This was supposed to be one of the premier games on the New Orleans Pelicans’ home schedule.
It’s a night the franchise marketed season-ticket packages around and ratcheted up the price point for the individual game buy. It’s the kind of matchup people from around the region drive in to watch and locals save for.
And the advertised stars still lit up the marquee until Saturday night. It’s LeBron James and the Los Angeles Lakers against Anthony Davis and the New Orleans Pelicans inside the Smoothie King Center.
Sounds enticing. Well, not exactly.
Instead of those All-NBA talents squaring off, the Lakers decided to sit James for the remainder of the season. It ended any possibility of a face-off between him and Davis, which is just as well, because it would be no more than a facade anyway.
This is nothing more than two also-rans, whose cripplingly disappointing seasons have created unsustainably tumultuous atmospheres around their franchises. And now the Lakers have cemented the notion by benching James.
And, in many ways, they have each other to thank.
The story has been driven into the ground at this point, but suffice to say when Davis requested a trade out of New Orleans, his James-adjacent representation attempted to engineer a trade to make Davis a Laker. After countless leaks, the deal never came to fruition, leaving the Pelicans to play Davis in a bizarre limited role and the Lakers to deal with their roster full of James’ alienated teammates.
It served as a crushing blow to the Lakers, whose playoff chances immediately nosedived after the trade deadline and now sit just two games better than the Pelicans in the undercarriage of the West standings.
Considering James starred in the past eight consecutive NBA Finals and Davis was the picture of professionalism in New Orleans, their simultaneous falls from grace were jarring.
And now both teams are trying to figure out how to correct the errors that got them here and move forward as best they can.
In the meantime, their incentives in the present have changed.
Instead of pushing for a playoff berth or jockeying for position, the best long-term outcome for both teams is to lose as often as possible and race toward the bottom for a better chance at a Top 4 draft pick.
“Look, we are still trying to win games but we recognize there is a bigger picture out there we are more focused on,” Pelicans coach Alvin Gentry said earlier in the week. “We are trying to see as much of the young guys as we can and get them an opportunity to play a lot of minutes, which gives us a chance to see them play in that role and gives them a fair opportunity to see what they can do.
“So, we are going to play younger guys and try to win the games with them. We still want to win but it’s not our only priority.”
It’s why Davis is playing just 20 minutes per night in the games he actually plays, and why James is occasionally sitting out entirely for “load management” even when it’s unannounced and on national television.
This isn’t the product people paid for.
In addition to the strange Davis circumstance, the Pelicans are playing without the injured Jrue Holiday, E’Twaun Moore, Frank Jackson and Darius Miller, forcing Gentry to pull from the end of his bench just to piece together a rotation.
It’s no better in L.A.
In last Wednesday’s loss to the Utah Jazz, the following Lakers tallied at least 10 minutes of playing time: Isaac Bonga, Scott Machado, Mo Wagner, Johnathan Williams and Alex Caruso.
Not exactly the front line talent deserving of that high-dollar price tag on the tickets.
It’s not the Pelicans’ fault. Few could have predicted this outcome at the onset of the season.
But, Sunday’s “premier” ticket is a perfect illustration of just how far this season has unraveled in the aftermath of Davis’ botched trade request and the Lakers’ pitiful handling of the ensuing circumstances.
The hype grabbed everyone’s attention, but the reality is ultimately grim. And now everyone is required to show up on Sunday and put on a face of justification, but it’s obvious all involved are just ready to cut their losses and move on.