SALT LAKE CITY — Here we go again. NBA All-Stars are colluding once more, joining forces to create instant championship teams. Wooed by LeBron James, Anthony Davis demanded a trade and eventually got his way, landing with the Lakers and running into James' open arms.
Davis gets to be James’ latest sidekick, and the Lakers and James are back in the title hunt. The Pelicans, a rising young team that had built a team the right way, are back in rebuilding mode, which is the fate of small-market teams in the NBA (sound familiar, Jazz fans?). At least they came away with superb prospects for the rebuild.
James, the inventor of star collusion and Super Teams, is in the middle of it all, of course. What James wants, James gets. Everything related to the NBA these days is about making James happy. (Have you noticed that even the national media constantly fret about the state of James’ supporting cast and campaign to get him help; similarly, they fret about the state of the Lakers, too, like no other team in the league. Now that the Lakers and James are the same, it's one big love fest).
James wasn't even subtle about this deal. He had dinner with Davis in a very public restaurant when the Pelicans came to L.A. in December and then declared it would be “amazing” to have Davis as a Laker teammate. In response, the NBA sent a memo to teams warning against tampering, but they really can’t stop such shenanigans, especially when it involves a player, especially if that player is James. ESPN reported that small-market GMs “objected to James’ comments and a league-wide trend of players in big cities openly recruiting other stars.”
James, always gracious, threw it back in their faces. “They can’t control me at all,” he told reporters. “And I play by the rules.” Nice.
A month later after dinner with James, Davis announced that he would not sign with the Pelicans when his five-year, $145 million contract expired in the summer of 2020, and he requested a trade. It didn't happen immediately only because the Lakers couldn't offer enough in return — basically their entire roster — but after they drew the fourth pick in the upcoming draft and the Pelicans drew the first pick, the deal was on.
The Lakers mortgaged their future to make it happen. They sent three players — Lonzo Ball, Josh Hart, Brandon Ingram — plus three first-round picks (including the No. 4 selection in the upcoming draft) to the Pelicans to get Davis, an injury-prone player who has not proven himself capable of leading a team on his own. As ESPN’s Jalen Rose put it, Davis “goes from being the best player on a playoff team, to acknowledging that he can’t be the best player on a championship team.”
Super Teams ruled the league in the last decade until Toronto stumbled into a title this season thanks to a freakish string of timely injuries to the Warriors. The only way to prevent teams from stockpiling all-stars is for the NBA to enact a hard salary cap, but that’s not going to happen. All but a handful of teams, unable to sign or keep free agents, have no hope of winning a championship; the vast majority of fans can only hope their team makes the playoffs, not win a championship. They’re eliminated on opening day.
It’s bad for the league. So is this business of players forcing their way out of a contract to jump to another team, well ahead of free agency. Want out? All you have to do is grumble and go public with your cause. Kawhi Leonard did it to the San Antonio Spurs and was rewarded with a trade to Toronto, where he won a championship this month.
Since players have guaranteed contracts, the teams have little leverage and are forced to comply. This is bad news for everyone, but especially the smaller-market teams. It is one more blow to any hope for parity in the league.
The Pelicans, who advanced to the second round of the playoffs two seasons ago, nosedived after Davis made his request, winning just 12 of 36 games. They parked Davis on the bench for 21 games and played him limited minutes in 16 games. In the end, the Pelicans became one more small-market team that served as a farm club for the big-market teams and traditional powerhouses.
A lot of observers — including the Las Vegas oddsmakers — are all but handing the trophy to the Lakers next season, but there are a lot of questions to answer first. Can Davis bend his game to fit James' many needs (ask Kevin Love about that one)? Can James, who has a lot of miles on his body, stay healthy, especially given his recent injury issues? Can the Lakers poach a third all-star from another team? If it all works out, the Lakers and James could win a championship, with an assist from the Pelicans, who developed Davis for them. Won’t that be fun.
Meanwhile, the Pelicans will have the first and fourth picks of this week's NBA draft, plus two more first-round picks in the future. They are expected to use the first pick on Zion Williamson, one of the best prospects to come along in years. He'll use the first years of his rookie contract to develop into a superstar, at which point the Lakers or some other big-market team will swoop in and poach him.