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Two summers ago, Paul George requested a trade from the Indiana Pacers. More specifically, he requested a trade to his hometown Los Angeles Lakers, making it clear he wouldn’t re-sign if they dealt him anywhere else.
The Lakers never made a serious offer for George then, figuring they’d be able to sign him in free agency in a year without giving up any of their prized young prospects or draft picks. After all, George had let his desire to wear purple and gold be known.
And so the Pacers explored other options, eventually trading George to the Oklahoma City Thunder for Victor Oladipo and Domantas Sabonis. Thunder general manager Sam Presti was well aware of the risk of losing George for nothing after one season. He took the shot anyway, banking on his ability to sell the Thunder organization and culture and the opportunity to contend every year.
The following summer, minutes after free agency opened at midnight July 1, George agreed to a four-year, $137 million deal to stay in Oklahoma City. He didn’t take a meeting with any other team, including the Lakers. Presti’s home run swing paid off.
With Anthony Davis the latest superstar attempting to force his way to a new team of his choosing well before he hits free agency, other small-market teams would do well to follow the Thunder’s lead and sell themselves to one of the best players of this era.
Davis’ agent, Rich Paul, told ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski on Monday morning that he had informed the New Orleans Pelicans of Davis’ desire to be traded, be it now or this summer, before he can become a free agent after the 2019-20 season.
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Davis hasn’t explicitly named his list of preferred teams (yet), but it’s not hard to figure out where this is headed. His representatives at Klutch Sports Group also represent LeBron James, who publicly had dinner with Davis in Los Angeles last month and told ESPN.com’s Dave McMenamin it would be “amazing” if they were able to team up with the Lakers.
Davis has been linked to the Boston Celtics in trade rumors for the past two years, but they can’t trade for him until July 1 because of a technicality in the NBA‘s collective bargaining agreement (with Kyrie Irving on the roster).
The decision to take Davis’ trade request public now, just over a week before the Feb. 7 trade deadline, could be Paul’s attempt to give the Lakers a head start to put their best deal on the table before Danny Ainge has the chance to offer up an attractive package of picks and players potentially headlined by Jayson Tatum.
The prospect of a bidding war between the Lakers and Celtics has felt like an inevitability for some time. Assuming the Pelicans don’t pull the trigger on a Davis deal between now and the deadline, those two teams will surely be the main players when the race heats up again in the offseason. Yahoo Sports’ Chris Haynes reported Monday that the New York Knicks plan to put themselves in the mix for Davis’ services as well.
Teams in non-glamour markets will never be able to compete for someone like Davis in free agency, so they can either hope to land a superstar in the draft or make a trade, even if there’s a chance the player will leave.
For a slightly lesser player, even a lower-tier All-Star, the risk of giving up long-term pieces for what may just be a year-plus rental would be too much.
Anthony Davis is worth putting everything on the line for the chance to win him over.
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A 25-year-old perennial MVP candidate doesn’t come available often. Davis is putting up numbers matched only by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in 1974-75, and he’s young enough that it’s a safe bet he’ll still be among the three or four best players in the NBA for the entirety of the lucrative contract he’ll sign somewhere in 18 months.
Why wouldn’t every team want to at least give themselves a head start in recruiting him?
This past summer, Toronto Raptors President Masai Ujiri looked at the roster he had built, a great regular-season team that consistently fell short in the playoffs, and decided that group was maxed out. So he traded arguably the most beloved Raptor ever, DeMar DeRozan, for Kawhi Leonard, who had asked out of San Antonio but showed no desire to play in Toronto.
Leonard may leave the Raptors in July and force Ujiri to undertake a full rebuild. Even if he does, trading for him will have been worth it. Leonard, like Davis, is one of the NBA’s few transformational players, an MVP-caliber superstar who can singlehandedly take a team from good to great. He’s been as productive as advertised for the Raptors, who look like Finals contenders in the Eastern Conference at 37-15.
If Leonard re-signs, the Raptors will have a foundational player for the next half-decade who never would have considered them as a free-agent suitor. If he walks, Ujiri can go to sleep at night knowing he did everything possible to bring the Raptors closer to a title than they would have come if they’d run back the previous year’s team.
There are plenty of teams that should be taking the same approach now that bidding is open for Davis.
The Portland Trail Blazers, for example, are much like last year’s Raptors: a good-but-not-great team that will make the playoffs every year but is unlikely to make a real run as presently constructed. Putting together a trade package for Davis—let’s say CJ McCollum, Zach Collins and a couple of first-round picks, but everybody not named Damian Lillard is theoretically on the table—would give them a chance to go deeper in the postseason.
Maybe Lillard would be able to convince Davis to stick around long term, which would radically alter the trajectory of the Blazers organization. Maybe Davis leaves, as most people expect him to if he’s traded anywhere besides the Lakers, Celtics or Knicks. The odds he’d sign with Portland as a free agent in 2020 would be close to zero; the Blazers’ chances of keeping him after a trade if next season goes well would be much higher than that.
These types of teams—not just the presumptive favorites—should be calling New Orleans. Like Indiana did when George wanted out, the Pelicans will make the deal that’s best for them without worrying about what Davis wants or where Klutch would prefer their client to play. Every team, even the ones with long odds at convincing Davis to stay, should be offering New Orleans the best package they can.
It’s a gamble that may backfire for whoever trades for him, but if there’s any player worth taking that chance on, it’s Davis.
Sean Highkin covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. He is currently based in Portland. Follow Sean on Twitter, @highkin.