Anthony Davis has told the New Orleans Pelicans he will not sign a contract extension, and the NBA has been buzzing with Davis trade machine fodder all day. The Los Angeles Lakers are rumored to be Davis’ preferred destination, with the New York Knicks also putting out feelers. The Portland Trail Blazers and at least 24 other teams would love to have Davis in the fold, but the chances of them hitting the jackpot are small. That doesn’t preclude them from trying, though. In Portland’s case, making a run at Davis is nearly mandatory, for reasons both obvious and sneaky.
We won’t spend much time dwelling on the fantasy aspects of a proposed deal. The centerpieces are enough.
The Blazers offer CJ McCollum to the Pelicans for Davis. If New Orleans wants to shed extra salary by throwing in a two-year forward in exchange for Al-Farouq Aminu, Portland should do it. Ditto if young players need to change hands, or Portland’s 2019 first-rounder.
The only players who probably shouldn’t/wouldn’t be included in the deal from Portland’s perspective are Damian Lillard (obviously), Jusuf Nurkic (shouldn’t), and Zach Collins (probably wouldn’t, because apparently they love him). Anything else can be negotiated.
Can It Work?
The deal is unlikely, but not impossible.
The on-court answers for Portland are evident. Davis lining up alongside Lillard and Nurkic creates three-fifths of a starting lineup in which the other two-fifths are optional. Davis would need to play power forward. Nurkic would need to cede the middle sometimes (which is likely to disrupt him, but that’s life). The defensive possibilities alone are staggering.
New Orleans would need a little incentive, but with Davis effectively forcing a trade, their offers won’t be top shelf. Every team in the universe will know that Davis is likely to depart for the Lakers as soon as his option comes up in 2020...including the Lakers. What New Orleans expects in a fair and open market and what they’re likely to receive in this circumstance may be two different things.
When the names get this big, reality warps. Trades aren’t just about talent, but finances and optics.
A package of hot, young players would attract New Orleans, but the Venn Diagram of teams with packages to offer and teams to whom Davis would make an immediate difference is small.
Unbridled cap space could be attractive, but the Pelicans can probably generate enough by dumping other veterans. Besides, a complete rebuild destroys momentum for a fanbase that’s become used to thinking of themselves as potential contenders.
No trade will fully fix the latter problem for the Pelicans, but a player to hang their hats on in return can help sell tickets and bridge the gap between past hope and future reality. You might have to squint a little, but McCollum could fill that role. He’s nowhere near Davis’ ability, but if they can’t have Davis, McCollum isn’t the worst place for the Pelicans to start over.
The Critical Angle for the Blazers
The big fear for any team taking on Davis is that he’ll bolt at first opportunity. For Portland, that’s less a bug than a feature.
Mileage will vary depending on how much you value the tandem of McCollum and Lillard together, but even the most die-hard supporters can’t deny that the clock is ticking for the duo in age and contract.
I don’t believe the Blazers are thinking about shopping McCollum in principle, but let’s say they wanted to. What would that look like?
The ideal would be to trade him for a player who took them to the next level immediately. Those players can be counted on one-and-a-half hands and they’re usually not for sale.
Moving him for young players to jump-start the next era would be fantastic, but where does that leave the current core of Lillard and Nurkic? The Blazers aren’t going to give up on Damian unless he forces them to. He’s going to look askance at a rebuild around youth when he’s pushing 30.
Even if management went all the way and wanted to try a salary dump, how do they accomplish that? Nobody will be able to absorb McCollum’s $25.8 million salary for just picks. Portland could look for expiring veteran contracts, but now they have an optics problem...not just with their fans, but with Lillard, whose contract expires in 2021. They cannot appear to give up, else they’ll lose him.
A trade for Anthony Davis solves all these problems at once even if he leaves in 2020. Portland’s front-end story is that they’re taking a gamble to become great, bringing on a generation-defining, All-NBA player. When he plays, they’ll look different, if not better. If they can’t keep him in 2020, his departure will provide the two things they’ll need most: cap space and a cover story.
Right now, the Blazers can’t look forward to signing much more than a middling veteran with their remaining cap space in 2020 even after shedding the contracts of Evan Turner, Meyers Leonard, and Moe Harkless. Trading McCollum, then losing Davis, would open up an extra $29.4 million, enough to make a last-ditch effort to surround Lillard and Nurkic with a decent free agent or imbalanced trade target. They won’t be able to do either if they keep McCollum through 2021.
At no time in the Davis process would the Blazers have sold, or aimed at, anything but winning. Who could blame them for bringing on AD? If he leaves of his own volition in 2020, they use the conveniently-timed space to take another swing. The difference between that story and a bald McCollum salary-dump to create the same opportunity is night and day.
If Davis stays with Portland forever, the Blazers end up better than they would have been staying pat with the Lillard-McCollum backcourt.
If Davis leaves in 2020 and they haven’t given up Nurkic in the bargain, the Blazers still end up with a better chance than they would have by staying the course with no surety that either star guard would remain in 2021 after years of “close, but not that close” results.
This deal won’t happen, but the Blazers should chase it anyway.
Helping kids in need see the Blazers play live in the Moda Center won’t get Anthony Davis here, but it couldn’t hurt, right? Here’s how.
To donate tickets to kids for Blazer’s Edge Night against the Nets on 3/25/19:
Click this link or copy/paste into your address bar: https://rosequarter.com/groupnights/
Enter the Promo Code: BLAZERSEDGE
Go through the purchase process just as if you were buying tickets for yourself.
If you order through this link with this code, tickets will be automatically donated and designated at Will Call with your order. No need to do anything else, it’s just that easy!
If you run into difficulty or wish to donate more tickets than the online service will allow, contact our Ticket Representative, Alec Botts, at 503.963.3926.