Lowe: Questions, wild cards and bottom lines after the enormous AD trade

NBA

When Kyrie Irving declared a week before the trade deadline that he didn’t “owe anybody s—,” he inadvertently provided the Los Angeles Lakers leverage in their trade talks with the New Orleans Pelicans surrounding Anthony Davis.

Due to an arcane cap rule, the Boston Celtics, who had been hoarding the mother lode for Davis for years, could not trade for him until after July 1. The Pelicans expected Boston’s godfather offer, presumably built around Jayson Tatum, would be there July 1. The May draft lottery also could create a new suitor if the No. 1 pick landed right. Waiting was smart.

But if Irving was leaning toward bolting Boston, the Lakers could plausibly argue Boston’s mega-offer would vanish with him; the Celtics could not risk losing Irving, Tatum, other prime assets and then Davis, in the event Davis also walked in free agency in the summer of 2020. Magic Johnson and Rob Pelinka could tell Dell Demps, then the Pelicans general manager: Take our offer today, because it might not be as good in July if Boston is in shambles.

The Lakers, through multiple avenues, absolutely tried to use the leverage Irving had given them in precisely this way. The Pelicans ignored them. Incredibly, everything the Lakers postured about then has come to pass, and the Pelicans somehow still pocketed a better deal than the one Los Angeles dangled four-plus months ago.

The Lakers’ reported deadline offer oscillated, but according to most reliable reports, it coalesced around L.A.’s entire young core — including Kyle Kuzma, still a Laker today — and two first-round picks, plus salary relief in the form of the Lakers absorbing Solomon Hill.

In Saturday’s reported deal, the Pelicans basically swapped out Kuzma and that cap relief in favor of extracting a third first-round pick and unprotected swap rights on the Lakers’ 2023 first-rounder. The final tally: Brandon Ingram, Lonzo Ball and Josh Hart; the No. 4 pick in this draft; the Lakers’ 2021 pick only if it falls within the top eight, otherwise converting into the Lakers’ unprotected 2022 first-round pick; swap rights on first-rounders in 2023; and the Lakers’ unprotected first-round pick in 2024, with New Orleans holding the option (at some agreed-upon date) to pass on that 2024 pick in favor of the Lakers’ unprotected 2025 selection. The protections protect the Pelicans, not the Lakers.

That is extraordinary return for New Orleans and David Griffin, its new executive president of basketball operations, given Davis will be on an expiring contract — and the limited market that emerged in the end for him. The Lakers gave up more than any team has in exchange for a superstar — including those with multiple seasons on their contracts — in the past decade. Perhaps that price is fitting, considering Davis’ age (barely 26), his dominance and that the Lakers likely conceive of Davis as already playing for them under a long-term contract given their prolonged public dalliance.

Davis for a year isn’t worth this. Davis for the next five or 10 seasons is — even if no other team was prepared to approach this price.

Several teams sniffed around the Davis sweepstakes, but it was mostly due diligence. The New York Knicks, reeling from the Achilles tear suffered by its prime target, Kevin Durant, backed away, per league sources. Boston’s mega-offer never came, sources say.

To be clear: I’m not 100 percent convinced Tatum was off limits in talks, as some reports suggested. (ESPN’s Ramona Shelburne reported Sunday that the Celtics were “willing to discuss young, talented players such as Tatum.”) Reconstructing offers that evolve by the day and sometimes the hour is tricky. In deals of this magnitude, some suitors proffer multiple general trade constructions at the same time. Which one is the most “real” or final? Are any?

I am convinced the Celtics did not combine Tatum with enough of their best assets — Jaylen Brown, the lightly protected 2020 Memphis pick — to compete with the Lakers deal, and as a result never mentioned him in anything like a realistic set-in-stone offer. That leaves a large middle ground, but nothing in that ground could outdo what the Lakers gave. Boston does not appear to have been close.

(This has been a disastrous year for Boston. I addressed their season from hell, and what those of us who, it turns out, were too optimistic about Boston can learn from it, in reflecting on the Toronto Raptors winning the title after beating the Celtics out for Kawhi Leonard.)

As ESPN’s Kevin Pelton noted, a few factors might have pumped up L.A.’s desperation between February and this weekend. But only one of those is wholly new: injuries to Durant and Klay Thompson opening a path to the NBA Finals.

