The Anthony Davis Trade Sucks But Is Also Great
Is it possible to hate a trade even if it means that your team might win a championship?
The Anthony Davis trade was something that was probably inevitable, but still shocking, partially due to the time but mostly due to the magnitude. Around the trade deadline, it was rumored that then-Lakers General Manager Magic Johnson was sent to voicemail by then-Pelicans GM Dell Demps, where the former offered up five different trade packages for Davis. Despite the fact that the whole situation was already absurd (Davis' agent and LeBron James good friend Rich Paul had made the trade request just a few days before the deadline), the Pelicans' annoyance at such a power move made it seem unlikely that the trade would go through. Nevertheless, it destroyed the Lakers' chemistry and tanked the season, which is ironically what probably made the trade eventually work out after the Lakers won the 4th overall pick in the draft lottery.
I was at a clothing store trying out a pair of pants when the news came through. My phone was in the pants I had worn into the store, so I didn't feel the buzz, but the flood of buzzes that followed from enthusiastic and dismayed friends were impossible to miss. In that moment and the days that followed, I've been through a rollercoaster of emotions, constantly changing my mind about how much I liked (or more accurately, disliked) this deal.
The Sadness Stage
The headline read something like "Anthony Davis to LA", with a subheader of "Lonzo, Ingram, and Hart in return". And even though the sadness came welling up, I recognized it as an emotional sadness not a rational one. I really like Brandon Ingram. I was excited when the Lakers took him as the (at the time obvious) #2 pick, which has aged well in hindsight considering the players taken after him (Jaylen Brown, Dragan Bender, Kris Dunn, Buddy Hield, Jamal Murray, Marquese Chriss, Jakob Poetl, and Thon Maker round out the top 10), and even better because of the flashes of potential he's shown (twenty 20-point games this season and good passing vision). Lonzo Ball is cool despite his annoying ass father. Josh Hart is a guy you enjoy watching because of how he plays.
The Understanding Stage
But trading those guys for Anthony Davis, as much as it hurts, kind of makes sense if you don't think about it too hard. It's a guaranteed superstar (perennial all-star, top-five player, titles, titles) entering his prime in a city he wants to be in long-term. It lines up perfectly with the timeline of franchise star LeBron James, who is entering the final few years of his career. It's a good trade, right? Especially in a year where the Warriors are not in contention and the Rockets are supposedly facing inner turmoil, who else in the West can match their stars up? LeBron and AD are better than CJ and Dame, Russ and PG, Jokic and Murray, Mitchell and Gobert, and so on. And stars are what matter in this league right?
The Horror Stage
After I actually opened the alert notification, I saw the full scale of the damage that had been done. Not only did they trade the entire young core, but they also traded the future young core, including the 4th overall pick this year, their draft picks in 2021 and 2024, and the ability to swap picks in 2023. To make it worse, the 2021 pick is top-eight protected, and would roll over into 2022, where it would be unprotected. For reference, that is the final year of LeBron's contract, when he will be 37 years old. Wait, there's more! The Pelicans can defer the 2024 pick to 2025 if they want! So if the Lakers are somehow good in 2024 and their pick isn't that good, the Pelicans can bank on the Lakers being shitty the following year. If you include the fact that Ingram and Ball were the Lakers' 2016 and 2017 top picks respectively, the Lakers handed over almost a decade's worth of draft capital in this trade.
If for some reason, LeBron or Davis gets hurt and the team spirals out of the playoffs, the Lakers will have to give up their lottery pick. And with the new draft rules, that could be costly – the seventh, eighth, and eleventh worst teams by record this year ended up with the first, second, and fourth overall picks. The Lakers threw away three first-round picks to get Steve Nash, and ended up sucking by the time the last pick conveyed. They're not just important as actual picks, but as trade assets too. You're always going to be looking to improve your team, and you need to have picks available to try and get guys in the middle of the season. Without anything to use for a trade, you have to resort to the cheapest free agents out there. And it's hard to know when to tank if you don't know whether you are going to have a pick as payoff.
The Optimism Stage
Following this wave of panic, I went and immediately looked up Anthony Davis' statistics. He's really fucking good. Most importantly, for all the talk of him being injury prone, he played in 75 games each of the previous two seasons, and would have this season if he wasn't shut down following his trade request. In those two seasons, he averaged 28 points on 52% shooting, 11 rebounds, and 2 blocks. He's even better in the playoffs. His offensive rating is through the roof. He's a natural positional fit to play next to LeBron in the pick-n-roll, and is probably the best teammate he's ever played with if you account for skillset (Kyrie Irving and Dwyane Wade are both scoring ball-dominant guards).
