Jae C. Hong/Associated Press
LOS ANGELES — In a Monday morning tweet, ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski dropped the bombshell that Anthony Davis will pass on signing a $240 million “supermax” extension with the New Orleans Pelicans this summer and prefers to be traded.
That’s great news for the Los Angeles Lakers, who have long made Davis their top priority.
The Lakers may have home-court advantage, so to speak, seeing as Rich Paul represents both Davis and LeBron James. However, the decision ultimately rests with New Orleans general manager Dell Demps and team owner Gayle Benson.
With Davis having made his intentions known, it’s now all about timing for the Pelicans. Davis is owed $25.4 million this year, $27.1 million in 2019-20 and has a $28.8 million player option for the 2020-21 season that he’s likely to decline. The Pelicans must decide if they’re better off trading him now or waiting until the summer (or beyond).
The Pelicans may choose to stall so the Boston Celtics can come to the table. Until July 1, the Celtics cannot legally trade for Davis without trading away Kyrie Irving since both stars are on designated rookie-scale extensions. NBA rules stipulate that a team cannot have two such players acquired via trade simultaneously, so the Celtics have to wait until Irving opts out this summer before they can trade for Davis.
However, according to Chris Haynes of Yahoo Sports, “Boston is not a top target for Davis,” and “there’s a growing belief of uncertainty that Kyrie Irving will not re-sign with Boston.”
Assuming Paul adamantly pushes for Davis to join James and the Lakers, and no other team puts together a needle-moving offer, what makes the most sense for Los Angeles?
According to Brad Turner and Tania Ganguli of the Los Angeles Times, the Lakers would need to include most of their young prospects and a first-round pick. Meanwhile, Haynes suggested the “Lakers’ package would almost have to include Lonzo Ball, Brandon Ingram and Kyle Kuzma along with other sweeteners and salary-cap fillers.”
Is it worth blowing up their young core to add Davis now? Or should they gamble on him signing with them as a free agent in 2020? Here are their options.
Option 1: Lakers Go All-In Now
If the Lakers can pair Davis and James this season, they should, period. If the cost is multiple young players and future draft picks, so be it.
Team president Earvin “Magic” Johnson and general manager Rob Pelinka will try to hold onto as many assets as they can, but if the Lakers’ offer isn’t lucrative enough, the Pelicans will wait to trade Davis until the summer. As a result, Los Angeles may decide to pay a premium to give the franchise a chance to win a title while adding the certainty of Davis on the roster.
After all, waiting for potential trade targets to become free agents hasn’t always panned out for the Lakers. Look no further than Paul George.
Davis has a 15 percent trade kicker in his contract, but since he earns nearly the maximum for a player with six years of experience, he’d receive a relatively insignificant bump of $65,976 (paid by the Pelicans). The Lakers would need to send out at least $20.3 million to the Pelicans for salary-matching purposes, so Kentavious Caldwell-Pope’s expiring $12 million contract could be a valuable piece in a Davis deal.
Caldwell-Pope, who Paul also represents, can block any trade under the one-year Bird rule that comes into effect when a player re-signs with the same team for one additional season. He also has a 15 percent trade bonus that would cost the Lakers almost $641,000 if they ship him out prior to the Feb. 7 deadline.
Another factor to consider is roster space, since the Pelicans cannot go over the 15-man roster limit in a trade. If the Lakers send out four players, New Orleans either would have to cut three additional players or include them in a deal. A third team could come into play to facilitate a solution.
Jae C. Hong/Associated Press
For example, if the Lakers and Pelicans agreed on a package of Caldwell-Pope, Kuzma, Ball and Zubac (future draft picks have no dollar value in trades), the Lakers would be able to bring back as much as $28.5 million in salary from the Pelicans, although they can exceed that number when trading for players on minimum contracts (like Jahlil Okafor, Cheick Diallo, Ian Clark, Tim Frazier and Kenrich Williams). Since Davis and three of those five players would work mathematically, a two-team trade is relatively straightforward.
Assuming the Lakers send their 2019 first-round pick to the Pelicans but don’t add any contracts that extend beyond this season, they would still have Mo Wagner, Svi Mykhailiuk, Isaac Bonga, Hart and Ingram under contract along with Davis and James. That would give Los Angeles up to $20.9 million in salary-cap space this summer, although additional trades to add another star or open more space would remain a possibility.
