Johnson’s team had already offered indications that it was frustrated by its dealings with New Orleans, which appeared to alternate between demanding greater packages from the Lakers and not communicating at all. A few days before the deadline, a source told the Los Angeles Times, the Pelicans “wanted more and more and more. There was no more to give. They had cap relief with Hill being in the deal. But the more they wanted, the more it became outrageous and unrealistic.”
Around the same time, ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski reported the Lakers were “still glad to engage with the Pelicans on an Anthony Davis trade, but no longer want to bid against themselves” and were “waiting for [the] Pelicans to make a counter-proposal.” Wojnarowski followed with a report that New Orleans General Manager Dell Demps was having “no communication” with Johnson and, hours before the deadline passed, he reported that talks were “dormant,” adding that the “Pelicans seem content to run out the clock.”
The speculation about New Orleans’s true intentions regarding its talks with the Lakers sprung from widespread suspicion that Davis had been tampered with by Los Angeles star LeBron James through their mutual agent, Rich Paul. A longtime friend of James’s, Paul incurred a $50,000 fine for Davis late last month after making it public knowledge that the player wanted to be traded from New Orleans, with the Lakers quickly emerging in reports as his preferred destination.
James had raised eyebrows, and not just the one(s) on Davis’s well-known visage, when he declared in December that it would be “amazing” and “incredible” to have Davis as a teammate on the Lakers, and after James selected the Pelicans star during Thursday’s NBA All-Star Game draft, the Bucks’ Giannis Antetokounmpo jokingly asked, “Isn’t that tampering?”
Under Johnson’s leadership, the Lakers have been fined twice in the past two years for tampering, for a total of $550,000. On Sunday, Johnson invited more scrutiny over his adherence to league rules when he said that 76ers point guard Ben Simmons, another client of Paul’s, “reached out” out to the Lakers to see whether he could “get together” with Johnson and learn some point guard techniques from the Hall of Famer.
“I said, ‘Hey, you got to clear it with the league,’ and if everybody — the Sixers sign off, we sign off, the league signs off — fine, I will do that,” Johnson said. “But if everybody doesn’t sign off, then we can’t get together. But I love [Simmons’s] game, I love his vision, I love also, too, he’s very, in terms of basketball IQ, very high basketball IQ.”
During the talks with the Pelicans, reports emerged that Los Angeles had offered essentially all of its young talent, with some observers viewing that as a ploy by New Orleans to foment discontent and dissension in the Lakers’ locker room. Johnson, though, downplayed that angle Sunday and asserted that his players needed to learn how to handle seeing their names bandied about in trade rumors.
“All deals are . . . a lot of them are made in public,” Johnson said (via ESPN). “We didn’t make it in public, but that’s part of it. That’s what happens, man. We’ve got big boys here, and they bounce back. They’re fine.”
The possibility of a Davis trade was a major talking point in NBA circles, and it certainly seemed to affect the Lakers two days before the deadline, when they suffered a 42-point loss to the Pacers that was the worst of James’s career and included him appearing to keep his distance from his teammates. However, hours after the deadline passed, Los Angeles got a stirring road victory over the Celtics, only to get drubbed again Sunday, this time in Philadelphia.
Speaking before the game against the 76ers, Johnson said of his young players to reporters: “Quit making this about thinking these guys are babies, because that’s what you’re treating them like. They’re professionals. All of them. And this is how this league works. They know it, I know it. That’s how it goes."
Johnson said that he spoke with his players “individually” while they were on the road trip, which ends Tuesday at Atlanta before the all-star break arrives, because he wanted to “make sure that we’re heading all in the same direction.” He added that while it was “the nature of our business” for “young guys” to be “affected” by trade rumors, he reiterated his stance that it was important for them to handle the uncertainty with focus and professionalism.
“I’m not the guy who, ‘Oh, I’m going to up and hug guys.’ I’m not that dude,” Johnson said (via USA Today). “And they’re ready to go, so let’s not belabor that point, like all of a sudden everybody’s upset over maybe being traded, maybe not.”
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