LOS ANGELES — Where will Kawhi Leonard, Kyrie Irving, Kevin Durant, Klay Thompson, Kemba Walker and Jimmy Butler end up this summer? The answers may be dependent on the New Orleans Pelicans, Anthony Davis and the resolution of his trade request.
If the Los Angeles Lakers were hoping to recruit a star like Leonard or Irving to join LeBron James, their case would be significantly stronger if they could first pair Davis and James before the free-agent period in July. The New York Knicks may have a better chance to lure Durant with Davis in the fold too.
Should the Pelicans covet players in the upcoming NBA draft (June 20) in return for Davis, that decision may be made in a matter of weeks, especially with the Knicks (No. 3) and Lakers (No. 4) earning high lottery picks.
New Orleans Executive Vice President of Basketball Operations David Griffin met with Davis late last week, and per Shams Charania of The Athletic, "It's highly unlikely Davis' stance changes on [a] trade."
Davis was previously shopped before the February trade deadline under the leadership of former general manager Dell Demps. The All-Star forward has one guaranteed season remaining on his contract at $27.1 million, along with a player option for the 2020-21 season.
That Davis could leave after one year might put a damper on the trade market, especially if his agent, Rich Paul of Klutch Sports, is willing to play that card (spoiler, he is). The teams reportedly on Davis' wish list before the February trade deadline included both the Los Angeles Lakers and Clippers, Milwaukee Bucks and Knicks—though the Pelicans have no obligation to send Davis to one of his preferred teams.
Even the four listed franchises have to be concerned with overpaying for Davis in trade with no guarantee he'll stay beyond the season. Paul could be willing to verbally commit on behalf of his client to a contract extension—or better still a contract renegotiation—provided Davis is traded to a desired destination.
Davis and His Money
The Davis puzzle is not a simple one. A deal made in June may not be consummated until July when the teams likely to be involved have enough cap space to make it work. Also, Davis is due a $4.1 million trade bonus, which the Pelicans would pay.
Davis can waive the bonus entirely, perhaps to help his incoming team sign other players, but in doing so, he won't be eligible for a contract extension for six months from the date of the trade. Additionally, Davis will be eligible for the top-tier maximum salary in the summer of 2022, which projects to start at up to roughly $45 million. Whatever path he takes, he should endeavor to hit free agency again ahead of the 2022-23 season.
He can earn roughly $105.3 million in a three-year extension, starting at $32.5 million (that's after six months, presuming he waives his trade bonus), or he can wait until next summer and re-sign as a free agent at $112.8 million ($34.8 million in the first year). In both cases, he's still at $27.1 million for the upcoming season.
Another path would be accepting his trade bonus, which would push his current salary to $31.2 million, after which he can extend for two additional seasons at $71.3 million (which seems significant, but is essentially the same deal, less the option year).
Yet another option would be a renegotiation and extension, which could bump his salary for the coming 2019-20 season to the maximum of $32.7 million. If he waives his trade kicker, the team would need to have $5.6 million in cap space in December, six months after a deal in July—that's problematic for a contending team trying to flesh out its roster.
Another path for Davis is to accept his trade bonus and then get an additional raise of $1.5 million via a renegotiation and extension. The team must have the necessary cap space but wouldn't have to wait until December.
A renegotiation could add another two years in the $70.4 million range. That's a total of $76 million with his 2019-20 increase in salary, allowing Davis to hit free agency in time for a top-tier maximum contract.
If Los Angeles can get a verbal agreement on a trade with the Pelicans in June and then successfully land a free agent like Leonard or Irving at $32.7 million in July, the Lakers could struggle to cover the trade bonus and are unlikely to have the means to renegotiate his salary.
The simple answer would be to scrap the three-star concept and use their cap room to acquire Davis and pay his trade bonus (sending cash in the deal to the Pelicans). Los Angeles wouldn't need to match salaries, as the No. 4 pick alone for Davis would be legal. New Orleans would undoubtedly need additional players and considerations to part with its star forward.
Still, the Lakers would be able to renegotiate and extend Davis after a deal in July and then use whatever remaining cap space they have left to build out the rest of the roster.
Depending on the cost in trade, Los Angeles might be able to retain players such as Alex Caruso, Rajon Rondo, Jemerrio Jones and/or Reggie Bullock. Or the Lakers could let them all go to chase free agents with at least another $13 million in cap space—more if they're giving up additional players such as Lonzo Ball, Kyle Kuzma, Josh Hart, Mo Wagner, Isaac Bonga, etc.
