The Toronto Raptors seized the 2019 NBA championship last Thursday, and they were still wringing Champagne from their jerseys when the Los Angeles Lakers seized the 2020 title two nights later.
Or at least it felt that way when news of the Lakers’ deal to acquire Anthony Davis broke Saturday night.
The expected pairing of Davis and LeBron James jolted the league, sent pundits into a hyperbolic frenzy and sent oddsmakers over a cliff.
“Lakers are title favorites after Davis trade,” an email from SportsBetting.ag soon proclaimed.
This, just weeks after the Lakers’ top basketball executive abruptly resigned and accused his top lieutenant of betrayal; after the resignation of their coach and a clunky search for a successor that ended with their third choice; and after multiple stories laying out, in bright detail, the franchise’s utter, borderline-comical dysfunction.
And now they have the best superstar pairing in the league. Or will, once the deal with the New Orleans Pelicans is consummated next month.
In the words of 20th century philosopher Ferris Bueller, life moves pretty fast. More so in the NBA.
But the Lakers are not champions yet, and we should probably dial back the hyperbole until the offseason unfolds. Or at least until the Lakers fill all those empty slots on their roster.
The trade, which will send Lonzo Ball, Brandon Ingram, Josh Hart and multiple draft picks to New Orleans, will leave the Lakers with just three players of note: James, Davis and Kyle Kuzma. As the Raptors just showed, it takes a village to raise a trophy-shooters and defenders, playmakers and plucky role guys-and as of now the Lakers barely have a town square.
Landing Davis, who demanded a trade and wanted to be in L.A., was arguably the easy part. The tougher challenge is to build an actual team. And we don’t yet know if Lakers general manager Rob Pelinka has the skills to do it.
Rival executives have their doubts. And the Davis trade-which cost the Lakers their two best young players and effectively four of their next six first-round picks-simply underscored those doubts.
It might be, as The Ringer’s Bill Simmons asserted on his podcast, the best haul ever received for a traded star.
“Lakers overpaid by a significant margin, given the conditions,” one longtime team executive said.
“Experienced front office vs. inexperienced,” a veteran team official observed.
David Griffin, who is running the Pelicans, has 26 years of front-office experience with three teams and built the Cleveland Cavaliers roster that won the 2016 title. Pelinka was best known as Kobe Bryant’s agent before the Lakers installed him as general manager (along with a rookie team president, Magic Johnson) in 2017.
By most standards, the Pelicans should have been the ones negotiating from a position of weakness.
Davis wanted out. He had the threat of an expiring contract. His agent, Rich Paul of Klutch Sports, made his demands known months ago and had been relentless in trying to steer Davis to the Lakers, where he could join James, another Klutch client. Davis and Klutch had the power to dissuade suitors by threatening to leave in free agency next summer.
Potential bidders kept falling away. The Boston Celtics? They couldn’t risk trading Jayson Tatum once they knew Kyrie Irving was leaving. The New York Knicks? Never had the assets to get a deal done. The Brooklyn Nets? Ditto. (In fact, the Knicks, recognizing the futility of a trade and fearful of getting shut out this summer, made overtures for Davis to join them as a free agent in 2020, according to a league source.)
And yet Griffin got more for Davis than the San Antonio Spurs got for Finals MVP Kawhi Leonard, more than the Cavaliers got for Irving, more than the Indiana Pacers got for Paul George, more than the Los Angeles Clippers got for Chris Paul (and more than the New Orleans Hornets got for Paul years earlier), more than the Minnesota Timberwolves got for Jimmy Butler (and more than the Chicago Bulls got for Butler before that), more than the Orlando Magic got for Dwight Howard, and on and on.
All told, per reports, the Pelicans will receive the No. 4 pick in Thursday’s draft, the Lakers’ first-round pick in 2021 if it’s in the top eight or an unprotected first in 2022, and the Lakers’ first-round pick in either 2024 or 2025 (at the Pelicans’ choosing). The Pelicans will also get the option of swapping first-round picks with the Lakers in 2023.
Ball and Ingram, both just 21 years old, were No. 2 picks. Both have star potential. The Pelicans will also get reserve Josh Hart.
It’s a stunning, impressive haul.
You could say the Lakers won the trade but lost the negotiation.
