So Boston's coveted target Anthony Davis wants out of New Orleans, and Boston's incumbent star Kyrie Irving appears to have limited interest in staying a Celtic. Does anyone see writing on the wall?
On Friday, Irving seemed to walk back his long-term commitment to Boston, made earlier this season in no uncertain terms. "I don't owe anybody shi-t," Irving said, with the whole NBA Twittersphere listening closely.
Ainge, Demps: Can we just do this already?
If the Boston Celtics want to see Anthony Davis galloping up and down the TD Garden's parquet floors on a nightly basis, they have two options. Now that Davis has officially requested a trade from the New Orleans Pelicans, they can either remain patient or get aggressive.
Well, let's say very aggressive.
The patient approach requires general manager Danny Ainge holding tight, operating under the assumption that the Pelicans will do likewise until all cards are on the table this offseason. After all, Boston can compile one of the NBA's more aggressive trade packages, but only after Kyrie Irving's salary is off the books—by rule, as Boston.com's Nicole Yang explained in detail earlier this season, a team can't acquire a player on a Rose Rule contract (Davis) when one is already under contract (Irving).
The aggressive approach, however, would allow Davis to contribute to an immediate championship push with the Celtics. It would also require dealing Irving to the Pelicans or a third team, since he couldn't remain aboard in any transaction that features the acquisition of that second designated player.
But is that latter route one worth taking?
Keep in mind we're analyzing this purely through a green-tinted lens. For all intents and purposes, let's forget about the Pelicans' ability to receive other offers and ignore Adrian Wojnarowski's report for ESPN that they "won't make a deal before next Thursday's NBA traded deadline unless they're offered an overwhelming package for the franchise's star."
This is about one simple question and one simple question only: If parting with Irving landed Davis, should the Celtics bite?
Value in a Vacuum
On the most basic level, Davis is the superior player.
That's not a slight to Irving, who's enjoying a career season that leaves him as a top-10 player in today's NBA. When Bleacher Report's Dan Favale and I recently endeavored to rank the top 100 players in the league, we had the Boston floor general at No. 10.
Davis just checked in eight spots higher.
Sure, he's not perfect. Seven seasons into the big man's career, you can now legitimately ask questions about Davis' contributions to the winning cause—or lack thereof—in New Orleans. The Action Network's Matt Moore did exactly that by comparing him to Damian Lillard, who's assumed to be a lesser player but has consistently participated in the postseason with the Portland Trail Blazers:
But valid excuses exist.
The Pelicans have failed to grease the wheels in pursuit of the playoffs for years now, surrounding him with precious few contributors who actually belong on postseason rosters. Since Davis first graced the Western Conference All-Star roster in 2013-14, only the following players have posted positive box plus/minuses (indicative of above-average play, but not necessarily anything more) while wearing a Pelicans uniform:
- Anthony Davis (six times)
- Jrue Holiday (four times)
- Tyreke Evans (twice)
- Alexis Ajinca
- Toney Douglas
- Julius Randle
- Jeff Withey
The lack of top-tier help serves as one reason, among many, that we can excuse Davis' lack of resume-boosting victories during meaningful contests. It's also why he's finally taking control of his career and seeking out a squad more conducive to chasing after the jewelry that so often functions as the end-all, be-all barometer of a player's legacy.
But when we look past team-oriented results, the big man is still averaging a ridiculous 29.3 points, 13.3 rebounds, 4.4 assists, 1.7 steals and 2.6 blocks this season—a line so historic that only David Robinson has even matched his assist-steal-block combination.
He's shouldering a Herculean load for the Bayou-based franchise on both ends of the floor, functioning as the clear-cut alpha-dog option on offense while sparking the defensive schemes with his interior prowess and fleet-footed switchability. Even if he might not have a skill as singular as Irving's ball-on-a-string scoring, his versatility pushes him ahead.
Still, the gap between the two is skinny enough that Evel Knievel could've jumped it without breaking a sweat. And when it can't be classified as a yawning chasm, other factors have to matter. Players aren't traded in a value vacuum, after all.
Chances of Re-Signing Each
"Regarding team preferences, Boston is not a top target for Davis," Chris Haynes reported for Yahoo Sports in the immediate aftermath of Davis' fine-inducing reveal. "There's a growing belief of uncertainty that Kyrie Irving will re-sign with Boston, sources said, even though he vowed to do so at the beginning of the season."
Therein lies the trickiness.
