As the NBA trade deadline looms within a week, the Lakers' immediate pursuit of Pelicans All-Star forward Anthony Davis is fraught with obstacles -- including that New Orleans appears in no rush to trade Davis to the Lakers or anywhere else before Thursday's trade deadline, league sources told ESPN.
Pelicans general manager Dell Demps had his first substantive communication with Lakers president Magic Johnson on Thursday after having taken calls from other teams about Davis, sources told ESPN. The Lakers are nonetheless determined to be aggressive in offers for Davis prior to next Thursday's trade deadline, league sources told ESPN, and it's Demps' obligation to listen.
The Lakers and Pelicans executives have connected on the phone concerning Davis and are expected to talk again prior to next week's trade deadline, league sources told ESPN.
The sluggish response time by Demps is perhaps a message that New Orleans places some responsibility on the Lakers for Davis' trade request. Or perhaps it is an indication to Davis and his agent, Rich Paul of Klutch Sports, that the Pelicans don't plan to easily acquiesce on a trade request to partner Davis with LeBron James.
As of now, the Pelicans see no reason to deliver Davis to the Lakers in a deal with a full season left on his contract -- never mind do it on a timeline that mostly benefits the objectives of Los Angeles and Davis.
New Orleans officials are prepared to play the long game on Davis' future, embarking on an uncomfortable, if not combative process that could extend months beyond next Thursday's trade deadline.
Pelicans owner Gayle Benson is enthusiastically carrying the small-market banner, pushing back on any planned superstar union of James and Davis in the NBA's glamour market.
If Davis wants to be a Laker, the Pelicans' mantra so far is simply: Feel free to join L.A. as a free agent in 2020 and potentially punt on the 2019-20 season -- when James will turn 35 -- to keep the requisite cap space open.
Demps was in no hurry to connect with the Lakers, but he eventually did connect with Johnson, league sources said. The Lakers are leaving an impression that everyone except James is available in talks, league sources told ESPN's Ramona Shelburne.
From Paul George to Leonard to Davis, the Lakers' front office is growing accustomed to icy receptions from teams enduring All-Star trade demands with a full year left on their contracts.
When Spurs GM R.C. Buford finally called back Pelinka after Leonard's springtime trade request, the Lakers were left with an unmistakable impression: Buford and Gregg Popovich would never send Leonard to Los Angeles -- no matter what the Lakers offered. The Spurs always denied any absolute "no Lakers" stance, arguing the L.A. package never captivated them.
After Paul privately told Demps on Friday that his client wouldn't sign a contract extension with the Pelicans and wanted a trade, Paul publicly declared it on Monday -- with full knowledge that he'd have to pay a $50,000 fine on behalf of his client.
Teams interested in trading for Davis -- including the Boston Celtics -- are in full fact-finding mode, and the intel coming back is this, sources tell ESPN: Davis' plan is to treat any trade destination as a one-year stop -- except, of course, the Lakers. Teams are learning that Davis' stated intention will be to play the season elsewhere if traded outside of the Lakers, but move to the Lakers as a free agent in 2020.
With Boston prohibited from trading for Davis this season, going to the Lakers presents Davis a chance to make something of this 2018-19 season. The Celtics and other suitors are curious as to whether the potential Lakers-or-bust stance softens once the deadline passes, sources said.
The stance of Davis and his camp toward Boston is linked to their view of Kyrie Irving's future, sources said. Davis and his camp no longer believe that Irving is a sure bet to re-sign with the Celtics this summer, and that's the primary reason they insist on clumping Boston with a similar message to the 28 other teams: Buyer beware on a trade for Davis.
Paul also represents James. Davis hired Paul and Klutch Sports, so Davis clearly has signed off on this Lakers endgame strategy -- no matter if some in the NBA chose to be skeptical.
Boston is remaining outwardly fearless in its pursuit of Davis, with word delivered to New Orleans: Hold on to Davis past the trade deadline, get into the offseason, and we're armed to give you the best possible return on this generational talent.
Boston remains confident in Irving re-signing, though the Knicks creating a second max salary slot for this summer in Thursday's stunning Kristaps Porzingis deal with the Dallas Mavericks has the league buzzing about Irving's intentions. It may inspire a new urgency within the Celtics to agree to a deal for Davis ahead of Irving's free agency -- assuming Irving informs them that snaring Davis would ensure his long-term commitment..
For now, the Celtics are unconvinced that Davis would be willing to walk out on a championship core with Boston for the Lakers. Boston has done a tremendous amount of research on Davis, especially intense in the past 18 months, league sources said.
The Pelicans are aware that the Celtics are preparing a massive offer for Davis if he remains on the New Orleans roster past the trade deadline. The Celtics cannot acquire him now unless they trade Irving, because of an obscure rule that prohibits any team from trading for a second player working under a designated rookie maximum extension. Irving and Davis are both playing under such deals now. Irving can -- and almost certainly will -- opt out of his contract on July 1.
The most pressing question for the Celtics is whether they could acquire Davis without including Jayson Tatum in the deal. If the Celtics get the chance, Boston will be able to offer any or all of the following: Jaylen Brown, Gordon Hayward, Marcus Smart, Terry Rozier (though Rozier would have to agree to a sign-and-trade, raising thorny cap complications), its own first-round picks, Sacramento's first-round pick, a Memphis future first-round pick (top-eight protected this season, top-six protected in 2020, and unprotected in 2021) and a lottery-protected LA Clippers first-rounder that converts to a 2022 second-round pick if the Clippers miss the playoffs both this season and next.