If Johnson and Pelinka traded away everyone other than James and Davis, the Lakers would have a projected $30.5 million in cap space to work with in July, just short of the $32.7 million max they’d need for Kyrie Irving, Kawhi Leonard or Klay Thompson. Would any of those players be willing to come to L.A. at a slight discount? Would other targets like Kemba Walker or Khris Middleton justify letting go of Ingram and Hart?
Alternatively, the Lakers could keep their remaining depth and stay over the salary cap, enabling them to try to re-sign players like Rajon Rondo, Lance Stephenson, JaVale McGee, Tyson Chandler and/or Michael Beasley. Los Angeles would also gain a mid-level exception of roughly $9.2 million to spend and the bi-annual exception at $3.6 million.
Trading for Davis now could hinder the Lakers’ chances of signing a third star free agent in July, but they may still have some viable trade pieces and enough flexibility to build a contender around James and Davis.
Option 2: Lakers Go All-In in July
If the Lakers wait to make their best offer until the summer, the Celtics could entice the Pelicans with as many as four 2019 first-round picks (from the Los Angeles Clippers, Memphis Grizzlies, Sacramento Kings and their own). Boston can also include Jayson Tatum and/or Jaylen Brown (perhaps with Marcus Smart for salary-matching purposes), which should trump any offer the Lakers can cobble together.
That’s where Paul would earn his agent fee, assuming Davis is set on joining the Lakers.
Paul could attempt to scare away the Celtics by warning them that Davis would leave for the Lakers as a free agent in 2020. In that case, the Lakers would be wise to protect their cap space for another year. The goal would be to poison the Davis trade market this summer so the Lakers are bidding against themselves.
That’d be the goal, but there are no guarantees of success. Even though the first option could cost more in assets, it may be preferable since the second could disappear if the Pelicans choose to send Davis to Boston or elsewhere.
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If Paul, Davis and Johnson can box the Pelicans in this summer, the Lakers can first use their cap room to sign a max free agent like Irving (which would add insult to injury for Boston) and then trade for Davis.
The mechanics would be difficult. The Lakers likely would need Zubac (and perhaps Stephenson or Beasley) to agree to a sign-and-trade to make the numbers work. It would ultimately depend on how many young players Los Angeles is willing to give up in the trade for Davis.
By getting under the cap, the Lakers would renounce their rights to Rondo, Caldwell-Pope and their other free agents. They would gain the $4.8 million room exception, which would be their only remaining tool to sign players outside of minimum contracts.
If the Lakers wind up with Irving, Davis and James, they wouldn’t have the means to add significant depth, but they should be able to flesh out a high-level veteran roster around their star triumvirate.
Option 3: No Third Star
Alternatively, the Lakers could skip free agency altogether in July, which means no Irving or a third star.
Davis’ trade kicker also could complicate matters, as it’d cost the Pelicans an extra $4.1 million if they trade him in July. Davis can choose to waive the bonus if he so chooses—perhaps he would for the Lakers but wouldn’t for the Celtics. Again, that’s assuming he’s locked in on joining James in Los Angeles.
In July, the Lakers would be able to include up to $5.6 million in cash to New Orleans to facilitate a deal. Ahead of the Feb. 7 trade deadline, the most the Lakers can send is $3.7 million, as they already sent $1.5 million to the Philadelphia 76ers earlier in the year to buy the Bonga pick (39th overall).
As far as draft picks, the Lakers own all of their future selections except for this June’s second-rounder, which will either go to the Atlanta Hawks or the Kings (originally from the Roy Hibbert trade with the Indiana Pacers). Los Angeles can trade multiple future firsts, but not in consecutive years.
New Orleans holds the cards, at least for now. The Lakers can push for a deal ahead of the trade deadline, but unless the Pelicans are ready to make that move, it isn’t going to happen.
On Monday, the Pelicans released a statement which read in part: “We will do this on our terms and our timeline. One that makes the most sense for our team and it will not be dictated by those outside of our organization.”
This much is clear: If the Lakers want to pair two of the best players in the league, they must be willing to part with their young core.