For several years, Boston Celtics president Danny Ainge has been preparing for a run at Anthony Davis. But now that the moment has come for him to pull the trigger, what was once a no-brainer mic-drop move may no longer make sense.
Trade talks between the New Orleans Pelicans and several teams for Davis appear to be intensifying this week. On Wednesday, ESPN's Adrian Wojnarowski reported Boston is "undeterred" by Davis' lack of interest in committing to stay with the Celtics beyond next season.
Ainge has taken risks before, chief among them his trade for Kyrie Irving in the summer of 2017. Irving will hit free agency this summer following a tumultuous, disappointing season in Boston, and the notion of pairing the two superstars grows less feasible by the day.
Giving up what it will likely take to pry Davis from New Orleans—promising young wings Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown, plus draft picks—is a gamble that could set Ainge's much-hyped rebuilding-while-contending gambit back years.
As all signs continue to point to a Davis deal happening sometime before the June 20 draft, the Celtics find themselves in a tricky position. Due to a quirk in the collective bargaining agreement, Boston can't officially acquire Davis until July 1, when Irving's contract comes off the books. However, the Celtics could reach an agreement in principle before then, with the hope that having Davis on board will help to convince Irving to re-sign.
It sounds great in theory, yes. But even that pitch is flawed.
Convincing Irving to re-sign is unlikely. There has been too much smoke since the Celtics flamed out in the second round of the playoffs about their displeasure with Irving's leadership style and the toxic locker room culture his uncertain future created to buy into the idea that he's eager to stay in Boston.
Further complicating things is the messaging from Davis' camp that he'd be a rental in Boston.
"They can trade for him, but it'll be for one year," Davis' agent, Rich Paul, told S.L Price of Sports Illustrated this week. "I mean: If the Celtics traded for Anthony Davis, we would go there and we would abide by our contractual [obligations] and we would go into free agency in 2020. I've stated that to them."
The opportunity to team up with a likely rental isn't a great sales pitch for Irving, no matter how tantalizing an Irving-Davis pairing might be.
If Ainge trades Tatum and Brown in a package for Davis and Irving walks in July, the Celtics will be set up for another season filled with just as much tension and uncertainty as this one, with a less talented team to boot.
Irving famously told a crowd of Celtics fans before the start of the 2018-19 season that he planned on re-upping in Boston this summer. Even that proclamation before the year wasn't enough to counteract the dark cloud that hung over the season.
No one factor is to blame for the Celtics' letdown season. Between Gordon Hayward's slow recovery from his 2017 ankle injury and Terry Rozier's displeasure with his reduced role, plenty went off-script for this team. But Irving's bizarre, moody leadership style and at-times passive-aggressive public comments about his teammates throughout the year didn't help.
While he publicly proclaimed in October that he planned on staying, his words and actions during the season indicated otherwise.
The last thing the Celtics need is another year of the circus that comes with a superstar without a long-term commitment, which is exactly what they'd get by trading for Davis. They've already been down this road, and the results aren't pretty. Even with a player as transformational as Davis, a Celtics team with no Irving, Brown or Tatum would be a tier below the top of the Eastern Conference.
If Davis followed through on his threat to leave in the summer of 2020, Ainge would then be left with nothing to show for giving up his two best young players.
Time and again, Ainge has passed up the opportunity to push his chips in to land a star. He sat out of the bidding wars for Paul George and Jimmy Butler in 2017 and for Kawhi Leonard last offseason. He bet big on Irving two summers ago, and that gamble was worth it even if he's playing for another team when the 2019-20 season tips off.
If there's any player worth risking it all for, it's Davis. But as tough of a pill as it is to swallow, Ainge should pass on the player he's coveted the most.