Welcome back to the NBA Star Power Index -- a weekly gauge of the players who are most controlling the buzz around the league. Reminder: Inclusion on this list isn't necessarily a good thing. It simply means that you're capturing the NBA world's attention. Also, this is not a ranking. The players listed are in no particular order as it pertains to the buzz they're generating. This week there are only two, because they are controlling the NBA narrative right now almost entirely. This column will run every week through the end of the regular season.
The worst kept secret in the league is officially out in the open: Anthony Davis isn't going to re-sign with the Pelicans this summer, has demanded a trade, and is soon expected to inform all interested suitors that the only team he will sign a long-term deal with in 2020 is the Lakers, making him, in theory, a one-year rental for everyone else.
I say in theory because a lot of players have said this. Paul George was adamant he was only going to sign with the Lakers, but the Thunder traded for him anyway and persuaded him to stay. This is a blatant attempt by Davis, and perhaps mostly his agent, Rich Paul of Klutch Sports, to scare other teams away from offering too much for Davis, effectively depressing the competitive market to the point where the Lakers' potential trade package will look significantly sweeter by comparison.
It's probably not going to work. Reports are already out that Boston is willing to pay pretty much whatever freight the Pelicans want for Davis, flight risk be damned. They're willing to bet that once Davis is in Boston playing with Kyrie Irving and all that talent, he will feel differently about leaving to go play with LeBron James in what will be his 18th season by that point. It's a good bet.
Problem is, the Celtics have to wait until this summer to place it. Until then, Kyrie and Davis can't be on the same team because of some CBA fine print restricting a team from having two players on designated rookie extensions. Once Irving becomes a free agent in July, it's open season to sign them both. The Lakers, and really any other interested suitor, have until then to get the Pelicans to pull the trigger on a deal because once Boston comes calling, it has the best package to offer hands down.
What will New Orleans do? Will they get antsy and act before next Thursday's trade deadline? Can they remain patient in the face of all this urgency? Will a mystery team come out of nowhere and get this thing done before the Lakers can move, as the Raptors did for Kawhi Leonard? So many intriguing questions as we embark upon what will be a fascinating week leading up to next Thursday, because at the end of this we could have LeBron James and Anthony Davis on the same team, in the same conference as the Warriors, and oh my good heavens what a playoff stage that would set up. That is a team that can legitimately be called a title contender.
LeBron hasn't played a game since Christmas and the Lakers have fallen out of the playoff picture. That is not helping Luke Walton's case to remain the Lakers coach for long. If this Anthony Davis trade to the Lakers does go down (I would be surprised if it happened by the deadline), my guess is the next big move in Laker land will be a coaching change.
Even if the trade doesn't go down, it feels like Walton is sitting on an ejection seat as it was recently reported that "LeBron's camp" wants him out. To be clear, LeBron hasn't muttered a word about this in public or reportedly to the Lakers' front office. But speaking on ESPN's The Hoop Collective podcast with Brian Windhorst and Tim McMahon, Jackie MacMullan had this to say:
"There's a lot of tension in that building," MacMullan said, "A lot of tension in that building, and I think people are wondering about Luke Walton even though Jeanie Buss came out very strongly and said 'I want Luke to be here, I back him 100 percent,' but then also made the point that has to be made, and that's that she hired Earvin Magic Johnson to make these decisions, and if Earvin feels differently she gave him the power to make those kinds of decisions. It's clear to me, and probably to you Brian, that LeBron's camp would prefer a coaching change. They're not too subtle about that."
This is about the least shocking thing ever. This is like Step 2 in the LeBron acquisition guidebook. First, you have the introductory press conference (or a Cirque de Soleil show if you're the Miami Heat), then you begin the process of throwing the coach that was there before LeBron square under a two-ton bus. LeBron is now 3 for 3 at doing this when going to a new team.
First, in 2010, he went to Miami, where he was reportedly concerned about the coaching situation with a young Erik Spoelstra before he suited up for a single game. From there, he was reportedly fewer than 20 games into his first season when he began fully chipping away at Spoelstra's job security. Again from Jackie MacMullan in an article last April reflecting upon LeBron's, shall we say, eventual arrival in Miami:
During a loss to Dallas on Nov. 27, 2010, LeBron's first season in Miami, a video clip of LeBron bumping Spoelstra as he strode toward the huddle during a timeout went viral. The team had lost four of five games at that point, dropping its record to 9-8, and held a long, private meeting following the game. ESPN, citing unnamed sources, reported a few days later that players were frustrated with Spoelstra and were "questioning whether he is the right coach for their team.''