The rest, everyone basically knew in February. The fallout surrounding Magic Johnson’s resignation revealed the Lakers as a dysfunctional train wreck, but that was not a secret among insiders. The public exposure of it might have pushed Pelinka to redeem the franchise.

Insiders understood in February that the Lakers could not risk keeping cap space open to lure Davis in free agency in 2020. Doing so would waste another year of LeBron James‘ prime. It also was consensus in February that the Lakers trailed in the race for most of this summer’s top free agents. Acquiring Davis makes them more attractive, but that was true then.

A second interim change that warped the Davis trade landscape: the Lakers leaping from No. 11 to No. 4 in the lottery. That gave the Lakers a carrot New Orleans craved.

Events since February helped New Orleans in the aggregate. The bounty in draft assets is still a little surprising. They got damn near everything possible. The little extras that don’t seem important in the rush to completion — Wait, you want a pick swap in this Joe Johnson deal? Sure, whatever, can we just do this thing? — can come back to haunt you. There are things you can say no to without killing the deal.

New Orleans was smart to push the Lakers’ draft obligations almost as far out as possible under league rules. It is so easy to argue now that the Lakers’ draft assets will be worth little in 2023, 2024 and 2025. The Lakers bet everything on that. They are right that this isn’t the Brooklyn Nets-Boston Celtics heist of 2013. The Nets opened the vault for over-the-hill veterans. The prime-aged stars who were supposed to carry those veterans proved woefully inadequate.

Davis is a decade younger than Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett were when that landmark deal happened. The Lakers also have cap space (more on that later) to round out their roster.

Even so: You never know. LeBron will turn 40 in the 2024-25 season, if he is still playing for the Lakers (or at all). He just suffered the first serious injury of his NBA career, bursting the aura of invincibility. He is on pace to be third all time in combined regular-season and playoff minutes by the end of next season.

Davis also has incentive to hit free agency again after the 2021-22 season — his 10th, at which point he will be eligible for the largest possible contract. Davis staying with the Lakers beyond 2022 appears a fait accompli. He wanted to join. His agent, Rich Paul, declared it so to the media. Paul compared the Lakers to Jennifer Lopez. I’d bet heavily on Davis remaining a Laker for a long time. Still: You never know.

If Davis stays in L.A. through the duration of the Lakers’ pick obligations, they have a safety net protecting them against bottoming out the way the Nets did when Boston controlled Brooklyn’s picks.

Davis walks in the door as arguably LeBron’s best teammate ever, though I will hear arguments for 2010-11 Dwyane Wade. (Stop sleeping on prime Dwyane Wade, people!) Davis and LeBron are perfect complements in a way LeBron and Wade could never be.

It is really hard in the modern NBA of zone defenses and complex help schemes for a big man to be the initiator in a championship offense. Even the best bigs need someone to get them the ball first. Few have the handle or passing vision to face up and attack elite defenses.

Davis improved at those things; he quietly averaged 3.9 assists per game last season, almost double his prior career high. But he still is most comfortable with lightning quick one- and two-dribble scoring attacks. He is not a great read-and-react passer once in motion. More than 60 percent of Davis’ two-point buckets came via assists last season. He remains more finisher than starter.

Teaming with LeBron slots Davis into his ideal role. He will be the most well-rounded pick-and-roll partner LeBron has ever had — the only one who can devastate both diving to the rim for lobs and popping out for jumpers.

You make the playoffs with Davis in the role he held in New Orleans. You win titles with Davis in the role he will inhabit next to LeBron. The two have readymade synergy. They will not overlap as most superstar pairs do. They will not take from each other. They will amplify each other.

Oh: Davis is also a perennial Defensive Player of the Year candidate who can cover for LeBron in his golden years. With good health and smart supplementary signings (kindly ignore last offseason in considering this), the Lakers advance right away to the inner circle of contenders.

So the Lakers should be fine. Right?

Have you watched the NBA of the past 36 months and come away thinking it is predictable? The NBA is insane. The No. 1 pick in the 2017 draft forgot how to shoot, and that is only, like, one candidate among a dozen for the honor of “Craziest NBA Thing of the Past Two Years.” What if LeBron gets hurt again or just gets old like a normal player?

