Read This Before Constructing Aspirational Anthony Davis Trades

NBA Trade Season 2019 has potential to shift the league’s landscape in seismic fashion.

Anthony Davis has reportedly asked for a trade from the New Orleans Pelicans after seven-plus seasons with the franchise. After he made it evidently clear he would not sign an extension with the Pelicans, super-max or otherwise, there’s no reason for the Pelicans to fight this request. With confidence, we can say that Davis will be traded, and this will be his last season in a Pelicans jersey.

But the question becomes: Are they going to deal him at the trade deadline?

Only ten days stand between the Davis request and that line of demarcation, giving the Pelicans front office a short amount of time to negotiate a deal that might be the biggest franchise reshaper and even the make-or-break move that keeps them in New Orleans (or not).

No pressure.

There are many factors at play in the trade saga when evaluating the potential courses for General Manager Dell Demps, Anthony Davis and the various stakeholders at play. Let’s lay all those cards out on the table.

How Did We Get Here?

The language from the Davis request that was released by his agent Rich Paul was poignant. He is looking for a team that “allows him a chance to win consistently and compete for a championship.”

While such language may seem like agent speak and the ultimate platitudinal comment, it speaks to Davis’ view of the Pelicans and their front office blunders since drafting him.

New Orleans is the league’s smallest market, with minute financial from local television deals and ticket revenue. Even recent playoff series with the Golden State Warriors have been underwhelming in terms of fan support.

The consequences are monstrous: The Pelicans must be a team that avoids the luxury tax, despite their insistence on paying a few top-end players high salaries. The result has been a very top-heavy roster with All-Stars in Davis and Jrue Holiday, and little else. They’ve traditionally over-paid mid-tier free agents (ex. Solomon Hill and E’Twaun Moore) and given large extensions to players with Bird rights whom they’ve needed to keep (Ryan Anderson comes to mind).

All of that is commonplace for small market teams.

Where Dell Demps lost me with his vision came in the frequent trading of draft picks and an unwillingness to commit to the returns his franchise gave up. Since Anthony Davis was drafted, only two of NOP’s own first-round selections have played a game for the franchise. Those two: Austin Rivers (who played for three seasons) and Buddy Hield (who logged one and a half seasons before being flipped to the Sacramento Kings).

Granted, the Hield involvement in the DeMarcus Cousins trade was incredibly understandable, as the availability to grab a star player was too tantalizing for the organization to pass up.

Feb 22, 2017; Metairie, LA, USA; Omri Casspi (18) and DeMarcus Cousins (0) were introduced by the New Orleans Pelicans at a press conference at the New Orleans Pelicans Practice Facility by head coach Alvin Gentry, left, and general manager Dell Demps, right. They came to the Pelicans in a trade from the Sacramento Kings. Mandatory Credit: Chuck Cook-USA TODAY Sports

But that makes it even all the more indefensible that Demps would let Cousins walk away for nothing this past offseason.

The questions surrounding Cousins’ Achilles were well founded, but letting him go for nothing? That’s how the Pelicans, who knew that trading for him would eventually push them into the tax, backed out of their commitment to winning. Building a championship team cannot be done with one foot in and one foot out when financing championship-level assets.

You won’t find anyone more critical of Dell Demps than I. He’s made several questionable trades, and none of them have redeemed him over the long-term. The roster has been squeezed of draft picks, young talent and cheap contracts that make a positive impact. There’s a causal relationship between all three.

The Davis Contract 

Anthony Davis is under contract until, at least, July of 2020. This is not just a rental for a team hoping to convince him to stay in free agency. Davis could play in two postseasons for an acquiring team.

He’s making $25.4 million this season, $27.09 million next year and a 2020-21 player option for $28.75 million. There is a near-zero chance that Davis accepts his player option, as the cap spike expected between now and July 2020 would mean he has no reason to take the pay hit by opting in.

So any team that trades for Davis gets him for at least a season and, if he’s dealt by the deadline, at least a season and a half. Furthermore, they only have to match $22.89 million (teams can take on 110% of outgoing salary in a trade, and Davis’ contract is 110% of $22.89 million).

However, that can be a fickle number to match for a superstar deal. Pairing both salary and talent with a potential MVP on a relatively cheap contract is no easy task.

The Rose Rule and Boston’s role

Jan 16, 2018; Boston, MA, USA; Boston Celtics guard Kyrie Irving (11) drives against New Orleans Pelicans forward Anthony Davis (23) during the second half at TD Garden. Mandatory Credit: Greg M. Cooper-USA TODAY Sports

For years we have been hearing about the potential of an Anthony Davis-to-Boston rumor. The Celtics clearly have to be interested. Their recently-acquired group of stars is a tad underwhelming, and Davis is one of the four best players in the world—still young and entering his prime. A Davis and Kyrie Irving tandem, along with some of their younger assets, would vault the Celtics into elite territory.

But the Celtics cannot trade for Davis until July at the earliest. The reason? Both Davis and Irving have signed rookie max extensions with their team under what is known as The Rose Rule, a quirk added to the CBA in 2011 that allows teams to pay greater sums of money to their top stars that earn accolades while on rookie contracts. The caveat: a team can only have one player signed under such a deal on their roster at a time. Because Irving was signed to that extension, the Celtics are disqualified from trading for Davis until Irving is on a new contract.

At earliest, that would be July. Danny Ainge must wait patiently if he is to make a move on The Brow.

New Orleans: Timeline and What’s At Stake

Existing in the league’s smallest market, the Pelicans have a lot on the line. If Davis leaves and the marketability of the franchise plummets, ownership faces relocation as a very serious possibility.

