Some may scoff at the notion of Anthony Davis playing anywhere other than Los Angeles in 2020-21, but he can and will turn down his $28.8 million player option, exercise his right to meet with other organizational leaders in free agency and weigh each pro and con next summer.
"When that time comes around next year, you can ask me that question, we can revisit it," Davis said when asked about a long-term commitment at his introductory press conference with the Los Angeles Lakers. "Right now, I'm focused on this year and how I can help this team and help the organization become a championship team."
His agent, Rich Paul, has already addressed the question. As he told Sports Illustrated's S.L. Price before the trade that moved Davis off the New Orleans Pelicans:
"Where he's going to land? I have no idea. And it don't matter. We're going into free agency. Why does it matter to me where he goes? Earth: We're going into free agency. He has a year; he has to play. But after that, I can't say it no bigger: WE ARE GOING INTO FREE AGENCY. 2020: ANTHONY DAVIS WILL BE IN FREE AGENCY."
The Lakers paid a steep price this offseason to acquire the best player in the NBA (at least by his standards), giving up Lonzo Ball, Josh Hart, Brandon Ingram and multiple first-round picks. Regardless of his ranking among the NBA's elite, Davis is in his prime at 26 years old and is one season removed from a top-three finish in the races for both Most Valuable Player and Defensive Player of the Year.
But what if he walks away for nothing?
The Lakers can and should do everything within their power to retain Davis and keep him happy. But that requires five key steps.
LeBron Must Stay Healthy
Davis has made his admiration for LeBron James clear, and it appears the two have solidified their friendship after filming Space Jam 2 together, exchanging jerseys (temporarily) and even spending time with one another at Las Vegas Summer League.
"It was cool," Davis told Arash Markazi of the Los Angeles Times. "I always looked up to him. As a kid, [James] and Michael Jordan were the two guys I [admired]. I didn't get a chance to watch Michael Jordan live, but I watched LeBron a lot after he entered the league, and he was the guy that I looked up to."
LeBron, the ambassador of the Lakers organization both on and off the court, will be critical in securing Davis long-term.
Before injuring his groin on Christmas, coincidentally just three nights after meeting with Davis for dinner in L.A., James had never missed more than 13 games in any previous season of his 16-year career. That would change in 2018-19, a year in which he sat out of 27 games. The Lakers lost 18 of those contests and were 8.3 points per 100 possessions worse with him off the floor.
That 33.3 win percentage would make Los Angeles a 27-win team over the course of a full season.
LeBron's teams haven't been perfect without their King in the more distant past, either. The Cleveland Cavaliers went just 4-23 in contests James missed during his most recent four-year stint, which put them on pace for 12 victories over an 82-game season.
Even in brief stints without his team's other superstar, Davis is unlikely to change that. He probably can't be blamed for the Pelicans' 3-12 record without Jrue Holiday on the floor in 2018-19, as he played in only five of those games. But the Pelicans did go 3-15 with Davis playing and Holiday out during the three prior campaigns, which prorates to just 14 wins in a full season.
If the Lakers are to retain Davis, James' health with be paramount.
They cannot afford to lose either superstar for extended periods with a supporting cast unlikely to parade them through a ruthless onslaught of opponents in the Western Conference, but James has proved he can do more with less. Should the Lakers lose Davis for more than 15 games (his average over seven seasons), James would need to shoulder the burden in his stead. If he cannot, the Lakers risk missing the playoffs, which would be a costly blow in their quest to win over their new star.
LeBron Needs to Fit In
"LeBron thinks we're coming to his team, but he's really coming to our team," Davis said on Spectrum Sportsnet. "Me, DeMarcus [Cousins] and [Rajon] Rondo already had a thing. ... Adding another great player like LeBron to that mix, we think it could definitely spell championships."
He isn't wrong.
The Pelicans won seven of their last eight games before losing Boogie to his devastating Achilles injury on Jan. 26, 2018. Up until that point, each member of the trio now joining the Lakers (Davis, Cousins and Rondo) was in the midst of one of their greatest seasons.
