What’s the best deal for Anthony Davis?
There used to at least be a stock answer to this question. It’s the posed by every New Orleans Pelicans’ fan and observer alike, and once the February trade deadline passed, it was an obvious answer.
Trade him to Boston.
If the Pelicans could acquire a package including 21-year-old Jayson Tatum and a handful of Celtics’ first-round draft picks (of which they could own three this June, depending on Memphis and Sacramento’s lottery placement), it would be considered fair compensation for the departing Davis.
In theory, the Pelicans would have a cornerstone piece in place alongside Jrue Holiday and ample picks to either select talented, cheap young players or use as assets in future trades, allowing the franchise to build a stable foundation from the rubble Davis left behind. And it would behoove the Celtics to make a bold move for the first-team All-NBA performer, since pairing him with Kyrie Irving pushes Boston into the stratosphere of championship contention.
It all made sense.
Sure, there was still a New York Knicks trade scenario kicked around as a possibility, if they landed the No. 1 pick in the lottery. And the Los Angeles Lakers’ bevy of young players and picks offered at the deadline could be taken this summer if other deals didn’t reach fruition.
But, Boston was the clear cut leader.
Now, it’s simply uncertainty.
While identical scenarios still exist, the relative value of the pieces and the franchises’ positioning has drastically changed. In the wake of the Celtics' joyless season and five-game wipeout in the second round, there’s newfound anguish on both sides of a potential Davis trade.
From New Orleans’ perspective, the concept of building a deal around Tatum no longer feels safe. The former Duke standout didn’t use his sensational rookie season to catapult into All-Star status, and actually regressed in critical areas like 3-point percentage and Player Efficiency Rating in year two.
Most notably, he shrank from a starring role in Boston’s stirring run to Game 7 of the 2018 Eastern Conference Finals, into a diminished and hardly useful player during this thud of a postseason. Tatum struggled to thrive alongside Irving and Gordon Hayward, cratering his productivity and profile in the process.
While Boston has other expendable, useful pieces like Jaylen Brown, Terry Rozier and Marcus Smart, it was Tatum’s star turn last spring that truly set the Celtics’ potential offer apart from the rest and made waiting until this summer (the soonest Boston was allowed to make a trade for Davis) a prudent decision.
Now, there’s evidence Tatum might not be the surefire star many expected him to become. Perhaps he’ll thrive in a larger role, regaining the spark from last year’s playoffs when his usage rate spikes again, but NBA trade values are based on trend lines and despite his young age, Tatum’s plateaued.
And from Boston’s perspective, the prospect of acquiring Davis lost luster when its season went sideways and stars grew cynical. Less than a year after Irving publicly announced he’d eschew free agency to sign an extension with Boston, this season of discontent sowed seeds of doubt about his Celtics future.
“It’s moving on to the next thing,” Irving said after getting blown out by Milwaukee in Game 5. “And we’re just seeing where that ends up next.”
Without Irving in place, and without a potential championship roster on the floor, the allure of sacrificing young pieces to land Davis on a one-year deal is greatly diminished.
So, is the deal dead? No.
Is it more complicated now? Unquestionably yes.
The Pelicans’ goal for this trade is to remain competitive in the present by maximizing the talent around Jrue Holiday while simultaneously building a future around the assets netted. Owner Gayle Benson and new VP of basketball operations David Griffin don’t want to bottom out, lose 65 games and pray for the lottery to pan out.
But their strategy requires gaining young, talented players and valuable picks to come across in exchange for Davis, who has one year remaining on his deal and is reluctant to make a long-term commitment to any trade partner.
With Tatum’s shaky performance in mind and the Celtics’ timeline shifting, the once-assumed Boston deal is now in treacherous territory.
And those swerving circumstances lead to a myriad of additional questions. What other potential suitors are available for Davis trades and how can Griffin maximize the haul he gets in return for trading the best player in Pelicans history?
Griffin’s leverage could be determined on Tuesday, when the lottery reveals the order at the top of June’s draft. The Pelicans’ list of trade partners opens greatly if a franchise desiring to win immediately lands the top pick, making the Knicks (14 percent chance to draft No. 1) and Lakers (2 percent) a rooting interest beyond New Orleans’ own stake (6 percent).
Not to mention Griffin is expected to meet with Davis later this month hoping to persuade the All-Star to reverse his position and sign a five-year, $240 million supermax extension with the Pelicans, changing the entire franchise in the process.
Put simply, there are a lot of longshots in play and no clear favorite.
Meanwhile, the pieces are still moving, adding a layer of uncertainty to the whole process. What seemed simple a few months ago is undoubtedly murkier, but isn’t necessarily worse.
At least not yet.
At this moment New Orleans can still end up with Zion Williamson or a team like the Raptors, Clippers or Nets could decide they’re ready to make a splash and send New Orleans some talent and picks for a chance to persuade Davis to sign long term.
But, right now there’s simply no best answer to the biggest question facing this franchise: What’s the best deal for Anthony Davis?
So, stay tuned.