For years, Anthony Davis has been the NBA’s greatest untapped resource and its most wide-open superstar canvas. That’s all about to change.
The former no. 1 overall pick’s career finally reached its long-anticipated tipping point, with the New Orleans Pelicans releasing a statement Monday afternoon that Davis has requested a trade and informed management that he will not sign an extension this summer.
The announcement comes as Davis continues to spin his wheels in New Orleans, beset by coaching changes, questionable roster moves and injured teammates. The 25-year-old big man has won just five playoff games total during his career and is now on track for his fifth lottery trip in seven seasons; Davis’s agent, Rich Paul, LeBron James’s longtime friend and business partner, stressed to ESPN that his client’s goal is to play for a team that can “win consistently and compete for a championship.”
In truth, Davis’s career is in desperate need of a jump-start, and his profile badly needs a boost. When he arrived on the NBA scene as a prodigy in 2012, his path to global dominance seemed preordained. He was an Olympic gold medalist before he made his NBA debut, an all-star in his second season and an all-NBA first-teamer and a top-five MVP candidate by Year 3.
In terms of pure talent, Davis has loomed as a top-six player ever since. In terms of fame and recognition, though, he has languished. His jersey was not among the league’s top-10 sellers in 2016-17, and it ranked just 15th in 2017-18. He received 2.5 million all-star votes from fans this year, ranking 12th leaguewide. Milwaukee’s Giannis Antetokounmpo, Philadelphia’s Joel Embiid and Dallas’s Luka Doncic all received more votes despite being younger than Davis, who wasn’t selected as a starter for the West. And while Nike Basketball has rolled out signature shoes for Kyrie Irving and Paul George, with plans for an upcoming Antetokounmpo model, Davis has been passed over.
New Orleans’s shaky results have contributed to Davis’s star dimming, but he bears responsibility, too. With Davis content to hide behind the “Unibrow” persona, his personal brand has hardly evolved as his game has matured. He’s not a natural self-promoter or an eager interview subject, and he plays his cards close to the vest. Davis seemed on the verge of a breakthrough when the Pelicans swept the Portland Trail Blazers in the first round of the 2018 playoffs, but a quick exit from the second round against the Golden State Warriors and the offseason departures of DeMarcus Cousins and Rajon Rondo again left Davis hanging. Since declaring himself the “best player in the league” during training camp, he’s been largely ignored, and even his recent finger injury received a small fraction of the attention paid to James’s groin strain.
When Davis hired Paul in September, it was the first public sign that he understood his career could use some help. Paul was there when James made a similar midcareer move to the Miami Heat, and he has been front-and-center with the Los Angeles Lakers since James’s arrival. At games this season, Paul has looked an awful lot like a second GM, sitting courtside and regularly interacting with the team’s players and coaching staff.
Paul’s matchmaking role here appears obvious: James needs an A-list sidekick if he wants to have any hope of competing with the Warriors, and Davis needs a larger platform plus an experienced mentor to win big for the first time in his career. The Lakers are a natural home for this union, given their market, their nonstop hype and their platter of prospects — Lonzo Ball, Brandon Ingram, Kyle Kuzma — and future first-round picks to help facilitate trade talks.
Davis’s trade request must be received in good faith because Davis has been loyal — frankly, overly loyal — to the Pelicans, because of Paul’s direct ties with the Lakers, and because Pelicans owner Gayle Benson recently told the Athletic, “I really like Anthony, but if he wants to leave, you can’t hold him back.” The request is a calculated step, not a rash move, and it comes after Davis, like Kevin Garnett before him, spent years accumulating goodwill with a team that is pledging not to hold him hostage. The proper conditions are in place for Davis to move before the Feb. 7 trade deadline, as the primary holdup, before Monday’s revelation, had been his own reluctance to flex his significant leverage.
New Orleans must now decide whether it wants to delay the inevitable or get on with its future. In its statement Monday afternoon, the organization said that it was “disappointed” in Davis’s decision, adding that it will pursue trades “on our terms and our timeline, one that makes the most sense for our team, and it will not be dictated by those outside our organization.”
Reasonable arguments can be made for trading before the deadline and for waiting until the summer.
With no real shot at winning a playoff series this year, it’s more difficult to justify keeping Davis in the fold and hoping for a late-season run. In fact, trading Davis could set up the franchise to enter the Zion Williamson tank derby: The Pelicans are in the 10th draft spot right now, but they could get as high as fifth or sixth if they choose to pull the plug. Moving Davis before the deadline could also set off a liquidation process: Nikola Mirotic and Julius Randle could be moved for assets that could speed up their rebuilding process.
Yet New Orleans does have some cause to wait. Davis is under contract through the end of next season, so the Pelicans haven’t yet reached the make-or-break stage of the negotiations. The Boston Celtics, a premier Davis suitor, can’t make a serious offer before the deadline because of salary cap restrictions. And the Indiana Pacers proved in 2017 that waiting until the summer to trade their disgruntled superstar, Paul George, didn’t sabotage their return value.
How and when New Orleans bites the bullet on a trade, and the public-relations backlash that will accompany it, are less important than what a Davis trade will mean for him and for the league. If Davis does force his way to the Lakers, his new partnership with James would be a must-see alley-oop parade, and it would constitute a strong foundation for challenging the Warriors. The move would also position Davis on center stage for the first time in his career, improving his chances to win his first MVP, land a signature sneaker and become the face of global marketing campaigns. That’s a pretty clear path to the icon status that has eluded him in New Orleans.
With the Pelicans, Davis has existed as an object of pity and lust: Observers felt bad that his seasons ended prematurely and that he had so little help, and fans spent years daydreaming trade scenarios to pry him away. In his next home, Davis will hopefully return to his original destiny: an object of sheer awe whose athleticism, length and skill should terrorize opponents deep into May and June for years to come.