CLEVELAND — Anthony Davis isn't going to be a Los Angeles Laker. At least not yet.
Davis can't leave for L.A. or anywhere else until at least the summer of 2020 when he can turn down a $28.8 million player option before potentially signing the largest contract in NBA history. That can only be done should he return to New Orleans on a five-year deal worth $239 million.
The five-time All-Star center will continue to see his name swirl around in a mix of trade rumors and free-agent talk for the foreseeable future, which is common for superstars playing on small-market teams.
It's natural to think Davis will eventually work his way out of New Orleans in search of brighter lights, a better supporting cast or more lucrative marketing deals. We've seen this story play out before, from Carmelo Anthony to Dwight Howard, Kevin Durant and LeBron James (twice).
There's some sort of fascination to see the best players play on the league's most storied franchises, even if that means the star player leaves in the dust the team that drafted and developed him.
While it's easy to picture Davis catching alley-oops from James while donning purple and gold, the Pelicans' dream of keeping the league's best big man shouldn't be dead yet.
New Orleans still has time to keep its franchise player, but it has to work fast.
While nearly a quarter of a billion dollars may be tough to pass up, Davis is already on record saying legacy will be more important than money in his future choices, per Chris Haynes of Yahoo Sports.
If his legacy ends up being in New Orleans, he'll need help.
Davis Needs More Shooting Around Him ASAP
Davis is having another monster season for the Pelicans.
He's averaging career bests in points (28.9), rebounds (13.2) and assists (4.4). Only Wilt Chamberlain, Elgin Baylor and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar have put together a 28-13-4 average for an entire season, with Abdul-Jabbar the latest to do so in 1974-75.
The scoring isn't anything new for Davis—this is his third straight season putting up at least 28 points a night. What stands out is the assist average, nearly twice his previous career high.
The reason has less to do with Davis' desire to play point guard and more to do with opponents swarming his 6'10", 250-pound frame with extra bodies and forcing him to give up the ball more than he'd like.
Is simply spacing the floor better around Davis the key to eliminating the extra bodies defenses throw at him?
"I think teams are going to do it no matter what. He can get 50 any night," Jrue Holiday told Bleacher Report. "He can score at will. He can pretty much do whatever he wants. People are trying to triple-team him. To live with that every night, he just has to make the right play."
Davis understands the burden in front of him.
"Coming into the season, I knew that teams were going to focus on me a lot and try to double-team and get the ball out of my hands, so I just try to make the right plays," Davis told B/R. "Late in the game, of course, the ball's probably going to come to me, and teams are going to try and get it out of my hands."
In a league in which double-teaming has become increasingly difficult to execute because of spacing and superstar consolidation, Davis still has to battle through multiple defenders on a consistent basis.
"Every night he faces double-teams, triple-teams," Pelicans head coach Alvin Gentry told B/R. "He’s truly a team guy, so rather than force shots up, he’ll make the right play, and the right play is to find the open guy, and he’s been a willing passer and willing to do that. He’s already had a couple eight-assist games and some things like that because I think he’s going to play to win the game, and that may be that when against double-teams and triple-teams he has to give up the ball."
Credit to Davis for making the right play, but how long is he going to be satisfied giving up the ball when the double- and triple-teams inevitably come?
To help counteract the pressure that defenses put on him, New Orleans can start by spacing out its offense. Too often the paint fills up with defenders who don't feel the need to stick to their assignments on the perimeter, as the Pelicans rank just 24th in the NBA in attempted three-pointers per game.
While New Orleans has one of the league's most underrated point guards in Holiday (20.7 points, 8.3 assists) and best free-agent signings in Julius Randle (19.8 points, 9.3 rebounds), neither shoots over 33.2 percent from deep.
The Pelicans wings remain a major team weakness, with players like Wesley Johnson, Solomon Hill and Darius Miller all receiving significant minutes this season. In the West, this won't cut it.
With the trade deadline now less than a month away, New Orleans needs to look for two-way wings who can shoot and keep guys in front of them. Its 25th-ranked defensive rating is worse than even that of the tanking Atlanta Hawks and Chicago Bulls.
The Pelicans can find plenty of shooting available around the trade deadline. The Cleveland Cavaliers should be open for business with Alec Burks, Rodney Hood and JR Smith. The Atlanta Hawks can offer Kent Bazemore, while Tim Hardaway Jr. from the New York Knicks could also be available.
Extra shooting via trade will make life easier for Davis, but it won't necessarily convince him to stay, either.
For that, he'll need someone else on the floor next to him worth double-teaming. Or, at least, good enough that defenders know they won't be able to help anymore.
Adding a quality starter or rotation piece before the trade deadline would be nice, but what the Pelicans need to keep Davis happy is a second star.
They tried to get Jimmy Butler before he was eventually dealt to the Philadelphia 76ers, offering power forward Nikola Mirotic and an unprotected first-round pick, per The Athletic's Shams Charania and Jon Krawczynski.
Of course, this comes nearly two years after they traded for All-Star center DeMarcus Cousins, who's since signed with the Golden State Warriors in free agency.
To go about trying to acquire another star, New Orleans has just two options left.
Trade vs. Free Agency
The market for star players this trade season is bare. New Orleans' best chance would be to pry shooting guard Bradley Beal off the 17-25 Washington Wizards.
Beal, 25, is averaging 24.2 points, 4.8 rebounds and 4.8 assists per night and is under contract until the summer of 2021, one year after Davis can hit the open market.
Putting a package together for Beal would take New Orleans out of the star market this summer. But if the 20-22 Pelicans landed Beal, they would have a better chance of making a playoff push this year, and they could go over the cap to re-sign Mirotic and/or Randle in the offseason (if they both aren't in the Beal trade).
Kevin Love of the Cavaliers is still a star player when healthy and under contract through the 2022-23 season, but he has played just four games all season while recovering from toe surgery. With so many teams still in playoff contention, there's not much to choose from off the seller's list.
If the Pelicans can't land Beal, their next-best bet is to set up cap space this summer.
Over $30 million will come off New Orleans' books if Mirotic, Elfrid Payton, Johnson and Randle (player option) all hit free agency. The next step is to move the expiring 2019-20 contracts of Hill ($12.8 million) and E'Twaun Moore ($8.7 million). Both would have to include some draft-pick sweeteners for a rebuilding team to absorb that kind of money. According to Joe Vardon of The Athletic, the Cavs have told teams they will take bad contracts so long as they get picks/assets. Other bottom-feeders would likely do the same.
If the Pelicans can move Hill and/or Moore, they'll be looking at $40 million to $50 million in cap room to bring in a star next to Davis and Holiday, although that leaves little room to upgrade the rest of the roster.
The talent in the free-agent pool is far greater than what should be available this trade deadline, with Kevin Durant, Kawhi Leonard, Jimmy Butler, Klay Thompson, Kyrie Irving and Kemba Walker all possibly available. Even a second-tier star like Tobias Harris, Khris Middleton or JJ Redick would work wonderfully next to Davis.
Of course, none will come to New Orleans without the promise of a competitive roster, which is why some assurance from Davis that he'll stay becomes crucial.
This is where the Pelicans will finally have their answer about Davis' future. If he shows no interest in recruiting and New Orleans ends up empty-handed, it'll have little choice but to trade him next season before he walks for nothing. Should he help convince a player like Butler or Thompson to take a max contract and join him, it becomes far more likely Davis eventually agrees to that $239 million deal of his own.
For now, the Pelicans should swing for the fences this trade deadline with Beal—or at least do their best to add shooting while taking on no long-term money—instead of banking on free agency.
Davis is still a Pelican, but likely only as long as New Orleans can get another star by his side.