If they are not planning to re-engage the New Orleans Pelicans on a Davis trade after the season and want to focus on free agency, as team president Magic Johnson hinted Sunday, then it’s pretty simple.
“That’s not going to change our plans this summer,” Johnson said. “It’s a great [free-agency] class, and we just want to get one of them.”
If the Lakers do sign a max-level free agent this summer, as their plans indeed were before Davis became available, then they are most likely out of the Davis free-agency sweepstakes in 2020. It’s not impossible, but it would be hard to clear enough cap space with LeBron James also on the roster.
But if they harbor a belief there’s still a chance of landing Davis in 2019 — perhaps when he comes back on the trade market around the draft — the Lakers are going to have to change their approach. And as bleak as it might look now after a week of the Pelicans and Lakers tossing public and private jabs at each other, it’s not out of the question.
It will take a tactical change from the Lakers and some hard work. And it might take some cooperation with the Pelicans, who might have different priorities and possibly different voices by summer.
New Orleans didn’t like what was on offer from the Lakers for Davis, not unlike how the San Antonio Spurs felt last summer when there were brief Kawhi Leonard trade talks. The Lakers can steam about this or they can do something about it — by changing what’s on the menu.
If the Lakers don’t have what the Pelicans want, then they need to go out and see if they can find what the Pelicans do want and try to bring it to them. This is how transactions at the highest level work in the NBA these days. Getting a player of Davis’ quality might take some arbitrage, deals to set up other deals.
The communication between the Pelicans and Lakers was almost nonexistent leading up to the trade deadline. Saying there were negotiations might not even be accurate. By all accounts it was a one-way conversation, with the Lakers opening up their wallet and the Pelicans turning up their nose.
As such, there were no significant three-team deals discussed with the Lakers scouring the league to find connections to improve their offer. But there absolutely could have been. That is maybe the most realistic path to finding a way to make Davis a Laker, widening the trade talks to include options the Pelicans prefer.
The Pelicans didn’t view Lonzo Ball, Brandon Ingram and Kyle Kuzma as a package good enough for Davis. But if the Lakers had offered the players around the league individually, they’d likely have been able to land draft picks and other young players, assets that then could be included in a reworked trade package.
Same for the draft picks the Lakers were willing to send to New Orleans. Shopping those around, especially with their pick headed for the early-to-mid teens this summer, could help land pieces that could get the Pelicans more interested.
To understand how this might work, take a look at the LA Clippers. They were on Davis’ “list” of places where he had expressed a willingness to sign an extension, but would have had a difficult time assembling a deal because so many of their players were free agents-to-be.
Then the Clippers swung the Tobias Harris trade with the Philadelphia 76ers, picking up four draft picks and prospect Landry Shamet, and suddenly they’re flush with trade assets in addition to the players still on their roster. If the Clippers choose — and for the time being, they seem to be focused on 2019 free agency — they could now make a more compelling offer for Davis.
It’s not that the Lakers feel their young players are too precious; they were willing to trade all of them for Davis. Other than LeBron James, the Lakers don’t seem too attached to any player on the roster at the moment.
As Johnson said: “They’re professionals. All of them. And this is how this league works. They know it, I know it — that’s how it goes.”
Right now, there are hurt feelings between the Lakers and Pelicans. But it will pass. If circumstances leave the Boston Celtics and New York Knicks, two teams expected to have interest in bidding for Davis after the season, unable to deliver what New Orleans wants, the Lakers will have a chance to get back in the game.
The Celtics aren’t sure what will happen with Kyrie Irving and the Knicks don’t know where their draft pick — and therefore their best trade chip — will land.
In the end, it might still not be enough. The value of the Lakers’ young players might just not be what is needed, be it piecemeal or together. Swinging big in a deep free-agent market, even one stocked with other attractive bidders, might be the better course than going through all the possible angst.
But closing the door before getting more aggressive and creative might be a mistake. Davis is that good. And as the Lakers plot their summer moves, changing the Davis conversation with New Orleans ought to be one of their serious options.