If Davis doesn't consider Boston a "top target," then he can't be considered a lock to re-sign with the franchise after playing out his current contract in 2019-20. He could be a one-and-a-half-year rental before jetting for the Los Angeles Lakers (expected to become the favorite, per Wojnarowski), New York Knicks or some other organization that emerges as the leading contender to land his services on the open market. But at the same time, this earlier statement from Irving no longer seems to be quite so prophetic:
In addition to the Haynes report, we also have more rumors courtesy of Bleacher Report's Ric Bucher, who revealed "a source close to the Celtics confirmed that Kyrie Irving is genuinely interested in reuniting with his former Cavaliers teammate."
Maybe Irving really would go to the Lakers next summer after his time as a designated player for the Celtics ends. Perhaps he'll flee for the New York Knicks. He could—gasp—remain in place, content to run it back with the same deep, promising core that will likely follow up last year's trip to the Eastern Conference Finals with another lengthy postseason adventure. A berth in the actual Finals—or, if the stars truly align, a ring—could change everything.
Ditto for Davis.
If he's traded to the Celtics, perhaps he'd be tempted into staying by the organization's culture, longstanding excellence and plethora of useful talents—access to which he's currently denied while wearing another uniform. He's already claimed to value legacy over money, after all.
But truthfully, we have no idea.
Irving is a flight risk this summer. Davis, should he be acquired by Beantown, could become a flight risk one year later.
Confusion reigns supreme.
If the value of each individual is fairly similar, and we can't reasonably evaluate their chances of remaining with the Eastern Conference powerhouse, maybe the rest of the Celtics roster can assist our quest. Perhaps preexisting frontcourt depth or a talented backup 1-guard alters the equation by lessening the impact of a free-agency departure by either standout.
But we're again dealing with a whole bunch of confounding factors, none of which are more significant than the rest of the package Boston would need to deal for Davis. Would they include Terry Rozier? Is Jayson Tatum on the move? How many draft picks change hands?
To avoid diving down that rabbit hole, let's assume that Irving and prospect-pageant selections comprise the entirety of the offer. Maybe it's even a one-for-one swap. For the purposes of this hypothetical exercise, we'll essentially allow Boston to retain Tatum, Jaylen Brown, Rozier and all the other players who give this squad such a lofty ceiling.
In that scenario, head coach Brad Stevens would still have plenty of talent under his purview if either All-Star left.
The damage done by Davis jetting to the Lakers/Knicks/[Insert Franchise Here] would be partially mitigated by an aging Al Horford and a version of Tatum who's potentially developed into an All-Star lock. Likewise, Irving leaving would allow Rozier to take the reins at the 1, assuming he's retained as a restricted free agent this coming offseason. Plus, Marcus Smart was still a guard the last time we checked, even if he's not really an initiator or go-to scorer.
Intelligent asset management has properly buffered the Celtics, to the point they can legitimately withstand major departures. But that doesn't make the two situations even. Though the team doesn't have a player who can replicate the all-around efficacy of Davis, losing that versatility is less impactful than downgrading at point guard, especially because Rozier is in the midst of a stock-lowering season.
Even though the 24-year-old has become a better finisher around the rim, a disappearing shooting stroke has him slashing just 38.0/34.8/79.7. Maybe he's in the midst of a prolonged slump that isn't indicative of his long-term talents, but that's a less than inspiring performance from a player who would need to replace the dizzying scoring talents Irving displays on a nightly basis.
Of course, this still isn't an easy decision, and it's further complicated by the fact that dealing Irving for Davis automatically hands the starting 1-guard role over to Rozier—the very situation worrying us in the previous section. So let's simplify this by looking at all the possible outcomes:
- No trade, and Irving re-signs (Good outcome)
- No trade, and Irving leaves (Bad outcome)
- Trade, and Davis re-signs (Best outcome because you're retaining the best player)
- Trade, and Davis leaves (Bad outcome)
Trading for Davis and having him remain in Celtics threads forever is the ultimate development. If he told the Beantown front office he'd commit to signing a contract extension, they'd have no choice but to complete the trade and lock in a perennial MVP candidate while doing away with the uncertainty about Irving's future.
But which is the worst outcome? How you feel about that likely determines your answer to the question at large.
If you view Irving leaving this summer as the worst, you're more liable to pull the lever. If you think losing extra assets in a swap—we no longer have to operate under the guise of a one-for-one transaction—and then watching as Davis leaves negates the extra season of under-contract production, you're more likely to hold tight.
No wrong answer exists. You can justify going in either direction, and a lot depends on how much New Orleans demands in addition to contract-year Irving.
But as for yours truly? Give me the extra guaranteed year of production that comes with trading for Davis. A lot can happen in a full season, and winning is the ultimate panacea, one that could convince him to stay even if his mind wasn't made up when he first stepped foot in the TD Garden wearing that classic Celtic uniform.
Adam Fromal covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @fromal09.