Trainwreck: The Anthony Davis Story
The lead up to the NBA trade deadline (3:00pm on February 7th) was dominated by speculation surrounding the trade request of New Orleans Pelicans forward Anthony Davis. Davis and his agent Rich Paul of Klutch Sports, who is a longtime friend and associate of LeBron James, requested that Davis be traded to the Los Angeles Lakers. He was fined $50,000 for these remarks. Davis’ broadcasted desire to leave New Orleans however sent shock waves throughout the league - many of which will have profound impacts on the ways that future player requests are handled. Here are several of the big takeaways from the past week.
Magic Johnson's Casino Run
Shaquille O’Neal is absolutely right when he remarked that no speech given by Los Angeles Lakers General Manager Magic Johnson could rally his team and possibly reverse the damage done by the pursuit of Davis. Johnson took a gamble with Anthony Davis, one that was grossly miscalculated and ultimately lost much of what he sought to build earlier in the season. The General Manager is certainly not the only one to blame in the situation, but the rather reckless and frantic demeanor with which Johnson approached the Davis trade was no different than that of a gambler at a roulette table. If at first the ball doesn’t land where you want it to, it’s just one more spin or just one more bet until you can break even – or, one more player the Lakers can “throw in” to make the deal go through. In roulette, as with professional sports, the seemingly attainable mirage of winning the prize (a.k.a. acquiring Anthony Davis) often comes crashing down in a heap of team dysfunction if you don’t know when to stop. It is obvious that Johnson didn’t.
At one point, John Gambadoro of Arizona Sports reported that the latest offer to the Pelicans by Johnson was Ingram, Ball, Kuzma, Zubac, Hart and two first round picks. It’s unknown whether this was the precise offer, but it wouldn’t surprise anyone if it was in that range. Johnson, surely feeling pressure from management and from landing star power forward LeBron James, was ready to go all the way to land Davis and, in doing so, sent a message to this young core that they were all rentals in the Anthony Davis project.
People constantly discuss the “at the end of the day it’s a business” side of the NBA, but in cases like this, in which five of your core young players are paraded as expendable trade pieces, any hopes of chemistry in the locker-room vanish. Even with a great piece of motivation about rallying as a team and working together to get to the playoffs, undoubtedly in the back of every single one of the young Lakers is the uncertainty that Magic will take the exact same gamble in the summer. With that, any already slim chances the Lakers had to compete with the Warriors in the West were postponed until next season.
The LeBron James Effect
LeBron James is without a doubt the most commanding presence in the NBA and ever since his Miami days with Erik Spoelstra and Pat Riley, reports have speculated on the nature and trust of James’ relationships with coaches, general managers, and even owners. Unsurprisingly, the misguided depiction of LeBron James as having a Godfather-like command of the teams he’s on has followed him to the Los Angeles Lakers. His relationship with Rich Paul and Anthony Davis is seen as one that walks a very fine line with the league’s rules on tampering simply by association. However, much of the criticism James has faced regarding the Lakers’ failed rebuild has largely been misdirected (and stems from the fact that his behavior has been likened to Rich Paul’s).
There has yet to be any indication or definitive proof of LeBron James directly tampering with players, calling for players to be traded or “managing” the roster himself. Not once has a teammate or a member of an organization James’ has been on affirmed this to be the case. Rather, it is much more plausible that GMs such as Magic Johnson in acquiring talents such as James work to accommodate their star player rather than vice versa. Rich Paul, LeBron James, and the nature of their private relationship does not necessarily imply a form of tampering that implicates the Lakers forward merely due to the fact that they are long time partners. Not only that, but when confronted with the question as to whether he was the driving force in the Lakers’ push to acquire Anthony Davis, LeBron himself replied by saying that:
“There’s nothing I need to get in this league that I don’t already have. Everything else for me is just like icing on the cake… there’s nothing I’m chasing.”
Dell Demps Sends a Message
If the earlier report is true, strictly from a roster perspective, no general manager looking to do what was in their team’s best interest would decline an offer of Ingram, Ball, Kuzma, Zubac, Hart and two first round picks. There must have been something more at stake and that was surely the case for New Orleans Pelicans General Manager Dell Demps whose refusal to part with Davis could be considered not only a stand against the growing influence of Klutch Sports Group on the agency of team upper management, but also of players dictating franchises with their trade requests.
The league saw a similar story play out earlier last year with the uncertain future of Kawhi Leonard and the San Antonio Spurs. Even though certain teams may offer the best potential trade package in exchange for a franchise player such as Davis or Leonard, it’s clear that, for GMs, their rivals not necessarily getting better is just as equally important to them as their own team getting better. Attempts by agents or uncles to force a team’s hand in trading players to specified associations directly undermines the role of the General Manager. In such cases, any potential offer between the team and the desired player’s suitor become matters of principle that cut deeper than roster spots and draft picks.
Dell Demps saw the situation as a chance to send a message to the rest of the league to “man up” and to stop letting players or agents run the show. Whether he will get such a great offer for Davis again is unlikely, but in asserting himself as an example of a GM who will not be bullied, Demps executed his plan well.
The Limits of NBA Reporting
The growing craze and fanaticism associated with breaking news and leaked information in the NBA is simply considered a symptom of the league’s integration with social media platforms. Platforms like Twitter, for example, serve as the fastest way for reporters, teams and players to get messages across to millions of followers and fans across the world.
With the rapid rise in media coverage however, notable NBA reporters like Adrian Wojnarowski, Shams Charania, or Marc Stein must vie for detailed, insider knowledge that they can broadcast to their followers. In many cases it has become a race to see who’s going to break a story. The negative side of this practice was on full display the past several weeks regarding the Anthony Davis saga and its ramifications will have serious consequences not only on the players who were speculated to be part of the package but on the way the league approaches trades as a whole.
At the end of the day, rumors are a part of the league that cannot be disregarded, but with reporters yearning for a sense of reliability and speed, by trying to get the jump on developing stories they often broadcast preliminary trade reports and offers which have yet to even be accepted or viewed by management. It is one thing to report on trades that have been finalized (or are in the process of being finalized); it is entirely different when reports are being made of merely the offers teams have received.
For the sake of their own team’s chemistry and in consideration of the players, general managers as well as agents should keep this information private until any potential deal is made final. Offers alone feed the online frenzy, but in the case that they don’t manifest into an actual deal, often leave behind a residue of uncertainty and dysfunction. This is not to say that players themselves aren’t fully capable of handling rumors or speculation surrounding their futures, but spectacles like those of the past several weeks ultimately do more harm than good for the NBA community, and may even impede trades that could have been made otherwise.
Avel Ivanov is a columnist at The Bench. He can be reached on Twitter at @av3ll.