As previously written about Davis' 2017-18 campaign:
"In 2017-18, inarguably Davis' best season, he often shared the floor with Jrue Holiday, Rajon Rondo and DeMarcus Cousins, each of whom averaged at least 5.4 assists. He was more efficient than ever (55.2 effective field-goal percentage) while assisted on 71.5 percent of his makes, even though he converted just 28.5 percent of his unassisted shots.
Rondo earned new life in New Orleans alongside Davis in his lone season. His 51.8 effective field-goal percentage in 2017-18 was his best to date, and his assist and turnover averages (8.2 assists-2.3 turnovers) were his best numbers in a decade.
Cousins averaged 25.2 points, 12.9 rebounds, 5.4 assists, 1.6 steals and 1.6 blocks while posting his best effective field-goal percentage (53.0 percent). Boogie was even mentioned as a viable MVP candidate by both ESPN and USA Today.
In a showing of solidarity following Boogie's injury, Davis even wore Cousins' jersey during the 2018 All-Star Game. Following the first-round playoff sweep of the Portland Trail Blazers, Davis, Rondo and Holiday sat down with ESPN's Rachel Nichols and made it easy to wonder what could have been with a healthy Boogie.
The three enjoyed success together and appear to have remained close.
Making Davis comfortable alongside his former teammates could be a stepping stone toward solidifying a winning culture, and that could be done by having James give up ownership of the offense. In the past two seasons, LeBron's usage rate has been sixth and seventh among qualified NBA players. For everyone to fit in, he'll need to scale back on his role as a primary playmaker and operate in more actions and spot-up situations.
Davis Must Play the 4
"I like playing the 4. I'm not even going to sugar coat it." Davis said at his introductory press conference.
He went on to say he would do whatever the coach asked of him, but this isn't the first time he's made such requests. Years ago, the Pelicans could have focused an attack around him at the 5, but they instead opted to sign Omer Asik and Alexis Ajinca to five- and four-year deals, respectively.
In the video above, Davis can be seen shying away from contact on both ends of the floor against the Oklahoma City Thunder. Defensively, he gave Steven Adams a clear path to the paint. Offensively, he settled for a baseline fadeaway rather than penetrate or run an action of any kind for his teammates. In transition, he can be seen lagging behind, leading to an easy bucket for Russell Westbrook.
In Davis' most efficient season (2017-18), the Pelicans played him next to both Cousins and Emeka Okafor. Before Boogie's Achilles injury, he enjoyed a 55.3 field-goal percentage and 34.2 three-point percentage—far above his respective career averages of 51.7 and 31.4.
Davis played the 5 for the majority of 2018-19, and his on-off splits (plus-8.5 points per 100 possessions when he played) seem to insist upon his effectiveness at the position. But a watchful eye will notice his waning effort in matchups with the NBA's more physical centers. Besides, his on-off split proved better in 2017-18 when he primarily served as the 4 (plus-11.0).
The Lakers must start one of Cousins or McGee at the 5 to keep Davis fresh and happy throughout the season. McGee can keep pace with Davis and James. Boogie would have to regain his health and return to his prime form to play alongside the two, though it appears (based on his slimmer look) he's already putting in the necessary work to respond and even improve upon his form.
Should the Lakers move Davis to the 5 during crunch time or over elongated stints in the playoffs, he could fuse well with a stretchy 4 who has the physicality to bang with opponents like Jusurf Nurkic. The Blazers had a minus-14.0 net rating during Nurkic's 23.3 minutes per game in their 2018 postseason series against the Pelicans, but Nikola Mirotic played at the 5 defensively for many of those minutes.
The Lakers could duplicate that if LeBron can put his physicality to good use.
