LAS VEGAS — Anthony Davis passing through Staples Center on Friday with the New Orleans Pelicans in a 112-104 loss did nothing to quell speculation that he'll eventually join LeBron James with the Los Angeles Lakers.
Despite the Pelicans publicly denouncing the notion that they'd consider trading Davis, they will need to make a decision before he potentially opts out of his contract after the 2019-20 season. Their primary hope is that Davis is willing to take a projected "supermax" extension at $239.5 million, an offer they certainly intend to make once he's eligible for it in July.
If Davis indicates that he won't extend, the Pelicans may find a trade is the only answer, lest they lose one of the league's elite players without any compensation. The buzz in Las Vegas, where most of the league's executives gathered over the past few days for the NBA G League Winter Showcase, is that Davis will end up with either the Boston Celtics or Lakers before the 2019-20 season.
"It's a renewal of the NBA's great rivalries, just not on the court but behind the scenes," one executive said.
The primary link to the Lakers is Rich Paul of Klutch Sports, who is the player agent for both James and Davis. That connection is a conflict of interest, at least in the view of several teams.
"I'm not worried about James tampering to the media about AD. It's that James and Paul are mafioso mob bosses of the NBA that's the problem," a Western Conference general manager said.
Commissioner Adam Silver isn't fining James for saying he'd love to play with Davis. There's nothing to do about James and Davis sharing the same agent, as it's common for NBA players to share agents.
If Paul was hired by Davis to get him out of New Orleans and on to a contender—as suggested by one executive—and specifically to the Lakers (as several other front-office personnel said was the reason), then Davis has already written off the Pelicans' financial advantage.
Per Sam Amick of The Athletic, Davis "does not see the extra $87.3 million that New Orleans is expected to offer in a five-year, $239.5 million supermax extension this summer as a factor in his eventual decision."
None of the several executives polled expect Davis to be dealt before the Feb. 7 trade deadline, but most believe Paul will box in the Pelicans before the draft in June.
"It's going to be up to [Pelicans general manager] Dell [Demps] to decide where Davis plays next," an Eastern Conference executive said. "Paul will get him traded, but it's going to be up to Demps to get the best deal."
The Celtics are ready to talk draft picks, given that they could have four first-round selections in the 2019 draft on June 20—their own plus those of the Los Angeles Clippers, Memphis Grizzlies and Sacramento Kings (depending on various protections). The ideal for Boston would be an agreement a few days before the draft that wouldn't be officially executed until early July.
It's become relatively common to delay draft-related deals a week or two until after the NBA moratorium ends July 6. Boston is unable to trade for Davis until Kyrie Irving opts out of his contract and becomes a free agent since teams can only carry one player at a time acquired with the "designated player tag." While the Celtics can trade Irving for Davis, the clear goal is to have both playing alongside forward Jayson Tatum.
A Boston deal for Davis would probably include Marcus Smart and Jaylen Brown as the primary pieces, although the Celtics could build a trade around Gordon Hayward (player option in 2020-21) or include others like Terry Rozier (restricted free agent this offseason) and Marcus Morris (impending free agent)—but only if they agree to be part of a sign-and-trade package with New Orleans. Al Horford has a player option for $30.1 million, which could put him in play if he chooses to pick it up instead of exploring free agency.
One wrinkle in any Davis deal is the 15 percent trade bonus in his contract. The Pelicans would be responsible for an extra $4.1 million payment to Davis if he's dealt in July. The trade bonus would be negligible if he's traded this season, but to date, the Pelicans are adamant they have no intention of moving him this campaign.
"There's no way they're paying that trade kicker," a Western Conference executive said. "None."
That's where Paul has a potential trump card in leverage, which is something like, "We'll only waive the bonus if you trade Davis to the Lakers."
That's assuming Davis doesn't want to join the Celtics. He might. And Boston can send up to approximately $5.6 million in cash to offset any issue the Pelicans might have. New Orleans can net roughly $1.5 million from a Boston deal with the kicker paid, but the Lakers can send $5.6 million with Davis waiving the bonus, yielding an extra $4.1 million to the Pelicans.
Continuing with the assumption that a Davis trade waits until July, Los Angeles would have the means to compensate Davis for waiving his trade bonus by renegotiating his salary. If so, the team could set aside $5.6 million in cap space for Davis for six months (which could be difficult to do through January), raising him to roughly $32.7 million for the 2019-20 campaign with an extension adding up to four additional years at $157 million.
Davis would actually benefit from the shorter deal, allowing him to hit free agency in 2022 when he'll be eligible for the top-tier maximum salary that could start near $46 million as a veteran with 10 years of NBA experience.
Timed correctly through the next six seasons, Davis can get within roughly $13 million of what he would earn with a supermax contract. By accepting his trade bonus with the Lakers, the team can renegotiate and extend his contract immediately, but he'd fall a bit shorter of the supermax (by about $25 million).
While the Lakers might be able to also lure a star free agent like Kevin Durant (at a discount), Klay Thompson or Kawhi Leonard, they would have a difficult time finding the cap space to also trade for Davis and have enough to restructure his deal.
Adding a free-agent star and Davis probably would mean the Lakers would deal Brandon Ingram and Lonzo Ball, who will combine to earn almost $16 million next season, to New Orleans. The Lakers would need to include additional players to match salaries.
Davis can also choose to simply extend with the Lakers instead of restructuring with cap space. He wouldn't be able to earn more for the 2019-20 season, but he might help the team add another star.
Then again, if Los Angeles had a commitment from Durant, Thompson or Leonard, the Pelicans would face massive public pressure to not trade Davis to the Lakers. The outcry might be enough to sway the Pelicans in a completely different direction.
"I wouldn't lock the Lakers in for AD," a front-office executive said. "Davis will have a lot of options if he wants to leave New Orleans."
The Celtics may not have the cap space to renegotiate his contract, but by virtue of his trade bonus, they could get within $18 million of the supermax, with Davis re-signing again in 2022.
Given the available options, Davis can afford to turn away a massive offer from the Pelicans.
And it may not be a two-horse race. The Toronto Raptors seemingly came from out of nowhere to pick up Kawhi Leonard from the San Antonio Spurs. Other franchises are certain to get involved, although threats from Paul that Davis won't re-sign and the trade-bonus issue could work against them.
Ultimately, the word on the ground before Christmas in Las Vegas is the Lakers and Celtics are the clear favorites to get Davis. It's not "will the Pelicans or won't they move the All-Star forward?" It's a question of where and when.