While we still have some unanswered questions about some key specifics of the Lakers trade for Anthony Davis, we do know who and what the Lakers sent to the Pelicans in the deal. On the player side, it’s Lonzo Ball, Brandon Ingram, and Josh Hart.
That, alone, is a nice package of talent — a trio of young players I believe in fully; players who are, in my opinion, undervalued league wide and will soon see their reputations enhanced once outside of the brighter (and often harsher) spotlight of playing for the Los Angeles Lakers and with LeBron James.
Of course, that’s not all the Lakers gave up. Not in the slightest.
To bolster their package, the Lakers also included the #4 overall pick in Thursday’s 2019 NBA Draft, a 2021 1st round pick that is top-8 reverse protected (if it’s outside the top 8, the Lakers keep it), the right to swap 1st round picks in the 2023 draft, and an unprotected 1st round pick in 2024 that can be deferred to 2025 if the Pelicans so choose.
A common word being used to describe this full package of players and draft compensation is a “haul” and I cannot disagree. The Pelicans extracted three of the four core young players (hi, Kyle Kuzma) and the ability to influence the Lakers’ draft through, potentially, 2025.
This was considerably more than I thought the Lakers — or any other team — would have to give up in a deal for Davis two weeks ago, though only slightly more than I thought the Lakers, specifically, would give up when reports came out the teams were advancing in their talks towards the end of the NBA Finals.
I, then, was wrong. As the kids say, you hate to see it.
I’m not here, then, to say the Lakers didn’t give up a lot. They absolutely did. I do believe, however, that the value of the things the Lakers did surrender, specifically when talking about the draft assets, are being somewhat mis-characterized. Again, it’s not because these things aren’t good assets, but more because the downside of what they could be is too often being conflated for what they actually are right now.
Let me be clear here: the Lakers certainly exposed themselves to tremendous downside in agreeing to these trade parameters.
If the Lakers miss the playoffs next season and end up with a top 8 pick, they lose their pick. If that pick doesn’t convey in 2021, it will convey unprotected in 2022 — the year that many speculate could be the “double-draft” where high school players are allowed to enter the draft and would join all the one-and-done prospects who would normally come into the league too. The right to swap picks in 2023 could be huge as well, as we saw with the Celtics/Nets trade that involved KG/Paul Pierce. And, of course, the 2024 unprotected pick that could be deferred to 2025 come after LeBron James’ contract expires and when he’d be either 39 or 40 years old if he were still playing for the Lakers.
Stevie Wonder could see the downside here, so let’s not kid ourselves.
Downside should not be mistaken for what is actually going to happen, though. No one can know for sure what will happen in a half-decade and in a world where, now more than ever, the bad things get the most coverage, I feel as though the Lakers’ upside in relation to the draft compensation is not getting nearly enough play as a possibility.
For example, the likelihood of the Lakers retaining their 2021 pick is relatively high. This team is currently one of the favorites to win the 2020 title, after all. Barring something amazingly unfortunate, it would be difficult to see a team falling from title contender to a team with one of the 10 (or so) worst records in the league seems relatively low.
So, the Lakers should control their own draft picks in the 2020 and 2021 drafts. The Lakers, for all their warts, have drafted fairly well, especially in the back end of the 1st round, in recent seasons. The jury is still out on Moe Wagner’s rotation potential, but Larry Nance Jr., Kyle Kuzma, and Josh Hart were all 1st round picks drafted 27th or later. They’re all rotation level NBA players and were that within a season of being drafted.
In 2022, then, the Lakers will either have already surrendered their pick (which would be bad, but still) and pick in (again, what is being speculated as) the “double draft” or will give up their pick. If they do give up their pick, they would have just finished a season with Anthony Davis and LeBron James on their roster while being supplemented with two 1st round picks and the ability to add free agents with the full mid-level exception the previous two summers (assuming the Lakers have been operating as an above the cap team for the previous two years — which is what I expect). This doesn’t sound like a team we should expect to be terrible.
When it is time to swap picks in 2023 there are two scenarios for what the roster looks like:
- Either you’ve re-signed LeBron James (whose contract would have expired in the summer of 2022) while still having Davis and the full roster you’ve built via the aforementioned 1st round picks from 2020 and 2021 + the free agents signed via the MLE or you’ve made more trades to build up your roster further using those picks and MLE free agents who became trade eligible (as needed salary ballast) OR
- LeBron James just came off your books and walked, but $40 million in cap space just came off your books and you likely had some modicum of cap space to recruit free agents to come and play with Anthony Davis on the Lakers for the season that just happened.
There’s downside to both of these scenarios, but the upside is in clear sight too. And, if the upside plays out even somewhat, that doesn’t sound like a terrible team (like those Nets teams who were picking the top 5-10 in the draft, but giving up their picks via swaps with the Celtics).
In 2024 or 2025, the chickens may come home to roost and you’ll be looking at surrendering an unprotected pick in the same season that you may no longer have LeBron or Anthony Davis. That’s a real possibility that has to be considered. OR you can still have Davis who would have just completed his age 30 or 31 season and, potentially, the aforementioned FA you signed when LeBron came off your books or, you could still have a really old LeBron and a reshaped roster with Davis as the centerpiece and other viable pieces around him.
Some of the above may sound like a reach. I get it. There’s a lot of “if’s” and “or’s” in those sentences. Plus, projecting upside 6 or 7 years from now is a thought experiment wrought with pitfalls and assumptions that we can never know to be true until they do or do not happen. And I fully understand it’s easier to project how things go wrong because all it takes is one injury or one signing to not go right or one draft pick to not be good and it all begins to unravel. I also appreciate that Rob Pelinka and the rest of the Lakers’ brain-trust isn’t held in the highest of regard right now so entrusting them to build in a thoughtful, methodical way that produces positive results is not seen as all that likely when forecasting out.
But, if there’s one thing I’ve learned in following this league for as long as I have it’s that nothing is predictable. That, literally, anything can happen. That people get better at their job, that things happen you do not expect.
From late February through just a few weeks ago, I read and watched report after report from credible NBA news-breakers say there was no way the Pelicans were going to trade Anthony Davis to the Lakers. That the bad blood was too much, that the Lakers assets and trade package was too weak. And, well, here we are.
I’m not going to tell you the Lakers are going to come out of this in 2025 smelling like roses and that the Anthony Davis trade downside isn’t real. Nor am I going to tell you they didn’t give up a lot. I will say, however, don’t be so fast to take the worst case scenarios and turn them into the most likely outcome. I don’t say that as an optimist, either. I say it as someone who knows none of us can see the future.