Above all else, Boston wants to keep Tatum. Going forward with a big three of Irving, Davis and Tatum -- and filling in the gaps around them as needed -- is probably the ideal scenario. If the Celtics feel it is necessary to hold off any Lakers coup, they can tell the Pelicans they will likely include Tatum in Davis trade talks in July.
That's risky, though. If Boston promises that in absolute terms, the Pelicans would expect the Celtics to hold to that assurance. Reneging would damage Boston's leaguewide credibility in a way that could take years to repair.
To sign Davis outright in 2020, the Lakers would have to maintain enough cap space for him -- which could mean forfeiting the chance to add a star player this summer. The Lakers could sign that star free agent, and then sign-and-trade their young guys for Davis in the summer of 2020. Whatever the case, it's a complicated path to Davis.
What's more, to deal all of their young assets for Davis now would complicate the Lakers' path to a third star. With only Davis, LeBron and Luol Deng's stretched salary on their books for 2019-20, the Lakers would have only about $30.5 million in cap space -- not enough for a max free agent. They would either have to hope a star takes less than the max or roll their space over to the summer of 2020 -- when the cap will go up again.
The Pelicans have yet to engage in substantive conversations with the Lakers prior to Thursday's trade deadline. Lakers general manager Rob Pelinka can offer an a la carte of the Lakers' young prospects and future draft picks, or offer to use those players and picks to canvass the league to furnish players for Demps whom he might prefer in a multi-team trade.
The Pelicans believe the Lakers will offer the same deal in June and July as they can offer now, which is one more reason to wait on the Celtics.
Starting last Friday -- when Davis made his request to the Pelicans -- several teams told ESPN that Demps had made forwards Nikola Mirotic and Julius Randle and guard E'Twaun Moore available in trade talks. The Pelicans are continuing to explore the market value of those players, sources said.
One direction those talks could take: trading those players to recover draft picks as part of a more complete post-Davis rebuild.
New Orleans is 13th in the West, 5.5 games out of the playoffs, with 30 games remaining.
The unfolding of the Davis situation has shed a light on the Pelicans' unusual front-office structure, in particular the power of executives from the NFL's New Orleans Saints -- including Mickey Loomis, the Pelicans' executive vice president of basketball operations and Demps' nominal boss. The Pelicans' environment is steeped in the NFL's top-down power culture, which contributes to a level of defiance in catering to a player trade request like Davis'.
Demps and his basketball operations staff handle trade discussions, but Loomis -- the Saints' top football executive -- will have a significant voice in how the Pelicans proceed with the Davis saga. Interestingly, Loomis and Celtics GM Danny Ainge have no personal relationship, but they do have a history growing up in Eugene, Oregon.
Besides being a future NBA guard and major league third baseman, Ainge was a star receiver and quarterback with Pac-8 football offers. Loomis is younger and was a football star himself, and has long been acquainted with the athletic lore of Ainge.
Ainge has a history as an ace negotiator, but the Pelicans' future rests on a robust return for Davis. They are desperate to extract maximum value. New Orleans can offer Davis a five-year, $239 million extension in July and offer that deal again in 2020.
Around the Pelicans, some wonder whether Davis getting booed and becoming a villain in New Orleans could make him second-guess his decision on a public trade request, but that's probably wishful thinking.
As long as ominous back-channel warnings don't give Ainge pause, the Celtics believe they could convince Davis to stay long term, clinching Irving's future in New England.
Still, there are scenarios that concern Boston. For instance, the Celtics could disappoint in the postseason. The Knicks could win the draft lottery and enter the offseason with the one trade asset that tops Tatum: the NBA draft's No. 1 pick, and the chance to select Duke's Zion Williamson.
If that isn't enough, the Knicks -- who did call the Pelicans about Davis before agreeing to trade Porzingis to the Mavs on Thursday, a source told ESPN -- could add Kevin Knox to their offer and hope that acquiring Davis would entice a second star free agent to join him. Irving would be on their short list of such players, and the Knicks, armed with Davis and enough cap room for Irving, stand as one of the only Irving threats that would unnerve Boston.
One subplot: Under revised draft lottery rules, the teams with the three worst records will have an equal chance -- 14 percent apiece -- at securing the No. 1 pick. Four teams -- the Knicks, Phoenix Suns, Chicago Bulls and Cleveland Cavaliers -- are in a heated "race" for those three spots. One will be left out and enter the lottery with a 12.5 percent chance at leaping to No. 1. Every percentage point matters.
For now, the lack of certainty surrounding the Knicks' pick is a huge obstacle to New York dealing now for Davis.
For now, the Pelicans and Davis are left with an awkward dance. Davis does plan to play for the Pelicans again before the trade deadline in a week, league sources said. Davis wants to play in the All-Star Game in mid-February, and he'll almost assuredly be selected as a reserve on Thursday. Teammates and coaches can already tell that Davis is trying to measure for himself how much of a teammate he should try to still be versus simply detaching himself.
As the public spectacle ensued this week, Davis took his Pelicans teammates out to dinner on a trip to Houston. His nature is to please, and the push to get out of New Orleans does stand in contrast to his typical sensibilities. He always has been nonconfrontational, eager to fit into the program. Now, Davis is chasing what he believes will be a better organization in a bigger market.
The Pelicans may have spoken to the Lakers, but there remains no clear and immediate pathway to a trade. This could be a long, nasty process. Paul is unfazed to make it a brawl, and Ainge is unafraid to make the trade. And, it appears, New Orleans is unafraid to make everyone wait.
This is the new NBA, a superstar's fight for flight. Only the league's balance of power appears to rest on the results of it all.
ESPN's Brian Windhorst contributed to this report.