"The Soul of Basketball" takes us one step further. Riley revealed in the book that the day after the Heat's loss to Dallas, he asked James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh to meet him in his office for 10 minutes to check on how the team leaders felt the young season was progressing.
"They just said, 'We're not feeling it,' or something like that," Riley told Thomsen. "We talked about the typical things that we have to do, have patience and all of that stuff.
"And I remember LeBron looking at me, and he said, 'Don't you ever get the itch?' I said, 'The itch for what?' He said, 'The itch to coach again?' I said, 'No, I don't have the itch.' He didn't ask any more questions, and I didn't offer any more answers. But I know what it meant, and I always go back and wonder about what he was thinking at that time. He walked out scratching his leg like it was itching."
Riley said to Thomsen that similar questions were raised during the team's July 2010 free-agent recruiting pitch to LeBron.
"They wanted to know what was going to happen with Erik," Riley said. "They wondered if I was going to be coaching. I said, 'Look, Erik is the head coach, that's it. I support him. I'm not interested in coaching.'
LeBron's next move to a new team was his return to Cleveland in 2014. A new coach had just been hired. David Blatt. And he was a dead man walking. Blatt made it through that first year with LeBron, all the way to a 2-1 lead in the NBA Finals over the Golden State Warriors without the services of Kyrie Irving or Kevin Love. But LeBron didn't want him. So it was a matter of time. Shortly before the trade deadline of the 2015-16 season, Blatt was gone.
Enter Tyronn Lue, who was reportedly a compromise for LeBron's camp, which wanted former Warriors coach Mark Jackson, who just happened to be represented by James' and Rich Paul's Klutch Sports agency. From Adrian Wojnarowski, who was with Yahoo Sports at the time:
To become the preferred candidate of the most powerful player in the NBA – and de facto Cavaliers general manager – Jackson understood what he needed to do: Bring on James' and Paul's Klutch Sports agency as his representation, and prepare to deliver those commission fees into the King's coffers. Blatt never had a chance. He never knew what hit him.
Once James' camp realized that Jackson would never be considered as coach – nor would Lue leave his representation to join Klutch Sports agency, despite overtures – Lue became a compromise choice for James' group, sources said. They started pushing for Lue to replace Blatt last season, and grew louder in those calls in recent days and weeks.
Gilbert made Lue the league's highest-paid assistant coach at $2 million-plus a year, forever considering him the head-coach-in-waiting should Blatt need to go. Ultimately, Blatt had little staying power with the Cavaliers, because James had turned Blatt's removal into an inevitability. As the games wore on, opposing players on the floor weren't only watching James constantly wave off plays from the coach – but role players feeling emboldened to disregard the head coach's instructions, too.
James had the Cavaliers existing in open rebellion for more than a season now, with no Pat Riley in the organizational shadows to scare everyone into compliance.
That last part about the Cavs not having a Pat Riley-type in the big seat -- that's the important takeaway here. When LeBron goes somewhere new, he wants the coach that preceded him out. That pattern is clear. He's now 3 for 3 in that regard. The difference is whether the organization has the coach's back and is willing to stand up to LeBron. In Miami, Pat Riley had Spoelstra's back, so he survived, and went on to win two championships with LeBron and has long since become one of the most respected coaches in the league.
In Cleveland, the organization didn't have Blatt's back. So he was out. The Lakers are, at present, sort of in the middle, with Magic Johnson and the front office seemingly ready to move on "LeBron's camp's" wishes to remove Walton, but Lakers co-owner and CEO Jeanie Buss is partial to Walton. A couple weeks back. Buss had this to say when she was asked about Walton's job security amid the Lakers' struggles:
#Lakers' owner Jeanie Buss when asked by Zach Lowe if Luke Walton's job is 100% safe (2/2) - "...from what I can tell you, every single thing that we're doing, every single person in the organization is here to make Luke successful."— Tomer Azarly (@TomerAzarly) January 22, 2019
We'll see about that.
Listen, every coach in the league would sign up to coach LeBron James. He's the best player in the world. He immediately makes your team at worst a conference finals threat, pretty much all by himself. Give him even one more All-Star piece and you're a threat to win the whole thing. But there's a tradeoff, and if you're a young coach who preceded LeBron's arrival, it's not necessarily a good one. You're going to win, yes. But you also better get that resume sharpened up.