The more the Lakers give, the more spending power they'll have to replace the lost talent, but they won't near another max slot.
To go with three stars, the Lakers may have almost enough cap space to sign a star and then trade for Davis. They'd need to send out at least $21.6 million or $24.8 million in salary to match Davis with or without his trade bonus, respectively. In both cases, they may need to sign their No. 4 pick (drafted on behalf of the Pelicans) July 1 at $7.1 million and then wait 30 days to execute a deal that probably includes at least Ball and Ingram and their combined $16 million in salary for 2019-20.
From there, the Lakers would be able to give Davis an extension, but not a renegotiation. That might be suitable for Davis, especially if Los Angeles can send out enough salary for his trade kicker. In either case, once the Lakers use the rest of their cap space, they gain an additional $4.8 million to spend via the team's room exception.
The math would change significantly if Leonard or Irving opted into their contracts and the Lakers were able to negotiate a trade with the Toronto Raptors or Boston Celtics (similar to the move Chris Paul made a couple of seasons ago to get to the Houston Rockets).
That's probably a stretch since that would entail either star accepting below-market value for next season. Would the Celtics help the Lakers build a superteam, even if it helped them get compensation for a departing Irving? The rivalry may prove too significant.
In trading Kristaps Porzingis to the Dallas Mavericks in February, New York set itself up for a big summer, with up to $73 million in cap space. To land stars, the franchise may be willing to give up everyone on the roster, including Kevin Knox, Mitchell Robinson, Frank Ntilikina, Dennis Smith Jr. and the No. 3 pick.
If the Knicks go that far and clear their books for Davis, they would still have enough to pay two max players like Leonard and Irving. Durant, who can earn up to $38.2 million, might have to take a pay cut if he wants to leave the Golden State Warriors for New York.
Davis would be able to extend after six months, but without his trade bonus and no renegotiation. If the goal is to take care of Davis immediately (with the bonus, etc.), the Knicks would still have $60 million to spend. That's enough to ask two stars to take discounted deals, starting at about $30.5 million instead of $32.7 million.
In either case, New York would only have three players, with just the room exception and minimums to field the rest of the starting lineup and bench. Instead, going with two stars would allow the team to keep some of its existing players and some solid spending power to add quality free agents.
Given the choice, most NBA franchises tend to go for elite talent over depth, which can be replenished more easily over time.
The additional team in Los Angeles can offer future draft considerations, along with promising players Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Landry Shamet. That said, the team already has enough to pay one or even two max free agents without parting with its enticing young backcourt.
The Clippers will need to move Danilo Gallinari's contract to afford two stars. Is he enough, with draft picks, for Davis? If so, the team would be able to renegotiate and extend his contract while preserving about $47 million in cap space (while retaining Lou Williams, Montrezl Harrell, Jerome Robinson, Gilgeous-Alexander and Shamet).
That's enough to add a player like Leonard or Durant and still have some spending power to add to the roster.
Off a tremendous season, Milwaukee needs to decide on its own free agents in Khris Middleton, Brook Lopez, Malcolm Brogdon and Nikola Mirotic. The Bucks would probably need the Pelicans to want Eric Bledsoe, along with young pieces such as Donte DiVincenzo and Sterling Brown.
On the surface, the Bucks don't seem to have the pieces to beat out the Lakers or Knicks, especially if the Pelicans prioritize the draft.
Boston wasn't on Davis' list, but landing the forward could help the team retain Irving.
The Celtics have several questions ahead, including Al Horford's $30.1 million player option. The team isn't likely to drop under the cap if Irving stays, so a Davis trade would need to be done on faith. If he refuses to sign an extension, Boston has to decide if it is willing to give up its top young players in Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown on a "maybe."
Instead, the C's may choose restricted free agent Terry Rozier over Irving, pass on Davis and build around their developing core.
The Pelicans may or may not value the draft, outside of their own pick, which would give the team time to find a deal in July. It's also possible or even likely a decision will be reached before then. If they wait too long, teams may choose instead to chase Davis next summer in free agency.
Today, the Pels have some leverage, especially if they can generate a bidding war between the Lakers, Knicks, Clippers and any other teams that might be willing to sneak into the conversation, but eventually, the Pelicans will lose Davis for nothing if they hesitate too much.
Griffin is an experienced executive. Expect an answer sooner than later, with major repercussions quickly reverberating through the NBA.