The Lakers have long targeted Anthony Davis — just as nearly every other big market team has. This will sound elitist, but when a generational talent ends up playing in a small market, the big market/historical franchises lust for those players and monitor their situations with great interest at all times in order to make a play for them in either free agency or via trade.
Now that the Lakers have Davis as a member of the team, the focus shifts to keeping him in-house and retaining him through and, for an organization that covets star power, beyond his on-court prime. At Davis’ introductory press conference, when Rob Pelinka said that he was excited about the prospect of Davis being a pillar of the Lakers franchise for a decade, that was not hyperbole. Davis is 26 — nearly 10 years younger than LeBron James. You better believe they’d love to have Davis through the point in his career where LeBron is now.
Securing Davis’ services for the long term, then, is the biggest priority. Not just because keeping players this good is always the priority, but because the Lakers gave up so much to get him. The trade package surrendered exposes the organization’s future to real downside and the best way to mitigate that is by Davis being there to push back against it.
When you listen to Davis talk, however, there is no long term commitment to the Lakers too ease the organization’s fears. In a sitdown with ESPN’s Rachel Nichols, Davis spoke in a candid and straightforward manner on a variety of topics, but when asked about his future with the Lakers he only spoke of the upcoming season and the goal of winning a championship now.
He even went so far as to say (emphasis mine), “I don’t know what’s going to happen. I have one year here, so I’m going to make the best of it. And when that time comes around in the summer or whenever the season is over — hopefully that’s in mid-June after we just had this parade — and I need a couple of days to think and then we can talk about that.“
As always, context is king so before we get carried away we should point out a few things. Davis’ wry smile when Nichols asked about committing beyond this upcoming season could be interpreted as a nod to him wanting to be there long term. That matters. As should all the chatter of Davis wanting to be traded to the Lakers in the first place, him and LeBron sharing an agent, and some of the initial reporting around why Davis chose Rich Paul to begin with (wanting more endorsements and a raised profile in general).
There’s also the Lakers trading for Davis (and his Bird Rights), which will afford them the opportunity to offer him more money via 8% raises annually (compared to the 5% raises a non-Bird Rights contract would earn him) than any other team can in free agency. Even in a world where players’ on-court earning power and basketball salary do not carry the same weight they once did — players “give up” money all the time now — these things are not meaningless.
What has meaning for Davis, though, isn’t yet known.
And maybe we never will know, honestly. I caution against any of us thinking we have an inside glimpse at any of these players and what variables matter to them when making major life decisions. There may not have been a summer which hammered this home more, honestly. Be it Kawhi Leonard, Kevin Durant, Jimmy Butler, Paul George, or Al Horford, each one made very personal decisions this summer where it may not have initially aligned with what we thought they might do or how they might go about it.
In other words, prepare yourself to not have this go however you might think it could. Any number of options are on the table and I just wouldn’t be that surprised — or at least I’m preparing myself to not be surprised — should Davis take any course of action. Could Davis leave? Yes. Could he sign a 5 year contract to re-up with the Lakers? Yes. Or it could be something that falls in the middle…
One option I’ve actually been mulling around more and more is for Davis to take a page from the LeBron playbook in his 2nd stint in Cleveland.
Davis could, like LeBron did when he returned to Cleveland, leverage his earning power and influence over the organization by signing a series of 1+1 deals (aka 2-year contract with a 2nd year player option) where he’s earning his max salary, but also keeping his options open to leave if he so chooses. Opting in, with a max raise, would always be an option, but the possibility of the salary cap going up more than his annual raise would give him flexibility to opt-out and then re-sign for his full max again in order to do the entire dance again the following summer. Of, if he so chose, opting out to leave to a more desirable situation.
At a certain point, Davis would be able to cash in on any contract he’d want (Durant’s free agency, despite major injury, this summer proves that). Remember, Davis is a 7-year veteran. After 3 more seasons, if Davis is still with the Lakers, he’ll be eligible for the full 35% Bird Rights max (up to 5 years and with maximum 8% raises each season). What would stop him from inking 1+1 contracts that get him through those 3 seasons in order to maximize his payday while pressuring his current team to always build the best team possible to contend for a championship? Again, this is the playbook of his current teammate who was repped by their mutual agent when he did this to the Cavs.
Of course, all of this is getting way ahead of things. Davis has yet to play a game with the Lakers, so looking ahead to what his next contract negotiation might look like or what motives could drive them is beyond premature. The Lakers, like Davis, would do well to remember that this upcoming year is what matters most. And while recruiting him to stay — or at least making the proper impression on him to influence him favorably — is a major priority, the best way to actually do that is through on-court success and creating the best environment possible throughout the organization.
As for fans, my one piece of advice would be to not stress over this in any meaningful way. There is both a long and a short game of the Anthony Davis acquisition and while both may be going on at the same time for the organization, as a fan I’d recommend focusing on the games and enjoying them as much as possible. It’s rare to have a talent like Davis on the team you root for. Distracting yourself from that is doing yourself a major disservice.