desired destination—before the Celtics would be eligible to step in and blow the Lakers’ best offer away. (Since Davis and Kyrie Irving are both on designated player contracts, the Celtics can’t acquire Davis without including Irving in the deal until July.)
Never mind that this new stance contradicted Davis’ previous statements on his impending free agency.
“I’ve got two years to ’20-’21,” Davis said in November, according to Marc J. Spears of The Undefeated. “I’m here, and whatever happens after that, happens.”
That plan changed once Davis and Paul realized that they could accelerate Davis’ free agency by 17 months simply by making—and publicizing—a trade request.
“It was all designed to try to get him to the Lakers,” an Eastern Conference executive said.
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It didn’t work, so another star’s hasty departure from a small market was averted, if only temporarily. Pelicans GM Dell Demps refused to capitulate under pressure from the unholy trinity of James-Klutch-AD and decided that nothing the Lakers could possibly offer would be enough to force his hand.
Is this a victory for the NBA’s small markets, who can’t get superstars in free agency and increasingly struggle to keep their own even after they get lucky enough to draft them? Or just a temporary reprieve?
“All of the small-market teams are in such a bad position when a guy doesn’t want to play there because they instantly lose a lot of leverage,” a prominent agent told B/R. “It’s such a player-driven league on and off the court, and so they often have no recourse but to make the trade and get as many assets as they can.”
Although The Athletic’s Shams Charania reported that Davis informed the Pelicans he’d only sign an extension with the Lakers, Clippers, Knicks or Bucks if traded, the Lakers were the only team to gain any semblance of traction on trade talks with New Orleans. That’s how the play was drawn up, straight out of the Klutch Playbook.
The only problem was, the play didn’t work; it backfired.
New Orleans GM Dell Demps froze the trade talks in their tracks—refusing to engage with Lakers president Magic Johnson and GM Rob Pelinka since Monday—in a call described by ESPN’s Ramona Shelburne like this: “You could place a Domino’s pizza order in the time that call took.” And the way this played out, it makes you think that Demps was sitting back and eating popcorn—not pizza—as the Lakers’ chemistry was obliterated by reports that half the team was on the trading block.
Now, Davis is still in New Orleans, and Lonzo Ball, Brandon Ingram, Kyle Kuzma et al. are still with the Lakers, who got obliterated by 42 points Tuesday night in Indiana before earning a much-needed victory over the Celtics in Boston on Thursday night.
On one hand, it was a repudiation of the latest LeBron-Klutch power play—one that was met with cautious approval in small-market front offices across the league, another Western Conference executive told B/R.
“When one of these guys leaves one of these cities, how can the franchise survive?” the executive said.
On the other, it was also a repudiation of the Lakers’ talent. If the Lakers had selected, say, Jayson Tatum, De’Aaron Fox, Donovan Mitchell or Dennis Smith Jr. with the No. 2 pick in the 2017 draft (the first overseen by Johnson and Pelinka) instead of Ball, “They would have AD right now,” another executive said.
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The point is, it’s only a matter of time before Davis is traded, because a franchise in a city with no hope of landing a free agent even close to his ability only has a few options:
Do what Sam Presti did in Oklahoma City and take a calculated risk by trading for a star (Paul George) and hoping he stays (he did).
Do what Masai Ujiri did in Toronto and do the same with Kawhi Leonard. Toronto isn’t a small or financially challenged market, but it isn’t a free-agent destination market, either.
Do what GM Jon Horst has done in Milwaukee and make a series of smart, underrated moves to surround a your star (Giannis Antetokounmpo) with enough talent to climb all the way to the top of the Eastern Conference. The latest stroke of genius came on Thursday when Horst added Nikola Mirotic from the aforementioned Pelicans.
“The only way you can ever win in those markets is by outsmarting people and taking calculated risks,” the agent said. “Presti took a calculated risk going after Paul George, knowing he may never have another shot at a guy like that. Masai took a calculated risk with Kawhi. New Orleans decided, ‘We’re not going to concede to LeBron and Rich Paul. If AD wants to go to L.A., he can go to L.A. after we trade him somewhere else.’”
So in the end, in all the cities that have—or hope to have—a top-five player and keep him, was the unraveling of AD-to-L.A. a victory? Or just a reprieve?
“Did small markets win on this?” one of the Western Conference executives said. “I don’t know if they won, but they definitely didn’t lose. New Orleans said, ‘No, you’re not going to get our guy for free.’ They won this battle, and they won it in the right way. But they haven’t won the war.”