The Calculation Stage
One of the unfortunate byproducts of trading your entire team is that you… no longer have a team. Sparing all the complicated salary cap mechanics, it's likely that the Lakers will have $24 million in cap space to build out their team. Right now, they have LeBron, Davis, Kyle Kuzma, and unproven 2018 picks Mo Wagner and Isaac Bonga. This is the ultimate test of the 'figure it out later' approach to teambuilding. There's a conventional wisdom that you just get as many superstars as you can and figure out the rest later. Well, later has come. It's time to figure it out. You have your superstars, but you still need 6 more players. Now what? There are two approaches here – spend literally all of that cap space to sign one other really good player and use the minimum salary to sign the rest, or divvy that money up to form a balanced roster. Obviously the latter seems like it would be smarter, since you already have two awesome guys.
J.J. Barea would add to the defensive abomination. Danny Green can't really dribble. Patrick Beverly hates the Lakers. Brook Lopez probably hates the Lakers too. Julius Randle maybe hates the Lakers by proxy. J.J. Reddick isn't leaving the East Coast. Trevor Ariza is coming off $15 million, and it's been a whole DECADE since he helped the Lakers win a championship. Derrick Rose, Bojan Bogdanovic, and the entire Blazers team (Seth Curry, Rodney Hood, Al-Faroq Aminu, and Enes Kanter) are probably due for raises. Al Horford and Paul Millsap both lost out on $30 mil, and they're probably not going to drop to a tenth of that.
Is Greg Monroe worth giving a seventh chance? Can you rehabilitate former top picks Jahlil Okafor or Jabari Parker? Can you get former Lakers Ed Davis or Wayne Ellington back? Do Marc Gasol, DeAndre Jordan, or Joakim Noah have anything left in the tank? Is DeMarcus Cousins willing to take a pay cut for another year? If you don't like any of those options, you're left looking at the likes of DeMarre Carroll, Justin Holiday, Kenneth Faried, Tyson Chandler, Terrence Ross, and Thad Young.
Honestly, at that point, why not throw all the money at Kemba Walker or whoever? Because fundamentally, how big is the difference between a washed-up Vince Carter on a minimum contract and having to burn $4 million on DeMarre Carroll? It might be better after all to just have another guy who is really good, and hope that you can survive with a team of four legitimate players. It might not be the best strategy after witnessing a Finals series where lineups including Quinn Cook, Jonas Jerebko, Alfonso McKinnie, and Jordan Bell got smoked by the deepest team in the league, but what choice do you really have?
The Nihilism Stage
At what point is this trade a win for the Lakers? And is winning a championship the ultimate goal? Well, of course it is, but here's another way to ask that – would making the finals be worth anything? What about the conference finals? Despite all the people hammering DeMar DeRozan, the Raptors' franchise player who was unceremoniously traded for Kawhi Leonard (who brought them a championship), he was the centerpiece of a team that won 48+ games five straight years and made the Eastern Conference Finals. That's worth something. Would it be worth it if the Lakers were just… good for the next five years? If they won 50 games every year and were consistent contenders? Would history still look back on this deal with kind eyes if that were the outcome?
Here's an example: the Mavericks won a championship in 2011, and followed that season up with four first round losses and four finishes outside the playoffs in the following eight years. They have some exciting young talent in Luka Doncic (drafted) and Kristaps Porzingis (traded for using three of their draft picks), and nothing else of value. Now imagine if they didn't have Doncic and Porzingis. Would that one championship have justified everything that came after?
The Contextualization Stage
Of course, there aren't just two outcomes. The Brooklyn Nets rebounded after trading their entire draft war chest (picks that became James Young, Jaylen Brown, Markelle Fultz, and Collin Sexton) for Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce, but it cost three years of utter mediocrity and required smart trades with a good amount of luck. The crosstown Knicks have yet to rebound after trading their young team for Carmelo Anthony, including Danilo Gallinari (still good), Wilson Chandler (who was good for several years), Timofey Mozgov (who was never good), Raymond Felton (still in the league), a first round pick that became Dario Saric (who is good), and a pick swap that became Jamal Murray (who is very good). Obviously none of those situations are exactly like this, because the Lakers' upside is far far higher. But the floor could be just as low.
