January 28, 2019
There are very few players whose availability can shift the league's focus all by themselves. One of them may just be entering the market, after Pelicans forward/center Anthony Davis reportedly requested a trade over the weekend.
That's the latest from ESPN's Adrian Wojnarowski, and perhaps we all should have seen this coming. Once Davis signed with Rich Paul, LeBron James' childhood pal/agent/consolidator of power, the writing was on the wall for a Davis departure. All fingers will point to Los Angeles on the assumption that the Lakers will attempt to pair James and Davis and begin the next era of Lakers prominence.
That assumption is well-founded. The timing of Davis' trade request has a subtext to it because of rules within the NBA's collective bargaining agreement, and this may have the side effect of keeping Davis away from the Boston Celtics, who have long been rumored to be chasing Davis on the trade market.
The NBA's "Rose Rule" extension was put in place to allow teams to pay more money (30 percent of the salary cap vs. the usual 25 percent max) to young stars coming off of their rookie-scale contracts, provided they hit certain thresholds of success (All-NBA selections, an MVP award, or a Defensive Player of the Year award). There are several rules attached to this, but the most pertinent one in this discussion is as follows: teams can't trade for more than one player who has signed a "Rose Rule" extension while they are still under that contract.
How does this apply to Davis and a potential Celtics move? Boston has already executed a trade for a "Rose Rule" player, Kyrie Irving, who does not come off the books until this summer. That complicates things for the Celtics — they would obviously not want to deal Irving in order to bring Davis to Boston, and otherwise, they have to wait until Irving is a free agent in July (and thus, not on a "Rose Rule" extension any longer) to pull off a deal.
Davis' representation is aware of this, so in this writer's opinion, the request coming now comes with a pretty obvious subtext of trying to force Davis to the Lakers. Making the request now makes things uncomfortable for New Orleans, who has to decide whether they want to let this hang over the organization until the summer when the most suitors will be able to line up.
Perhaps they're prepared to do that, but the "Rose Rule" complication goes a bit deeper, too. Draft equity is an important factor in almost any trade involving an NBA star, and Boston's assets are considerable compared to most teams around the league. But by the time they hit free agency this summer and are able to make deals involving Davis, they will likely have had to use at least a couple of the picks owed to them by other teams.
The Sacramento pick owed to the Celtics following the Markelle Fultz trade (currently No. 13) and the Los Angeles Clippers' first-round pick (currently No. 19 and protected 1-14) will at this juncture have to be made in late June, though the Clippers pick is a little dicey with how tight the Western Conference is.
It should go without saying, but generic first-round picks drop in value almost immediately once they turn into players. You have to consider the team fit and skill set and the pieces you already have in place when acquiring a player, so unless the two teams were to do illegal back-channel work (certainly possible), the Pelicans would largely be beholden to Boston's draft preferences, unless they decide to take a bunch of unprotected picks from Boston, whose own picks won't be very valuable anyway.
(Boston does have one more valuable draft asset even if those both convey, a protected first-round pick from the Memphis Grizzlies that has different protections over the next three seasons: 1-8 this year, 1-6 in 2020, eventually becoming unprotected in 2021. With the Grizzlies in the early stages of tearing it down, the value of that pick should not be discounted. And it certainly matters that Jayson Tatum is a better/more valuable player than any of the Lakers' young guys, should Boston make him available.)
Whether the pick uncertainty actually dissuades the Pelicans from waiting is another story. If I were running New Orleans, the move would be to wait things out and actually let a bidding war happen in the summer, even if Danny Ainge is notorious for being a pain in the ass to negotiate with. But New Orleans' recent past is littered with moves focused on the short-term, ironically in an effort to build winning teams around Davis as quickly as possible. Making the same mistake while trading him would not be a shock.
The above scenario would obviously be good news for the Sixers, who would very much prefer not to deal with Davis on the Celtics for the foreseeable future. One reason they can feel a bit optimistic about their timeline despite short-term losses to Boston is the age of Al Horford. Boston's big man will turn 33 in June, and there's no replacement for him waiting in the wings if and when he slows down. On the other hand, Davis doesn't turn 26 until March, and acquiring him would allow the Celtics to continue competing at a high level now while extending their long-term window.
Any scenario that sends him to a non-Boston team, Lakers or otherwise, would be good for Philly. The same could be said about trades that keep him in the Western Conference generally.
But what about the Sixers? Could they end up involved in the discussion for Davis? I think it's unlikely for a lot of reasons, but on paper, the Sixers have one of the best players in the league to trade in a Davis sweepstakes: Ben Simmons. For a team that will be going into reset mode after losing Davis, whenever that is, Simmons' all-around game would represent a perfect first building block.
There are two major things preventing a fake trade we've discussed this season from happening:
The Sixers will absolutely inquire about Davis now that he is a real candidate to get traded, but they feel like a fun idea, rather than a realistic suitor. A Davis/Embiid pairing is a lot of fun to think about on defense, but I'm not sure what the ceiling is for a team built around two bigs, even ones this good, in the 2019 NBA.
With Davis reportedly set to turn down a potential $240 million extension to stay in New Orleans, this should be somewhat of a warning to the Sixers, who have young stars of their own. It's on them to build a winner around Joel Embiid, Simmons, and possibly Jimmy Butler, and if this front office can't do it, it may be Philadelphia's franchise player demanding an exit down the line.
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