Anthony Davis, The Celtics, The Knicks, and Leverage

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Published: February 1, 2019

It is February 1st, the NBA trade deadline is less than a week away, and the games are just beginning. The Pelicans are taking and making plenty of phone calls, which normally signals urgency, but in this case, there is no rush. For some, like the Lakers, February 7th is the finish line, but for the Pelicans it is an almost inconsequential and arbitrary line that means nothing to them in their quest to fetch the best package for Anthony Davis.

Instead, the date May 14th holds much more importance. That is the date of the NBA’s draft lottery, and how the Knicks, Grizzlies, Kings, and even the Pelicans themselves, fair that night will play a far bigger part in determining what jersey Anthony Davis wears next season. Once the order of the 2019 draft is known, the offers that the Pelicans have to choose between become more clear and less abstract.

The Knicks are bidding, but their best asset is impossible to evaluate. It is their 2019 draft pick and if that pick lands at #1, it could be the single best asset available to the Pelicans. But if it lands at #4 or 5, the Celtics would have arguably multiple assets that trump it. You can even argue that the Lakers have an asset or two that beats the 4th pick in the 2019 draft.

Additionally, the Celtics assets could gain or lose value on May 14th. They have the Kings pick, top 1 protected. That pick is likely to land between 12 and 14, but what if it catapults up to #2 or #3? They also own the Memphis pick, which actually gains value if it doesn’t convey this season. It is top-8 protected this year, top-6 protected in 2020 and unprotected in 2021. If it conveys as the 9th pick this year, it’s a solid B-minus asset, but it has the potential to be an A asset if it doesn’t convey until 2021.

And lastly, the Pelicans pick itself could play a major role in all of this. As of today, most would pencil it in to land between 9-12, but what if they jump all the way up into the top 3? Or heck, if they win the lotto and have secured their next franchise cornerstone before they even make an AD trade… what happens then?

 

The simple truth is that May 14th is the date that determines the future of Anthony Davis. But in knowing that, should the Pelicans wait for fate to determine their course, or should they write their own destiny without concern for how those lottery balls pop up? That is the decision the Pelicans have to make in the next week.

A deal with Boston cannot become official in the next week, but a Gentlemen’s Agreement between Danny Ainge and Dell Demps could be made right now. A framework could be constructed where the two men agree to the particulars of the trade and it commences in July, once it becomes legal per the NBA’s collective bargaining agreement. Such an agreement would be risky for both parties, as nothing would be legally binding. However, both men would know that they, and their franchises, would be blackballed around the league if an agreement was made and either side backed out.

 

The true concern would not be a team backing out, but rather, a large variable shifting in between February 7th and July 1st. For instance, what if Jayson Tatum was in the deal and he tore his ACL in the playoffs? Or what if the Kings pick was in the deal and both teams assumed it would be #13, but instead it jumped up to #2? These are just a few examples, and it would be hard to work in contingencies for each and every major variable that could occur.

It would be hard, but possible. And the Pelicans and Celtics should explore it to see if it is in each other’s best interest. For the Pelicans, a Knicks offer likely trumps anything the Celtics can offer if their own pick lands at #1. All of a sudden, they can put together a package of Zion Williamson, Kevin Knox, Dennis Smith, and multiple picks including Dallas’s unprotected 2021 pick, Dallas’s 2023 pick and multiple picks and pick swaps of their own. But that deal only has a 14% chance of being available to the Pelicans.

 

What is possibly available to the Pelicans today, however, is the leverage that this 14% possibility creates. If you go to Danny Ainge today and tell him that Zion and all those pieces would trump Tatum and whatever else the Celtics can offer, can you force Ainge to agree to a handshake deal that results in him giving up all his valuables, with no contingencies? Can you get Tatum, Smart, J. Brown and all the future picks you want, regardless of where they land? And if so, is that worth bypassing the opportunity, albeit small one, to get Zion Williamson and all the Knicks assets?

February 7th is the last date to use the possibility as leverage before all negotiations are had with reality, not possibility. And reality could increase the Pelicans leverage against Boston, but there is also an 86% likelihood that their leverage decreases on May 14th. The question is, how much Boston takes off the table if the Knicks pick lands at #3. More if it falls to #4 or #5? Does that mean that Brown is now taken out of the deal? Or is it a pick? Or is it Tatum?

Again, we are back to the unknown. The truth is that the Anthony Davis trade and what the Pelicans get in return will lay the foundation for the franchise for the next 10 years. Perhaps even longer. So, with that in mind, do you gamble – and how much? There is a 14% chance that you win the lottery (via New York) and your leverage reaches its absolute peak, as you play the Knicks and Celtics against each other.

The only decision the Pelicans have to make right now is whether they want to take that gamble. Anthony Davis will not be moved (officially) before this deadline, but a deal can still be reached. The question the Pelicans have to ask themselves is: Do you cash out on the biggest lotto prize you’ve ever won or do you let it ride and gamble again? They have less than a week to decide.

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