Positive Residual @presidual
In the final 3:00 or so of the second quarter, Jrue Holiday took on CJ McCollum and E'Twaun Moore had Damian Lillard. Some of this coincided with Nikola Mirotic taking on Jusuf Nurkic, as we can see here, but they kept the guard matchups in other contexts, as well. https://t.co/TXANbqeRxR
According to BBall Index's grades, LeBron rated as a C perimeter defender in 2018-19, but he earned an A-minus as an interior defender. If Davis moves to the 5 for any substantial amount of time, LeBron could help facilitate the transition.
Win the Title or Get So Close He Can Taste It
"My goal is to win a championship," Davis told Markazi. "I expect to win every time I step on the court, every game. I want to win a title. That's what it's about—winning titles. That's the only thing on my mind."
Davis did see the second round of the playoffs during his time with the Pelicans. But winning a first-round matchup, as New Orleans did against Portland in 2018, will not be enough to retain him and should fall short of the Lakers' 2019-20 expectations as they roster two of the NBA's five best players.
Davis revealed a lot to ESPN's Adrian Wojnarowski in December 2017. He explained his feelings about the way he was perceived, shared his feelings of resentment toward the new guys (Karl-Anthony Towns, Kristaps Porzingis) who had taken the unicorn title from him and acknowledged the well-run nature of other organizations in comparison to the Pelicans.
But above all else, he used the words "win" and "winning" a remarkable 19 times. And it's not the only time he's shared such sentiments.
"Anthony Davis is not going to be a great basketball player because of the amount of money he makes. It's going to be about what he achieved on the court and also off the court," he told Markazi this summer. "That's all part of my legacy, and I think that's way more valuable than any monetary value."
If the Lakers want to keep him, they need to win more than he has ever won before. Advancing to the Western Conference Finals is the minimum. An NBA championship would all but assure his return.
LA Must Acquire Another Star in the Summer of 2020
The Lakers will be hard-pressed to find maximum salary space given the necessary extension for Davis and LeBron's $39.2 million cap hit. According to Pincus, Davis' number would likely start at $32.5 million, and he will probably wish to sign a deal that lets him hit free agency in the summer of 2022 when he can earn a salary that starts at a projected $45 million.
With $71.7 million already accounted for between the two stars, Los Angeles doesn't have much wiggle room to add a third, especially with Danny Green's guaranteed $15.4 million on the books and Avery Bradley, Quinn Cook and Kyle Kuzma earning an additional $11.6 million.
However, the Lakers should get a boost from a salary cap that projects to rise yet again before the 2020-21 season. As Shams Charania of The Athletic and Stadium reported, "The NBA has informed its teams of the updated projected salary cap and tax level that is unchanged in 2019-20 ($109M/$132M)—and $2M lower in 2020-21 ($116M/$141M)."
Should another team show interest in Danny Green's expiring contract, the Lakers could then find themselves in the market for another max-level free agent. Perhaps, say, fellow Klutch client Draymond Green?
Draymond makes sense for a variety of reasons. In addition to being an all-world defender, he can slide to center and allow Davis more time at his preferred position.
He would give the Lakers versatility on both ends. Offensively, his shooting would be a liability, but if Davis' numbers alongside Boogie—another playmaking big—prove sustainable, the ex-Pelican could step out to the perimeter, where he shot 36.7 percent before the 2017-18 All-Star break. On the stopping side, Green posted the best defensive real plus-minus among power forwards last season (3.74).
Mike Conley, another potential target, would be an immeasurable upgrade over Rondo, Avery Bradley and Quinn Cook on both ends and would match perfectly with James and Davis, relieving the former of some of his offensive burden while positioning the latter to succeed as the game's best and most versatile finisher. Conley produced the sixth-best offensive real plus-minus among point guards in 2018-19, trailing only James Harden, Stephen Curry, Damian Lillard, Kemba Walker and Kyrie Irving.
Green and Conley should be the Lakers' primary targets next summer but should their advances fail, they can rebound by pursuing one of Kyle Lowry, DeMar DeRozan, Otto Porter Jr and Goran Dragic.