A franchise returning to Seattle always looms. And with a new arena seemingly reality in the great Northwest, it might be a matter of time before the Sonics are reborn.

Such a consequential decision around Davis cannot be made within ten days. Certainly, the organization has been preparing for this nuclear blow-up in case it came to fruition. (Right?) They aren’t going into the trade deadline completely in the dark. (Right???)

What leverage does Davis have if pushing for a deal before February 8?

The franchise can wait until July without losing grip while gaining a clearer view of the overall market: More buyers, more facilitators and more money to spread around only benefit the Pelicans. The Celtics become a possible trade partner, and clarity around draft picks from all comes to fruition.

What is the rush for Demps, then? If Davis does not get dealt by the deadline and threatens to sit out through May, that only helps the franchise position themselves for a long-term rebuild. Fewer wins bring a higher draft selection.

One possible reason to speed things up? Dealing other valuable pieces, such as Julius Randle, Nikola Mirotic and Jrue Holiday.

Oct 19, 2018; New Orleans, LA, USA; New Orleans Pelicans forward Nikola Mirotic (3) celebrates with forward Julius Randle (30) as he exits the game during the fourth quarter against the Sacramento Kings at the Smoothie King Center. The Pelicans defeated the Kings 149-129. Mandatory Credit: Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

Making these players available at the deadline could fetch a solid return, but any trades involving them could complicate prospective hauls in a Davis deal that might not be available in July. Davis fetches top consideration over every free agent. The others do not.

The 2019 NBA Draft and Inverse Value of Picks

Tanking this season and increasing the value of NOP’s 2019 draft pick is one motivation to get rid of Davis, but its current win total likely puts the franchise safely outside the top-five. At 22-28, the Pelicans have the tenth-worst record—six games up on the Atlanta Hawks with the fifth-worst. That hodgepodge of tanking contenders means, despite a full blowup, there is little guarantee the Pels nab a high-value pick.

The inverse is also true: Any pick that currently would figure to be in the lottery that Demps could trade for—for example, the Knicks or Bulls picks—instantly loses value when Davis joins that team before the trade deadline.

The value added from having Anthony Davis on a roster would likely vault a team out of the basement and away from a certain top-five selection. Demps and company have zero reason to make a deal for a pick before they know what it will be, which makes discussing first-rounders in 2020 or beyond a difficult subject to tackle.

Early analysis of the 2019 draft class indicates an elite tier of three or four players. Duke’s Zion Williamson is the clear top prize. There is a solid drop-off after the lottery winners. Sending Davis away if the centerpiece of a return is not a foundational player makes no sense for Demps to consider.

Jan 28, 2019; South Bend, IN, USA; Duke Blue Devils forward Zion Williamson (1) dribbles against Notre Dame Fighting Irish guard Dane Goodwin (23) in the first half at the Purcell Pavilion. Mandatory Credit: Matt Cashore-USA TODAY Sports

Due to all these factors, it might be best for the Pelicans to withhold trading Davis until clarity around the draft order takes place. Being this far away from that date complicates New Orleans’ positioning, especially with so many teams clearly in the top tier competing for the small group of elite prospects.

The Ideal Loot

History illuminates certain returns in trades for All-Stars in their prime. Some combination of three types of assets should be blended in any package that comes to New Orleans:

  • Talented young players on rookie deals
  • High-value future draft picks
  • High-salary players more impactful than being simply deemed “salary filler”, whose contracts expire within the next 18 months.

Over the last few seasons, we’ve seen several superstars dealt, providing a framework for what might be available for Davis. The Chicago Bulls plied Zach LaVine, Lauri Markkanen and Kris Dunn out of the Minnesota Timberwolves for Jimmy Butler. The Indiana Pacers nabbed Victor Oladipo and Domantas Sabonis from the Oklahoma City Thunder in the Paul George deal. Both deals took place over the summer months.

Feb 9, 2018; Chicago, IL, USA; Minnesota Timberwolves guard Jimmy Butler (23) runs past a pick set by forward Taj Gibson (67) against Chicago Bulls guard Zach LaVine (8) during the second half at the United Center. Chicago won 114-113. Mandatory Credit: Dennis Wierzbicki-USA TODAY Sports

Both the Timberwolves trade of Jimmy Butler to Philadelphia and the Cleveland Cavaliers-Celtics swap with Kyrie Irving came amid stunted timetables and trade demands where the sellers lost all leverage. Throw those out the window when examining what Davis might fetch, as the Pelicans are nowhere near backed into the corner like those teams were.

A player of Davis’ caliber might be closer to Kevin Garnett, a disgruntled perennial MVP candidate looking for a fresh start. While more than a decade ago, Garnett fetched the Timberwolves five players and two draft picks, an insane amount for just one star. Such a trade physically cannot be constructed until the offseason.

If the Pelicans are going to push for the return they absolutely deserve for a generational talent, they should not sell themselves short of finding all three chief assets that start their rebuild.

What Will It Take to Convince the Pelicans to Sell Now?

If all three of those boxes cannot be met with certainty, some team might have to blow the Pelicans away with the other two. Several really strong, young players might do the trick. A package of several future draft picks and one really good high-salary piece—but no young players—could fetch consideration.

Nonetheless, there are a few teams that need offer the farm this week. Their only shot at obtaining Davis comes from getting the Pelicans to bite in February, mainly because they gain little to no value with their draft picks having clarity in June or July. Those teams, like the Toronto Raptors, Milwaukee Bucks and Los Angeles Lakers, have to be most aggressive.

But their likelihood of swaying the Pelicans to sell when the market opens up in a few months? Not odds worth betting on.