It’s not like we have to look far for evidence that a poorly-constructed Davis-centric team might struggle. Davis has been mostly healthy over the last three seasons — a great sign for the Lakers — and the Pelicans made the playoffs only once in that time. Decent non-playoff teams have a better chance of vaulting up the draft under the revamped lottery rules, as the Pelicans did in leaping into the Zion Williamson spot. Just one near-miss for the Lakers could carry a heavier cost than it would have under the old lottery system.

The Lakers also need ambulatory human players. They barely have a starting lineup right now. There is debate raging within league circles over whether the Lakers should spend their remaining cap space on another star or multiple role players.

The Davis trade will make it hard for the Lakers to improve their roster going forward via other trades. Signing multiple guys on salaries in the $10 million-plus range — the role player route — would unlock more trade possibilities than possible on a roster with three max players, Kuzma and almost nothing in draft assets.

But a third star might better fortify the Lakers against nightmare scenarios in which LeBron and Davis are injured at the same time. Problem: It’s unclear if the Lakers will have the cap space to sign such a player.

As ESPN’s Bobby Marks and Adrian Wojnarowski reported, the timing of the trade is crucial in that regard. The Lakers are taking on money. The only question is when. If the deal closes on July 6 — as the Pelicans seem to prefer — the Lakers will be stuck well short of max-level space. If the Lakers can postpone closing until July 30, at which point whoever they pick at No. 4 on New Orleans’ behalf will be trade eligible, the Lakers can maintain their current level of space — just about the max for a player carrying from seven to nine years of experience — to use in the meantime.

Marks and Wojnarowski reported the expectation as of Sunday is that the deal would close on July 6, when the league’s moratorium on transactions lifts. That is a big whoopsie for the Lakers if they included this much draft compensation expecting to wield max-level space.

There are remedies. The Pelicans could in theory demand more for agreeing to the July 30 timetable. (How fantastic would that be — a sequel of sorts to the dragged-out Isaiah Thomas saga of two summers ago?) The Lakers could toss Moritz Wagner and Isaac Bonga into this deal, or others, though doing so would not open cap space equal to their combined salaries; the league applies a $900,000 cap charge to every open roster spot.

The Lakers right now are operating on both fronts. They still hope to chase max players such as Kemba Walker, Jimmy Butler and Kawhi Leonard, sources say. They also have begun discussing players expected to fetch somewhere in that $10 million-plus range, sources say.

Flash forward a year: With just Davis, LeBron and Kuzma on the books, the Lakers project as well short of max-level cap space. It will be fascinating to see how the Lakers fill out a team — now and later — around their new superstar duo.

Bottom line: Even if the Lakers suffer no bad seasons during the LeBron/Davis era — if none of the Pelicans’ wagers on the Lakers’ downside pay off — this deal represents a great return under the circumstances for New Orleans.

Ingram and Ball are still unfinished, even if Ingram already is up for an extension that could end up a damaging overpay if he fails to develop. It has become fashionable to compare Ingram to Andrew Wiggins — another “looks the part” disappointment. They share a certain affection for bad pull-up midrangers.

But Ingram by age 20 — he’s still just 21 — already was flashing the sort of playmaking feel that has eluded Wiggins his entire career. Ingram is better defensively and has the potential to be a multi-positional stopper.

The Lakers rushed Ingram into an alpha scorer identity. Playing a secondary role alongside Ball and Williamson (and Jrue Holiday, if he remains with the Pelicans, instead of nudging them for a deal to a win-now outfit) will be perfect for Ingram. He can attack off the catch and run pick-and-rolls against scrambled defenses when Holiday, Ball or Williamson swings the ball to him.

His 3-point shooting will be the wild card — the difference between Ingram being a solid veteran and something much more.

Same goes for Ball, though he brings preternatural playmaking, as well as plus rebounding and defense for his position. I’m excited to see what he does outside the L.A. circus — and amid Alvin Gentry’s go-go offense.

Hart is a solid complementary player, provided his 3-point percentage bounces back up; Hart had knee surgery in late March, and the Pelicans have to hope knee issues hampered his play last season.

Maybe Ingram, Ball and Hart stagnate. Maybe the Lakers remain elite through 2025 and cough up a series of picks in the high-20s. This deal could end up being painless for them.

Both teams got what they wanted — what they needed.

The Pelicans’ process to that end point appears to have been cleaner, smarter, more organized — at least since Griffin’s arrival.

But the Lakers got the in-his-prime superstar. Maybe that is all that matters.

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