LOS ANGELES — Wearing an easy smile and sounding relieved, Anthony Davis held up his Los Angeles Lakers jersey as dozens of cameras clicked away.
To get here, the Lakers tried and failed to engineer a trade with the New Orleans Pelicans before the February trade deadline. The fallout from that brazen public effort prompted the Pelicans to fire general manager Dell Demps, and it left the Lakers with a fractured locker room, leading to a sixth straight lottery trip and setting up the departures of president Magic Johnson and coach Luke Walton. When talks rekindled this summer, the Lakers had to part with three valued young players — Lonzo Ball, Brandon Ingram and Josh Hart — as well as three first-round draft picks in a blockbuster trade.
Davis, meanwhile, endured the most challenging stretch of his career. His agent, Rich Paul, was fined $50,000 for lodging a public trade request. Davis appeared overwhelmed by questions about his future during All-Star Weekend in Charlotte, and the Pelicans limited his minutes down the stretch of the regular season. As if missing the playoffs for the fifth time in his seven seasons wasn’t bad enough, he was repeatedly booed by his home fans. More bumps awaited once the deal was consummated. Davis had to waive a $4 million trade kicker so the Lakers could pursue Kawhi Leonard, who eventually signed with the Los Angeles Clippers. Then, in a final hiccup, he had to sacrifice his preferred jersey number.
The 26-year-old all-star power forward has worn No. 23 throughout his NBA career and at the University of Kentucky. James, who wore No. 23 for the Lakers last year, had planned to switch to No. 6 so he could give Davis No. 23 as a welcome present. The gesture, which was celebrated in an Instagram photo of the two stars last week, did not meet an NBA deadline regarding switched numbers and would have cost Nike millions of dollars due to unsold inventory. The plan was therefore nixed at the 11th hour, a turn of events that Davis called “pretty hurtful.”
In short, the Lakers lost most of their roster, multiple future assets, their lead executive and their coach, while Davis sacrificed a year of his prime, much of his goodwill in New Orleans, $4 million and his favorite number. This is exactly what NBA Commissioner Adam Silver meant when he said last week that trade demands “are disheartening to the team, disheartening to the community, and they don’t serve the player well.”
Despite the messiness, Davis expressed no regrets.
“The most difficult part for me was the unknown,” he said. “When it was announced I’d been traded, I wouldn’t say it was a sigh of relief. It was just something that I’ve thought about for a long time. It was tough for me to leave the city I was playing in for seven years. I just wanted to take control of my career. People used to tell me what we need to do, and I would just roll with it. As I started getting older and more experienced, I don’t want to do that. I want to do it this way.”
The Lakers are fully convinced that Davis’s immense talent and potential will make everyone forget the many complications along the way.
“There is no more complete basketball player,” Lakers General Manager Rob Pelinka said. “There is nothing he can’t do. He can shoot. He can make plays. He can defend one to five, project the rim, handle the ball. His dedication to his craft is unparalleled. To think that he’s going to be a pillar for this franchise for many years to come, it’s something we’re incredibly proud of.”
Coach Frank Vogel envisioned James and Davis making life easier for each other by drawing double teams, running pick and rolls and overwhelming opponents with their athleticism and versatility. When James greeted Davis after the news conference, the superstars were swarmed by more than two dozen cameras — an early indication of their ability to dominate headlines together.
Davis looked and sounded especially eager to play with James, easily the best teammate of his career. Although he has advanced in the playoffs just once — by sweeping the Portland Trail Blazers in the first round in 2018 — Davis was already dreaming big.
"The things [James] does on the floor are pretty amazing,” Davis said. “I never really had a chance to play alongside him. At the 2012 Olympics, I was the towel guy. I didn’t play much. We’ve had a little time during All-Star Games. But to get a full season to see the things he does — pass, shoot, talk well defensively, great leader — I’m excited to get a lot of that this season. I’ll put our roster up against anybody. In a seven-game series, I feel like we will come out victorious.”
After expending so much energy and so many resources to acquire him, the Lakers plan to keep Davis at the center of their planning. Pelinka praised Davis’s trade kicker decision as an “incredibly team-focused sacrificial move” and recalled how James and Davis were actively involved in the team’s subsequent free agency additions.
Once Leonard decided on the Clippers, Pelinka signed DeMarcus Cousins and Rajon Rondo, two of Davis’s former Pelicans teammates, along with Danny Green. Pelinka said the Lakers targeted Cousins and JaVale McGee, both traditional centers, to accommodate Davis’s desire to play power forward.
“We want a decade of dominance out of him,” Pelinka said. “We have to do what’s best for his body. Having him bang against the biggest centers every night is not what’s best for his body, our team or the franchise.”
When the Lakers inked James last summer, they hoped for an immediate return to relevance. By contrast, their pursuit of Davis had two distinct goals: chasing titles with James and setting up a post-James future. After all, James is 34 and can become a free agent in July 2021. Davis, who is set to become an unrestricted free agent next summer, can sign a five-year contract with the Lakers next July.
Davis remained noncommittal when asked whether he was ready to make a long-term commitment to the Lakers.
“When that time comes around next year, you can ask me that question and we can revisit it,” he said. “Right now, my focus is on this year and figuring out how I can help this organization become a championship team.”
Davis’s dodge ensured that he didn’t say something that could come back to bite him, a la Kyrie Irving’s ill-fated “If you guys will have me back, I plan on re-signing here” statement to Boston Celtics fans last year. It also kept Davis in a position of maximized leverage, forcing the Lakers to continue to operate with his best interests in mind.
More than anything, it reflected the true state of Davis and the Lakers: They have circled each other for months, but their actual relationship is starting from scratch. After so many starts and stops, and so much collateral damage, it’s best not to rush.
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