Sports News Without Access, Favor, Or Discretion

Just Make The Damn Trade

Photo: Chris Graythen (Getty)

It’s worth remembering that this all ought to be pretty easy.

Anthony Davis wants to go play for the Los Angeles Lakers and the Lakers want Davis to come play for them. Because it suits the Lakers’ goals to have that happen this season, the team is more than happy to trade a bunch of player contracts and draft picks to Davis’s present team, the New Orleans Pelicans, rather than waiting for Davis to hit free-agency in the summer of 2020. If the Lakers can’t offer the Pelicans the absolute biggest possible return in exchange for Davis, it remains true that the neatest and most equitable possible arrangement is for the Pelicans to accept the Lakers’ best offer and send Davis where he’s trying to go. The Lakers get their guy; Davis goes directly to the team he wants to play for; the Pelicans get paid simply for not being obstinate dicks about it. That’s very simple.

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Of course, that’s not how shit works, at all. The Pelicans are not seeking an equitable arrangement. Because the Pelicans are not immediately at risk of losing Anthony Davis for nothing at all—he’ll still be bound to them by contract at the end of this season, and through next season’s trading deadline, and the Lakers’ best offer might still be on the table as a last resort a year from now if using it as a stalking-horse doesn’t produce something better—they have leverage. They can do better than the Lakers’ best offer, and so they must. Or, anyway, he can’t force their hand one way or another without nuking his own reputation.

So the fact that Anthony Davis knows where he wants to go, and that the team for which he wants to play also wants him to play for them, doesn’t really matter at all—not even as a tiebreaker between otherwise equal trade packages. If it scores the Pelicans a marginal improvement upon the trade haul the Lakers can offer, they will happily trade Davis to some team that he doesn’t want to play for, and that team will effectively claim droit du seigneur rights over him until he becomes a free agent. The Boston Celtics want Davis, for instance, and can offer a more attractive trade package if the Pelicans just squat on him until July. Davis doesn’t want to play for the Celtics, but that only matters because the likelihood that he’d leave them in free-agency in the summer of 2020 might determine how many players and draft picks they’ll pay to get him.

This afternoon, the news is that the Lakers are frustrated by New Orleans’s sky-high demands and so have (performatively) withdrawn themselves from trade discussions. Their best offer—basically, every young player on the roster, comprising most of their nightly rotation, plus a pair of future first-round draft picks—still stands, but it wasn’t enough to convince the Pelicans to make a trade now, as opposed to waiting until July to see what a franchise Davis doesn’t want to play for might offer in exchange for a player who doesn’t want to play for them.

This is all just how it goes. The priority for all involved is asset maximization, and game theory is the first algorithm for processing all possible choices. Overwhelmingly, coverage of Davis’s efforts to get out of New Orleans, here as elsewhere, tends to adopt management’s bloodless priors by default; the work that’s left from there amounts to weighing real or hypothetical trade offers against each other. Which one should they take? Should they hold out for Boston’s offer, or is the risk too great that Davis will injure himself badly enough to diminish his trade value between now and then, or that by playing the rest of this season he might worsen the team’s upcoming draft pick? Nowhere in all that conjecturing and analysis does all of this just being fucking gross ever seem to come up.

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(Nor does simple shame ever seem to factor in. The Pelicans organization had six and a half years to build on and around one of the sport’s brightest stars, and all it has to show for its efforts is a team and front office that the star wants to escape badly enough that he’s willing to turn down a supermax contract extension and request a trade 18 months before he’ll even be eligible for free agency. Why shouldn’t that organization be embarrassed to hold him hostage for the best possible trade return? The organization wasn’t worthy of Anthony Davis; definitionally, it is not worthy of receiving a trade package equal to his value. Take what you can get in exchange for the guy you alienated, scrubs!)

(Ditto for the Celtics. Danny Ainge has been angling toward trading for Davis for years, and what he’s got to show for it is yet another team Davis doesn’t want to play for, even though joining it would give him an extremely appealing path toward representing the Eastern conference in the Finals as soon as next season. That all should be fucking embarrassing! The prospect of trading for Davis as a hostage rental should be unbearably humiliating. Duck out in shame, for chrissakes.)

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What underwrites all this is the collective agreement to forget that there are actual humans involved in this process. Davis is one, a human who wants to go live and work in Los Angeles for the Lakers; the ownership- and management-class creeps presently exerting control over his career are humans, too, who can either facilitate his desire to go be happy in his destination of choice or, by preventing that for at least another year for the sake of leverage, be obstructive assholes choosing to treat another human badly. It’s too much to expect anything less than the absolute worst from them, but a reminder is probably in order all the same. This should all be pretty easy. Instead, it’s stupid and gross. Make the damn trade already.

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