Fates of franchises hang on how Pelicans handle Davis' trade request

New Orleans finds itself at crossroads in wake of All-Star's recent news

He’s not a Laker yet, but it’s probably only a matter of time.

It was Anthony Davis who changed representation four months ago — to Rich Paul of Klutch Sports Group, who represents LeBron James among a slew of other NBA talent. And then it was Davis again who told the New Orleans Pelicans he would not sign a “super max” contract extension next summer and wants a trade. There are no dots to be connected here. It’s a pretty straightforward line, stretching from New Orleans to L.A.

But how and when does Davis get from there … to there?

That’s where it gets interesting, and the fates of two franchises are at stake: The championship-chasing Lakers in the LeBron era, and the long-term health of the Pelicans, who have nothing to show for Davis and his generational talent except two playoff berths and a trip to the Western Conference semifinals last year.

When Paul, a LeBron friend and business partner who runs Klutch, broke the stunning news to the Pelicans, it hit the NBA fan. From there, it created a firestorm in several NBA cities that have either the assets to work out a trade or the money under the salary cap — or both. Davis is the rare player whose availability can cause teams to hastily rearrange the roster furniture. His impact on both ends of the floor is unquestioned and he’s still in his prime at only 25. He’s averaging 29.3 points, 13.3 rebounds, 4.4 assists, 1.7 steals and 2.6 blocks this season. His kind doesn’t come available often.

With the Feb. 7 trade deadline looming, the number of teams capable of swinging deals for Davis would seem endless. There is, however, a catch: Davis holds most, if not all, of the leverage — his contract only runs one more season. He can impact any proposed deal the Pelicans might seek by simply telling the other team: I’m not signing an extension.

Why would the Celtics surrender a package including Jayson Tatum and multiple No. 1 picks for a one-year rental? Especially since the Celtics still would need to re-sign Kyrie Irving, who becomes a free agent next summer? Why would any contender part company with their best players without any guarantee Davis will stick around? If that happened, they’d become … the Pelicans.

The San Antonio Spurs were in a similar situation with Kawhi Leonard last summer. They managed to swing a trade with the Toronto Raptors for a fairly solid return: All-Star DeMar DeRozan and filler. There were reports, however, that the Raptors were ready to shake up the team within the next two years anyway. By getting Leonard, they decided to go all-in this season, and if he leaves next summer through free agency, then it’s back to their original plan.

This is all about Davis and his preferred landing spot and while he hasn’t said anything publicly, the situation has transparency. There’s LeBron, the L.A. lifestyle, the desire by the Lakers to compete immediately and a very real chance to win — which Paul cited as why Davis wants out. It’s hard to create a scenario where the Lakers aren’t the clear leaders in the clubhouse.

In that situation, the trade will be made based on who blinks first: the Pelicans or the Lakers.

If the Pelicans are indeed dealing with a one-card deck — meaning, just the Lakers — then their options are limited. Lakers president Magic Johnson can squeeze New Orleans in negotiations by offering only one of their young trio (Brandon Ingram, Lonzo Ball and Kyle Kuzma) and toss in some veterans to make the contracts work.

The Pelicans can refuse and keep Davis until next summer, trying to force the Lakers into upping the offer. If New Orleans decides to play hardball and holds onto Davis through the end of the season or even until his contract expires in 2020, that becomes the risk for the Lakers. LeBron is already 34 and will likely miss his 17th straight game tonight with a groin injury. The window for surrounding him with another singer who can take lead mic during a title run is half-shut, and closing.

So the stare-down begins, and continues.

It’s an awkward time for Ball, Kuzma and Ingram, because one or perhaps two seem to be certain sacrifices in any deal. This season, they’ve spoken about the chance to play alongside LeBron and learn from him. Now, one or two of them will potentially explore their own path in New Orleans.

It’s also a clumsy time for the Pelicans. Davis is currently sitting out while mending from a finger injury. But why would the Pelicans welcome him back once he heals? It makes for bad optics to have him in the locker room when he already stated a desire to leave — essentially saying those teammates aren’t good enough to win — and there’s always an injury risk given his history. It might be better for all involved if the Pelicans shut him down.

The ripple effect might also cause the Pelicans to trade Jrue Holiday, their pricey point guard, whose value to the team diminishes without Davis. Losing Davis means the Pelicans are ripe for a tear-down, an excuse to start the full implosion right away and prepare for a 2019 draft that’s top-heavy with talent.

Another issue the Pelicans must address: should they let GM Dell Demps be the triggerman on any potential deal of such magnitude?

By demanding a trade, Davis implicitly indicated lost confidence in the general manager — if not the entire basketball operation — and the Pelicans’ ability to build a winner. They’ve squandered the early part of Davis’ career with bad Drafts, bad free-agent signings and foregone first-round picks. Demps was singled out by former commissioner David Stern in an October Sports Illustrated article for being “a bad GM” who’s “probably going to lose Anthony Davis.”

The Pelicans did have lousy luck involving DeMarcus Cousins when the All-Star center suffered a torn Achilles’ tendon last spring. At the time, the Cousins-Davis pairing showed enormous potential (both were All-Stars starters last season). In the end, New Orleans refused to offer Cousins a new contract last summer — with understandable concern about his health. They have nothing to show for a trade that cost them Buddy Hield, who’s averaging 20.2 points for the Sacramento Kings.

There remain minor questions about Davis. Only twice in his almost seven seasons has he played more than 70 games. Can he stay healthy? And despite his all-around greatness, why hasn’t Davis managed to carry an average team in the manner of other generational talents? The most obvious example that comes to mind is James Harden during Chris Paul’s recent month-long absence in Houston.

And then there’s a better example: James himself.

Davis would be an ideal match for James in talent but also temperament. Davis doesn’t bring a big personality and seems to welcome another big star, as he did last season with Cousins. At this point in his career, Davis seems unlikely to feel threatened and flee LeBron, searching for something else, as Kyrie Irving did two years ago.

At the Pelicans’ request, the league is investigating whether any tampering has taken place with regard to Davis, the timing of the trade demand and even the demand itself. Clearly, the Pelicans are irked by this, but they should’ve seen it coming.

Davis gave New Orleans nearly seven seasons. They gave him little in terms of help. So the All-Star decides to call the shots and dictate the terms of his future. He will have a large say in where he ends up, and the best match is melodic: ’Bron and ’Brow. Someone just say when.

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Shaun Powell has covered the NBA for more than 25 years. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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