“Let’s just wait to see who lost the negotiation,” another rival GM cautioned. “What we can say with certainty is all the pressure surrounding Pelinka [stemming from Johnson’s departure and the resulting stream of controversy] 1000 percent creates pressure for him to deliver on something like this. And when you’re under that sort of pressure to deliver something like this, you’re in a disadvantageous negotiating position.”
Or, as the first team executive said, “Never let your GM be in a spot where he needs to make a trade to save his job.”
Just as alarming: The Lakers seemingly put no thought into the timing of the deal’s execution, potentially costing themselves around $9 million in salary-cap room.
As B/R’s Eric Pincus explained, the Lakers could have just $23.6 million in cap room-well short of a max salary slot-if the deal is consummated July 6, per the initial terms of the trade. But they could have up to $32.5 million if the deal were executed in August.
Those figures are also affected by Davis’ so-called trade kicker of $4.1 million. The Lakers could have asked Davis to waive the kicker as part of the deal. Per league sources, they never broached it.
The Lakers are now working to involve a third team to create a max salary slot, still with a July 6 target, according to ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski and Bobby Marks.
But a seasoned front office would have accounted for all of these factors before agreeing to the deal and losing leverage. A better executive would have had Davis waive his kicker (as the price of getting to L.A. immediately) and persuaded Griffin to push the trade to Aug. 1 (as the price of all those draft picks).
“The Lakers totally screwed up the timing of this, clearly,” the rival GM said.
And yet, he added: “I still like it for the Lakers. They’re going to be really good.”
Such is the benefit of having two superstars under one roof.
But the Brow and the King can’t do it alone. Can the Lakers squeeze a third max player onto the payroll? Maybe Jimmy Butler? Or Kemba Walker? Or can they spread that cap room around to build a high-level supporting cast? There’s no shortage of mid-level players available, from Marcus Morris and Danny Green to Patrick Beverley, Bojan Bogdanovic, Malcolm Brogdon and Seth Curry.
The Raptors were powered by Leonard but won the title because of players like Pascal Siakam, Fred VanVleet and Green. The Golden State Warriors were loaded with stars, but the MVP of their first title run was sixth man Andre Iguodala, and they were loaded with key role players like Shaun Livingston.
In Cleveland, James had two co-stars in Irving and Kevin Love, but he still needed Tristan Thompson’s rebounding and JR Smith’s shooting. Those kinds of players are not always easy to come by. Thompson was already a Cavalier (via the draft) when James returned to Cleveland in 2014. Smith was acquired, along with Iman Shumpert, in a three-team trade involving former lottery pick Dion Waiters.
Griffin, then running the Cavs front office, repeatedly used first-round picks to fortify the roster over James’ four-year run, picking up key role players like Timofey Mozgov, Channing Frye and Kyle Korver.
And this is where the Davis trade could hurt the Lakers, now and in the years to come. They effectively have no picks to trade for the next six years. They have no players left to trade. They have no assets of any kind, except the SoCal sunshine and the allure of the Lakers logo.
Can Pelinka’s staff build a sound roster, with little cap room and no other trade options? Can they at least improve on last summer, when Johnson and Pelinka assembled a thoroughly clunky supporting cast after landing James?
“The coaching search does not inspire confidence,” the rival GM said. “The way they’ve handled the timing of the trade has not inspired confidence. The dysfunction does not inspire confidence.”
James turns 35 in December and is entering his 17th season. There isn’t much time to get this right. There’s no cushion if the Lakers stumble in free agency. There’s no fallback plan. And the risks for the Lakers only grow as James ages. He could be retired, or at least significantly diminished, by the time those final draft picks convey to the Pelicans. And Davis has shown he can’t carry a team deep in the playoffs by himself.
But the Lakers are living for today, for the thrill of James-Davis alley-oops, and the promise of another Finals run, or three. James made the Lakers relevant again. Davis makes them legit. It’ll take much more to make them champions.
Howard Beck, a senior writer for Bleacher Report, has been covering the NBA full time since 1997, including seven years on the Lakers beat for the Los Angeles Daily News and nine years as a staff writer for the New York Times. His coverage was honored by APSE in 2016 and 2017, and by the Professional Basketball Writers Association in 2018.
Chris Mannix of Sports Illustrated joins Hoard Beck to discuss what the Anthony Davis trade means for the Lakers, what Kyrie Irving’s potential departure means for the Celtics and what the future holds for superteams in the NBA. All on The Full 48.