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Pelicans are clear early winners in Anthony Davis trade

Seth Dunlap
June 16, 2019 - 12:05 pm
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It can be hard to accept when bullies get what they want.  There are sometimes those bullies should be careful what they wished for.

The Los Angeles Lakers, Anthony Davis, his agent Rich Paul, and even LeBron James spent months trying to orchestrate a trade of Davis to L.A., and on Saturday it finally worked with the Pelicans shipping their superstar forward to the west coast in exchange for a haul of young players and picks.  The Lakers had pulled off a magnificent coup in forcing a small-market franchise to unload their centerpiece to a conference rival.  There were few, if any, Pelicans fans and those around the franchise that wanted to see Davis land in Los Angeles, and the initial collective reaction around New Orleans was one of shock and disgust.

That reaction was understandable.  Nobody wants to see a bully win.  Stepping back from the bruised egos and bad blood between the cities and franchises, however, and it seems to be clear that the Pelicans are the early winners of this deal.

It must be remembered that Davis only had one season remaining on his contract with the Pelicans.  He would have entered unrestricted free agency next season and it was highly probably, approaching certainty, that Davis would have then signed with the Lakers.  The Pelicans had limited, and dwindling, leverage in trade negotiations.  For as mismanaged as this process may have been from the Lakers side, their general manager, Rob Pelinka, certainly realized this.  So did other potential trade partners including the Celtics, Knicks, and Nets.  That Griffin and the Pelicans turned one year of Anthony Davis into a relative king's ransom of young players and draft picks is fairly remarkable.

The duo of Lonzo Ball and Brandon Ingram give the Pelicans immediate top-shelf young talent to put around Zion Williamson, the projected top-overall pick in next week's NBA Draft.  While Ball and Ingram are still dealing with the typical growing pains young NBA players always go through, they are still two of the highest-ceiling players under 22 years old in the league. 

Ball brings the baggage of his dad's oversized, and often nauseating, personality in tow along with concerns over his ability to shoot from, well, anywhere on the court.  Still, the third-year player is already regarded as one of the best defensive point guards in the league, and is a fantastic facilitator in the open court.  Plus, for all of the naysaying around the Ball family and Lonzo's father, this kid loves the game of basketball in a way that separates himself from many of his peers.  That passion and ambition for greatness can only benefit both Ball and the Pelicans during his time in New Orleans.

Ingram seems to have cleared most of his young growing pains.  At 6'9", he brings tremendous size and athleticism to the small forward position, and is an excellent mid-range shooter.  Ingram shot 49.7% from the field last season while averaging 18.3 points per game.  The biggest concern surrounding Ingram is his health.  He dealt with blood clots in his right arm last season, a potentially devastating issue that has been monitored closely in Los Angeles.  He's also missed a combined 53 games over the last two seasons with a variety of injuries and ailments.  While it's still very early in his career, Ingram doesn't seem to have the makings of a durable NBA star, although his upside should alleviate some of those concerns.

The Pelicans will have a potential six years of team control with Ball and five with Ingram.  That would keep them in New Orleans long enough to give the franchise ample time to build a title contender around Williamson.  

The addition of Josh Hart in the deal is more valuable that it would perhaps seem on the surface.  Hart will immediately become a solid option to relieve Jrue Holiday off the bench, and he can also play the small forward position when needed.  Hart shot nearly 40% from three-point range during his rookie season, although that number dipped to 33.6% in his sophomore campaign.  With the Pelicans having a potential six years of team control with Hart, this is another addition of a young, developing player that can be part of the core around Williamson.

It's been known for a while that any deal with the Lakers would net the Pelicans the No. 4 overall pick in this years draft, but it was the addition of two first-round picks that came as at least a bit of a surprise, with the Pelicans getting first round picks in 2021 and 2024 in the trade.  The 2021 first rounder is unprotected if it's in the top-8, and will become an unprotected pick the next season otherwise.  The Pelicans will have the option to defer the 2024 pick, which is unprotected, to 2025 if they desire.

Sifting through the loot the Pelicans received from the Lakers for Anthony Davis and they'll get, at minimum, three players players with five-plus seasons each of team control left on their contracts, plus and additional three first round draft picks over the next handful of years.  David Griffin turned one season of Davis into what will likely be six young, inexpensive players to place around Williamson, their incoming centerpiece.  It also gives Griffin options to use some of those picks, whether this year or down the road, to acquire veteran players in the trade market to plug holes and build depth on the roster.

It's extremely hard not to quantify this trade as a clear win for the Pelicans.  The Lakers are making a high-risk gamble that they can win a championship immediately while they have LeBron James on their roster, mortgaging their future in order to satisfy James' desire to contend for titles while he's still playing at an All-NBA level.  The Pelicans, meanwhile, unloaded a player who no longer wanted to play for them, and acquired enough assets to form a solid, deep core that should allow them to eschew any long, drawn out rebuilding effort.

From a Lakers perspective, we've seen this team-building philosophy before during James' career.  The Cavaliers and Heat spent years shipping off draft picks and young players in order to bring in veteran players, sometimes stars, who James was comfortable playing alongside.  James is notoriously self-centered in how he's managed those situations.  Teams must always make sure players can co-exist with James, and almost never the other way around.  Those are the perks of being one of the greatest players in league history, one can suppose. This has led to a now-familiar pattern of franchises always becoming immediate contenders with James in tow, but ones that also fall apart as soon as James leaves town.  Those franchises eventually no longer have the stable of young players and draft picks to sustain post-James competitiveness.  This is the mercenary age in the NBA that James has spearheaded, where many franchises believe a few years with a championship window trump long-term, consistent competitiveness.  Not every franchise behaves this way, but those with James always do.

So the Lakers have now waded into these tepid waters.  It would be a surprise if they don't compete for championships the next few seasons with the duo of James and Davis playing together.  But it's hard to lay out a legitimate roadmap where the Lakers are consistent title contenders once James either leaves town or calls it a career.  The James/Davis era may burn bright, but once Davis is forced to go it alone without James, the outlook won't be as bright.  Perhaps they'll lure another superstar to play alongside Davis at that point, and it would certainly fit into the franchise's penchant for acquiring premier talent in free agency.  Heck, they may somehow convince Finals MVP Kawhi Leonard to leave Toronto and return to his roots in California.  When you're talking in hypotheticals, however, there's always risk involved. Oh, and if the Lakers fail to win a championship with LeBron and Davis, or injuries derail one of both of their tenure's in L.A., this trade could look incredibly disastrous for the franchise.

ESPN's Brian Windhorst described the deal this way for the Lakers in an interview with ESPN 710 in Los Angeles:

“What they gave up for him is potentially scandalous . . . It is an unbelievable haul that they gave. And not all the details are out there yet, but when they get out there, you’re going to see why. It is the Nets-Celtics trade part 2. It’s going to affect them long after LeBron is out of his prime and maybe no longer on the team.”

It would be wholly unfair to pass final judgement on this trade for many years, after the players and picks the Pelicans acquired have a chance to develop in New Orleans, and after finding out if these new-look Lakers are indeed able deliver championships to Los Angeles.  Yet at first glance it seems like it's the bully who got punked.  The Pelicans are the clear early-winners in the Anthony Davis trade.

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