Anthony Davis is caught in a gnarly web of his own making
His trade request failed, and now he and the Pelicans have to keep up appearances even though it doesn’t benefit anyone for him to play. If he does not already, Anthony Davis is going to rue the day he allowed his agent to make an official trade request to leave the New Orleans Pelicans. Davis did not get dealt by the Feb. 7 in-season deadline, which means he’ll remain on the Pelicans until at least the 2019 offseason. The trade request came too close to the deadline for New Orleans to have a reasonable process to move the All-NBA big man, one of the most talented players of his generation, with more than a full season left on a below-market value contract. Further, the mere specter of a wild NBA offseason leaves the market in odd shape, further incentivizing the Pelicans to wait. (Never mind that one of the top suitors for Davis — the Celtics — could not trade for Davis in-season due to a salary-cap quirk. Davis’ camp knew this going in.) The Pelicans would only have traded Davis in-season if they had panicked. They did not. So now a gnarly web of mixed-up goals and incentives has ensnared Davis, the Pelicans, and even the NBA. Here’s the situation: The Pelicans, well outside the West playoff race at this point, have no incentive to win games. Their best assets after Davis are their own first-round picks in 2019 and 2020. Every win the rest of this season gets New Orleans further from the top of the 2019 NBA Draft, and further from replacing Davis with a star. Further, a serious injury could be catastrophic to Davis’ trade value. Davis is the Pelicans’ best player, and really improves the Pelicans’ chances of winning when he plays. Davis wants to play because, err, he’s a basketball player and would like to make a run at the All-NBA team, surely. The NBA is cognizant of the public attitude against tanking, not to mention the frailty of the New Orleans fan market and Louisiana corporate-political support. Davis wants to play, but it’s in the Pelicans’ interests to hold him out. The NBA, which created and maintains the perverse incentive structure that leads to that position from the Pelicans, cannot allow the team to hold out a healthy player for draft purposes without massive backlash from other teams and the players’ union. The upshot is that the league reportedly threatened to fine the Pelicans $100,000 per game for sitting a healthy player, so Davis is playing. Except the Pelicans still have latitude over how much he plays, and how the rotation shakes out. In Friday’s ESPN game against the Timberwolves, A.D. was benched for the entire fourth quarter, despite having 32 points in 25 minutes and the Pelicans being +22 in his minutes. Minnesota nearly rallied, only for New Orleans to hold on for a win that the franchise didn’t want. Davis played a more reasonable 34 minutes on Saturday against the Grizzlies (a fellow tanking team), but the Pelicans lost. Perhaps this is how things will settle: New Orleans will realize that it’s pretty bad without trying to be bad, Davis will lilt along playing hard but not too hard, and the NBA will pretend this whole situation can’t be fixed by changing how teams acquire superstars in the first place. That’s comfortable, that’s soothing. Then, the world can shudder with glee when the Davis sweepstakes starts again when the basketball ends. Yes: everyone is waiting for this generational superstar, this highly entertaining and entrancing basketball hero, to stop playing, because the real sport is everything that happens off the court. It’s just all so weird and so unnecessary. And it’s Davis’ fault for allowing the trade request to be made. There was no need for that. By virtue of telling the Pelicans he did not plan to sign a supermax extension offer in the summer, he would have forced New Orleans to begin shopping him. The trade request on top of that was unnecessary and put unnecessary pressure on the Pelicans, which the front office reacted to poorly, but understandably. We know why Davis did it — to try to get to the Lakers before the Celtics could get into the mix. It just totally backfired. Much of media has turned against him. (He’s not getting the All-NBA spot unless he takes it by force.) He’s hurt his chances of getting to the Lakers before 2020. Pelicans fans are booing him. His team is tanking, yet being forced to give him playing time. His front office and the team’s fans want the Pelicans to lose every night. And he’s stuck until at least the end of the season. Is this what the NBA wants? Is this what Davis wanted? Is this what the Pelicans want? This is all so unnecessary, but there’s no way out of the web.