Last summer, the San Antonio Spurs thought they had the Los Angeles Lakers right where they wanted them. L.A. had the inside track to sign LeBron James as a free agent on July 1. But the belief around the league was that James wouldn’t come to the Lakers by himself and spend the last years of his prime babysitting their young roster.
The Spurs thought it was a moment of maximum leverage from which to trade Kawhi Leonard, and they wanted everything the Lakers could offer. Not a couple of the Lakers’ young players and draft picks. All of them.
The Lakers had spent five years building their team through the lottery and felt good about how they had reshaped their roster. They had held on to their young players when Paul George was traded. When Jimmy Butler was traded. When DeMarcus Cousins was traded. Were they really going to part with all of them now? Could they sign James without that second star in place?
The Lakers held firm. James came anyway, banking on the Lakers getting him a co-star in a trade or via free agency in the summer of 2019. Leonard, meanwhile, was traded to the Toronto Raptors and won an NBA title.
The Pelicans’ trade demands in exchange for Anthony Davis were nearly identical to the Spurs’ requests for Leonard. Their pressure points, leverage and even the young players involved were virtually the same.
But the Lakers were in a very different place this time around. The NBA is in a very different place this time around, because two of the top free agents about to hit the market — Klay Thompson and Kevin Durant — just suffered catastrophic injuries that will keep them out all or most of next season. A third, Leonard, just won his second Finals MVP, and the Lakers’ chances for even getting a meeting with him on July 1 seemed to be dimming. And a fourth, Kyrie Irving, just fired his agent and has been increasingly linked to the Brooklyn Nets.
That’s virtually the entire top tier of this summer’s vaunted free-agent class essentially coming off the Lakers’ board. All of which made Davis the top player whom the Lakers had the chance to acquire this summer.
The Lakers couldn’t leave things to the whims of free agency anymore. Not with James hitting his mid-30s and the pressure on controlling owner Jeanie Buss and general manager Rob Pelinka reaching a fevered pitch following the embarrassing resignation and media tour from former team president Magic Johnson.
Sure, Pelinka could’ve cut some of the tension at his news conference on draft night by making fun of himself for the fake Heath Ledger story that ESPN’s Baxter Holmes revealed last month. But the only way for Pelinka to truly relieve some of the pressure on himself and the franchise was to acquire a superstar at any cost. The Lakers simply could not afford to miss on this trade and free agency again.
Which is exactly what the Pelicans were banking on. And exactly why this trade couldn’t happen until everyone set egos, and hurt feelings from February, aside.
Now, calling those discussions in February “negotiations” is a bit of a stretch. The Pelicans were never serious about dealing with the Lakers then. They didn’t like being forced into this position by Davis and his representative, Rich Paul. And they probably weren’t going to let former general manager Dell Demps make this big of a decision anyway.
So the Lakers — really just Johnson, because Demps wouldn’t talk to Pelinka — would call and Demps would write names on the board without giving them any feedback. Those names would leak publicly and do damage to the Lakers’ team chemistry. But eventually, Johnson and the Lakers got the hint and stopped banging up against what had become an incredibly self-destructive wall.
Everyone involved in those failed trade discussions got hurt.
The Pelicans’ season tanked. The Lakers imploded. Demps was fired. Johnson quit, then threw everyone under the bus. Lakers coach Luke Walton left. James, Paul, Pelinka and Buss endured months of withering criticism. Davis was booed by the home fans, taken off promotional materials and criticized for some suspect fashion choices.
It was bad business for both sides. And when everyone came up for air and surveyed the damage, both sides realized there was still a hell of a deal to make if they could get over themselves.
Said one source close to the negotiations, “The biggest difference this time was David Griffin [the new Pelicans executive vice president of basketball operations]. He wasn’t involved before. He could negotiate frankly and fairly.”
For the Lakers, this is a massive gamble, with Davis hitting free agency next summer. He is a better player — and probably a healthier one — than Dwight Howard was in 2012, when the Lakers took a similar chance and got massively burned for it. Again, this is what the Lakers do. Chasing superstars is part of their DNA. Add in the pressure of maximizing this three-year window with a still-in-his-prime James, and this was an automatic reflex for them. Plus, the Lakers are are likely to have $23.7 million in cap space this summer, assuming the trade is completed on July 6, as sources have indicated, and Davis accepts his trade bonus.
For the Pelicans, this could be a Herschel Walker-type haul for a player they were going to lose in a year. They essentially got three top-five lottery picks out of the deal, two of which already have gone through their NBA growing pains. Just the idea of Lonzo Ball throwing lobs to probable No. 1 overall pick Zion Williamson is enough to bring fans back to the Smoothie King Center. Ball and Jrue Holiday might already be the best defensive backcourt in the NBA.
The Pelicans might be the rare team to trade a superstar in his prime and not have to rebuild. And this is before we know whether the Pelicans will keep the No. 4 pick or flip it for an established veteran.
Either way, the Lakers gave up a massive load of assets to acquire Davis — something they’ll either be lamenting for years to come, as they did after the Howard and Steve Nash trades, or celebrating if Davis and James team up to restore the franchise to glory.
This is a legacy-defining move for Griffin. He mutually parted ways with the Cleveland Cavaliers after the 2017 season so he could run a franchise the way he wanted, without ownership interference. Griffin was so determined to do things on his terms this time, he passed on an opportunity and massive payday to run the New York Knicks two years ago because he wasn’t guaranteed full control of basketball operations.
Instead, Griffin spent his downtime in Sonoma, California, with his wife. They did a lot of wine tasting and enjoyed the region’s world-class culinary scene. He hosted a sports talk show on SiriusXM.
The right opportunity would come. The right terms. And if it didn’t, Griffin would just enjoy his life. When Pelicans owner Gayle Benson called this spring, Griffin got everything he wanted.
That’s also the approach he took to the negotiations for this trade. The Boston Celtics were serious about trading for Davis, as well. They were willing to discuss young, talented players such as Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown and Marcus Smart, according to sources close to the negotiations. But the Celtics were never going to give up as much as the Lakers. And Boston didn’t have a high draft pick this year to offer, because it simply hadn’t gotten as lucky in the lottery as both L.A. and New Orleans.
And so, in a back room of the Hilton Chicago in May, Pelinka and Pelicans head coach Alvin Gentry were together where the NBA draws the combinations of numbers for the draft lottery.
The winning combination is drawn first. So everyone knew right away that the Pelicans had won the rights to draft Williamson. But a few minutes later, the Lakers’ number came up, as well, and they jumped to No. 4.
Both franchises knew their fortunes would be forever changed. On Saturday, those draft picks formed the bedrock upon which this blockbuster trade was built. For the Pelicans and the Lakers, it’s a second chance to expose themselves to true risk — and championship rewards.