Anthony Davis is, from a pure talent and production standpoint, one of the seven or eight best basketball players in the world, and that’s probably being conservative. He’s probably top five on most people’s boards, and at 26 years old, you could argue he’s the single-most valuable asset in the league — with the possible exception of Giannis Antetokounmpo — when factoring both short and long-term prospects.
All of this is to say, you cannot replace Anthony Davis under any realistic scenario. He is, for all intents and purposes, invaluable, priceless, and through that prism, no, the Pelicans could not possibly have gotten better by trading him. Except, what if they did? Even alongside Jrue Holiday, Davis has never been able to lift the Pelicans beyond anything more than first-round fodder. That is, perhaps, an overly simplistic criticism of Davis, and yet true. He needed help.
Now, had Davis been willing to commit to New Orleans for the long term, perhaps they would’ve considered trading the No. 1 overall pick (Zion Williamson) for another All-Star player — say, Bradley Beal, for argument’s sake. Davis, Holiday and Beal would’ve formed the core of a better team than the one New Orleans is going to put on the floor this season. We should all able to agree on that.
But that’s a lot of unknowns. The Wizards have been firm in their “no deal for Beal” stance, and though they may have backed off that for the rights to Zion, nobody can be sure, nor can anyone be sure whether a Beal-like equivalent would’ve become available in this hypothetical world. All we know for sure is that New Orleans wasn’t scaring anyone with Davis as the lone superstar, and on top of that, he had become a cripplingly destructive force when he finally demanded a trade. He and agent Rich Paul effectively burned the Pelicans’ 2018-19 season to the ground.
Through that prism, yes, they’re better off without Davis.
“If only to be rid of the headache,” a Western Conference scout told CBS Sports. “But don’t get it twisted. Losing Anthony Davis hurts anyone.”
Named executive vice president of basketball operations in April, David Griffin had to hit a home run with any Davis deal, and in the aggregate, he did. Almost every team forced to trade a disgruntled star ends up getting stiffed for lack of leverage, but even if you throw out the future draft picks New Orleans acquired from the Lakers that won’t impact this season (unless they use them in a deadline deal, which shouldn’t be ruled out), the Pelicans turned Davis into the immediate collective production of Brandon Ingram, Lonzo Ball, Josh Hart, and rookies Jaxson Hayes and Nickeil Alexander-Walker.
That alone is way more than the Cavs got for Kyrie Irving, or the Spurs got for Kawhi Leonard. Add in the future draft picks, and it’s more than the Thunder got for Paul George and Russell Westbrook combined.
Beyond that, eventually signing Davis to a super-max deal would’ve made it much harder for New Orleans to bring in supporting pieces like JJ Redick and Derrick Favors to add the requisite peripheral punch to a top-heavy team. Now, with Redick and Favors on board, the Pelicans figure to be one of the deepest teams, if not the deepest team, in the league with a potential 10 or even 11-man rotation including any of Holiday, Williamson, Ball, Ingram, Redick, Favors, Hayes, Alexander-Walker, E’Twaun Moore, Jahlil Okafor, Darius Miller, Frank Jackson (who showed real promise down the stretch of last season and during summer league) and Italian free agent Nicolo Melli, a 6-foot-9 shooter.
That kind of depth alone is going to win you a lot of regular season games. The defense is going to be long and super athletic, with Holiday (one of the best individual defenders in the league), Ball and Zion, and in some cases Ingram, able to switch 1-4. Favors is one of the best interior defenders/rim protectors you never hear about, and can also switch out onto the perimeter when necessary.
Hayes, meanwhile, is a 6-foot-10 freak athlete in the middle. I wrotewhy I think Lonzo, on both ends, is in position to really pop this season. Shooting could be an issue for the Pels, but nothing insurmountable; Redick and Moore are regular dead-eyes, Ingram and Holiday can be the same on any given night. On Alexander-Walker’s draft scouting report you’ll see words like sniper and, even more important in today’s game, versatile. Alvin Gentry’s up-tempo system and Ball’s inclusive style at the point should bring out the best in everyone.
All of which begs the question: Can the Pelicans make the playoffs? The answer is yes. Whether they will remains to be seen, with teams like Dallas, San Antonio, Sacramento and perhaps even Oklahoma City — depending on how much game Chris Paul has left and whether he’s eventually traded — all figuring to be in the hunt for a bottom seed.
Even if you consider the Pelicans a long shot among those teams, just the fact that we can entertain the possibility of a small-market team that lost Anthony Davis making the playoffs the very next season, in the merciless Western Conference no less, is remarkable. And again, we’re just looking at this season. Even if they re-sign Ingram next summer to a big deal and do the same for Ball the following summer, they are in position to have north of $20 million in cap room in 2021.
Flexibility is the word here. All those future picks can either be young players under long-term team control or trade assets in a win-now deal before Holiday expires. If Ball and/or Ingram don’t pan out, they can let one or both of them walk and have max space to work with in 2021. It’s not often you see a team with that kind of short and long-term balance on the books. You typically concede one for the other.
“Griff has done an amazing job,” a Western Conference executive told CBS Sports. “Obviously it helped winning the lottery and drafting a potential generational player in Zion, and then to have a star like Davis that teams are lining up to get their hands on, it was a perfect storm in a lot of ways. But Griff put on a clinic on how to maximize those opportunities.”