The Anger Stage
Wait, why are we even talking about any of this? This was a completely dumb idea! The framing of this entire discussion is wrong – the Lakers didn't trade for Anthony Davis. To be precise, they traded for *one year* of Anthony Davis. Davis, via his father and Rich Paul, has made it known that any non-Lakers team trading for him should consider it a one year rental before he bolts for the Lakers in 2020. That's why it's infuriating! You could have gotten him FOR FREE if you just waited. I know everyone is sensitive after Paul George spurned the Lakers to stay in Oklahoma City. And if Davis was traded elsewhere and decided to stay, you take that loss. You accept in and move on and find another player to target, and in the meantime you get to continue growing your young team.
If you don't want to wait, that's fine too! There are plenty of free agents this summer you could have brought in. Let's say that Klay, Kyrie, KD, and Kemba are off the table. You could still take a shot at Jimmy Butler, Tobias Harris, Khris Middleton, Nikola Vucevic, or whoever else. You could actually get a few of the guys we talked about earlier (in the Bogdanovic-Lopez-Randle tier) since you wouldn’t be strapped for cash. And THEN, if you strike out on every other possible option, if no one truly wants to come and play with LeBron James, the Davis deal would have *still* been available in a few weeks.
No one was close to offering this much. Boston didn't want to give up Jayson Tatum. The Knicks' pu pu platter was nowhere as appealing. No other team was even rumored to be in the running. Even if someone did put up a reasonable trade package, the Pelicans would have likely given the Lakers the opportunity to top it. So why the rush?!
The Reconciliation Stage
If you had told me five years ago that my team would eventually have LeBron James and Anthony Davis at the near-peak of their powers, I would have been happy. Back then, I didn't know who Brandon Ingram and Lonzo Ball were. I didn't have time to get invested in the idea of drafting Jarrett Culver or Darius Garland or whoever with the 4th pick. The cost wouldn't have mattered to me.
It seems foolish to say that acquiring a generational talent hinges on a pick (that may or may not be high) that would be used to select a player (that may or may not be good) a half-decade in the future. Sure, you can say that the combination of Ingram / Ball / Hart / 4th pick / 1 future pick is where you draw the line, but are you really going to turn down the chance to acquire Davis over the idea of someone in the future? All the (at the time) future first rounders the Lakers traded this decade turned into JaJuan Johnson (#27), Jared Cunningham (#24), Sergey Karasev (#19), Nemanja Nedovic (#30 via Miami), Mitch McGary (#21 via Dallas), Tony Bradley (#28 via Houston), and Mikal Bridges (#10). Not exactly an All-Star lineup. The draft really is a crapshoot, even with higher non-#1 picks.
So yeah, it might have been a steep price to pay, but that's what you have to do. It's unprecedented, but there really isn't a line here. If the Pelicans had absolutely insisted on including Kuzma in the deal, the Lakers probably would have caved. Whatever it takes.
The LeBron Stage
This is your fault, asshole! I wrote back a few days before you signed with the Lakers (the good old days) that signing you would result in the loss of every young player we had, and I was fucking right. If you look at the complete track record of Lakers' picks, they were all moved somehow in service of LeBron. Randle was let go because he didn't want to give up minutes to LeBron. Russell, Nance, and Clarkson were traded to open up cap space. Zubac and Svi were traded to get 'shooters' so LeBron could make a doomed playoff push. And now the AD trade jettisoned Ingram, Ball, and Hart. Everybody except for Kuzma and Wagner are gone (with all due respect to Isaac Bonga, who sucks). Sorry that you couldn't get it done LeBron. Sorry that you couldn't make the playoffs after you isolated yourself from the team and decided to just take matters into your own hands.
Because this isn't actually about basketball, is it. This is just about what YOU want. You'll get to play with your buddy Davis. You might even get to play with your buddy Melo. Your other buddy Wade will come and watch the games. And I'm sure you'll find a way to play with Chris Paul too. You don't give a shit about picks – you did the exact same thing in Cleveland but you got your chip so you didn't care that you left the team in ruins. In 2025, you'll be 40, retired, and have the Lakers' interests firmly in the rear view. Worst of all, you dragged AD into this. He's betting the entire prime of his career on YOUR ability to stay healthy and play at an elite level. When's the last time you had to do that for someone else? Oh yeah, never.
You're the one that should have been traded for Anthony Davis. But here we are. Now go do your damn job and make it all worth it.