LOS ANGELES — Last week, Los Angeles Lakers co-owner Jeanie Buss shot down reports that the team was willing to trade almost anyone not named LeBron James to the New Orleans Pelicans for Anthony Davis before the February 7 deadline as "fake news."
"So, you're not going trade all those young guys for a certain player? I just want to make this very clear," Wyc Grousbeck, lead owner of the Boston Celtics, joked—avoiding the league's strict tampering rules—while the pair shared the "Rebooting the Lakers/Celtics Rivalry" panel at the 2019 MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference in early March.
The conversation, moderated by ESPN's Jackie MacMullan, was friendly. Buss and Grousbeck spoke glowingly of each other's track records and accomplishments. But behind the smiles and pleasantries, the two owners represent arguably the greatest rivalry in sports, and they're both charting a path to landing Davis in a summer trade.
On Saturday, the franchises met at Staples Center in disparate spiritual places. The Celtics (41-26), who got the 120-107 win, are searching for the chemistry that somehow disappeared in what Grousbeck described as the worst February he could remember. The Lakers (30-36) find themselves on the wrong side of the playoff bubble—better off losing games through the end of the season to improve their NBA draft lottery position.
The Lakers went 3-6 in February, failing to beat lottery-bound teams such as the Memphis Grizzlies, Atlanta Hawks and Pelicans, and essentially ending their own postseason hopes. The Celtics won just five of 11, including a loss on trade-deadline day to the Lakers on a Rajon Rondo buzzer-beater in Boston.
Perhaps the many Davis rumors derailed both franchises. Jayson Tatum, the Celtics' prized sophomore, even reportedly told Celtics radio commentator Cedric Maxwell, "Yeah, I'd trade me too for Anthony Davis," per the Celtics Beat podcast.
"Danny [Ainge] would throw his mother into the right trade," Grousbeck said, maybe in jest, and not referring in any way to the Davis situation specifically. That said, around the league, the Celtics president of basketball operations has the nickname "Trader Danny."
The Lakers and Celtics remain the primary contenders for Davis. That news, fake or no, has been circulating for months.
Boston can't acquire the All-Star forward until July, after Kyrie Irving's designated contract expires. Presuming he does re-sign with Boston, the Celtics can offer players such as Jaylen Brown, Gordon Hayward, Marcus Smart and/or Tatum to New Orleans for Davis, along with draft considerations.
In addition to their own selection, the Celtics will have picks from the Sacramento Kings, Memphis Grizzlies and Los Angeles Clippers. The Memphis pick may not convey this June (top-eight protected); the Clippers would keep their pick another year only if they miss the playoffs, which appears unlikely. The Sacramento pick is protected for No. 1 only.
The Lakers can offer similar packages to the ones New Orleans reportedly rejected at the deadline, per the Los Angeles Times' Broderick Turner. Potential names could include Brandon Ingram, Kyle Kuzma, Lonzo Ball and Josh Hart, among others. Los Angeles may also have a top-10 pick and could end up in the top four.
That selection might be enough to appease the Pelicans, who were never keen on making a deadline deal. According to a person in the New Orleans front office, a deadline swap didn't make a lot of sense without a look at the open market this offseason—when the Pelicans will know the draft order.
A Davis deal last month would have also meant moving out another four or five Pelicans to make room for all of the players the Lakers would have needed to send out to match salaries. That's not an easy task in the middle of a season.
Additionally, the person continued, seeing how potential young trade targets performed in the playoffs would've given the Pelicans more information before they decided on a deal. Of course, New Orleans won't get a postseason look at the Lakers' prospects, but the assumption at the time was that Los Angeles would be a playoff team.
Further complicating matters, the Pelicans also fired general manager Dell Demps on Feb. 15, and Danny Ferry is running the team on an interim basis. Demps' successor may bring a different approach and mindset to the organization.
For the Celtics, they have to consider that Davis reportedly does not prefer a trade to Boston, per Chris Haynes of Yahoo Sports, and he may not stay beyond the last guaranteed year on his contract next season. How much is Boston willing to give up for a one-year rental?
Another significant factor is Irving's impending free-agent status. If the Celtics land Davis in a trade, Irving may be more likely to re-sign, but can Boston give up all its prime assets without knowing the point guard's decision? Boston would prefer a trade agreement before the June 20 NBA draft on a deal that wouldn't be officially executed until July. In that scenario, the Celtics could make whatever draft selections are needed on behalf of the Pelicans.
But Irving can't make his decision until July, creating a "chicken and the egg" situation, as one Western Conference executive put it.
The Lakers and Celtics aren't the only two potential trade partners. But given that Davis is represented by Rich Paul of Klutch Sports, who is not just James' agent but is also his longtime friend and confidant, any franchise that's willing to jump into the fray may be looking at a short-term rental.
The Lakers could even have enough cap room to steal Irving from the Celtics or sign another star free agent, such as Kawhi Leonard or Klay Thompson, and then trade their young core for Davis.
Magic Johnson's playbook is simple: Sacrifice young players (All-Star D'Angelo Russell, Julius Randle, Jordan Clarkson, Larry Nance Jr., Ivica Zubac, etc.) to help create enough spending power to land stars in free agency. It worked with James—a tremendous feat despite the disappointing, injury-laden season.
"We would not have had LeBron if it wasn't for Magic," Buss said.
But Johnson can't afford another two or three years with James on the roster and zero playoff success.
The Celtics would like nothing more than to derail the Lakers' master plan. Before February, they seemed confident. But now, with the team's shaky chemistry and the uncertain timing around Irving's contract, Boston's fate is also unclear.
Whatever comes, the two franchises will do everything they can to one-up the other.
"You really define yourself based on who your opponent is, and so the better your opponent is, it brings out the best in you," Buss said. "I admire what the Celtics do and their approach to things in terms of the style of play they have, the coach [Brad Stevens], how they do things because it means it makes us have to be better at what we do."
"We've got between us 33 championships," Grousbeck said. "Let's just keep it going."