Lakers' Anthony Davis trade shakes up NBA's power structure, and the deal's impact will be felt league-wide
For the first time in nearly a decade, the NBA is thrown into a beautiful chaos
The impact of Saturday's Anthony Davis trade on the two teams involved is abundantly obvious.
For the Los Angeles Lakers, they now have two top-five players in the NBA — LeBron James, who is nearing the end of his prime, and Davis, who is still toward the beginning of his. If you can make that trade, no matter the cost, you make that trade. Then you figure out the rest later. The Lakers ought to be considered among the favorites for the 2020 NBA title.
For the New Orleans Pelicans, they turned one season of Davis before he could leave in free agency into an absolute monster haul that should bolster this franchise for the foreseeable future. The Zion Williamson era will begin by pairing the transcendent 18-year-old superstar with two youngsters who were both No. 2 overall picks as recently as 2016 and 2017. While there are questions around Brandon Ingram and Lonzo Ball, both have All-Star upside. Plus the Pelicans get a versatile rotation player in Josh Hart who can be plugged in anywhere, the No. 4 pick in this week's draft, two more upcoming first-round picks, plus an unprotected pick swap in 2023. Whoa.
(Hot take of a side note: You make this trade every time if you're Rob Pelinka. But if the Lakers don't get at least one title out of this trade, history could judge this as an all-time heist by David Griffin. Like, remember what Danny Ainge did to the Brooklyn Nets? That's what this trade could become if Ingram and Ball live up to their potential.)
The impact of this trade on the 28 teams not named the Lakers or the Pelicans is less obvious. But make no mistake: This is a tectonic trade for the future of the NBA — not just for this offseason but for the foreseeable future.
Kevin Durant was supposed to be the first and most important domino to fall this offseason. In the NBA, the biggest free-agent domino must fall before the rest of the offseason falls in line. But Durant's Achilles injury in the NBA Finals puts an enormous question mark around his future, meaning whatever the Pelicans did with Davis turned into the biggest offseason domino. And that domino will wreak havoc over the rest of the NBA.
Perhaps the biggest loser in the Lakers-Pelicans deal is the Boston Celtics. Ainge had masterfully positioned his Celtics to be the next big power in the NBA. He had all the assets to make a Davis deal possible. But Davis' insistence that a trade to Boston would only be a one-year rental may have tempered Ainge's desire to give the Pelicans a true motherlode of assets (read as: Jayson Tatum). And with Kyrie Irving going from a forever-Celtic back in the fall to get-me-out-of-here Kyrie as he heads into free agency, the Celtics' future isn't nearly as bright as we thought it would be. They now have a solid young core in Tatum and Jaylen Brown, an absolute winner in Marcus Smart, and after that? Nothing but uncertainty.
If the Celtics are the biggest losers in this Davis trade, three of the biggest winners look like the Milwaukee Bucks, the Toronto Raptors and the Philadelphia 76ers. But specifically the Bucks. The Bucks' future looks pretty set. We'll see how many of their soon-to-be free agents they can retain — the guess is that bringing back all three of Khris Middleton, Malcolm Brogdon and Brook Lopez will be all but impossible — but the Bucks still ought to look very similar to the NBA's best regular season team, and a team that, if it had polished off the Raptors in Game 3 of the Eastern Conference Finals, would have faced the Golden State Warriors in the NBA Finals.
The 76ers' and Raptors' future is more uncertain, but if they're both able to retain their key free agents (Kawhi Leonard for the Raptors, Jimmy Butler and/or Tobias Harris for the 76ers), both of these teams will join the Bucks at the top of an Eastern Conference that suddenly looks bereft of one of its top contenders for the near future in the Celtics. The possibility of the New York Knicks being a contender in 2019-20 feels utterly out of reach now as well, with the Knicks missing out on Davis and with Durant's potential move to Madison Square Garden set back for at least one more season.
In a weird way, the trade of Davis from one Western Conference team to another Western Conference team has a bigger effect on teams in the East than the teams in the West. But the changes in the landscape of the West are tectonic as well.
In a season where the Warriors may struggle to even make the playoffs without the injured Durant and Klay Thompson, things are wide open in the West. The Houston Rockets can't be thrilled that, with the Warriors now in a pickle and the runway clear for the James Harden-Chris Paul duo making their first Finals, they now have to go through an even more talented duo in LeBron and The Brow. Good luck with that, you guys. The Pelicans immediately turn into, if not yet a contender (and perhaps not even yet a playoff team, though I'm about as high as you can get for this team's immediate potential), at the very least the ultimate League Pass team: The Most Interesting Team in the NBA. The events of the past several days — the injuries to Durant and Thompson, plus Davis joining the Lakers — means the West is as open as we've seen it in recent memory. This is great news for almost-there teams like the Portland Trail Blazers, the Denver Nuggets, the Utah Jazz, the Oklahoma City Thunder and, depending on how free agency goes, the Los Angeles Clippers. The Lakers might be the favorites in the West. But we all saw from the Warriors' Finals how important depth is. The Lakers of next season will be even more shallow than the Warriors of last season. The margin for error (read as: an injury to LeBron or Davis) is so, so small.
Here's the league-wide ultimate impact of the Davis trade coming on the heels of the Durant and Thompson injuries: For the first time in nearly a decade, the NBA is thrown into a beautiful chaos. Ever since LeBron took his talents to South Beach in 2010, the NBA has had a pretty clear power structure, a pretty clear hierarchy, going into each season. It got to the point that fans started to see the NBA season as too predictable, the outcome as inevitable.
Well, if chaos and uncertainty is truly what fans want, then that's now what they got. Buckle up. It's going to be a wild and unpredictable ride.
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