Last week, I posited here that the Lakers were the last team standing in the race to trade for Anthony Davis. In the intervening days, nearly every report has confirmed that Los Angeles is in fact the leader in the clubhouse to acquire the soon-to-be former Pelican.
And yet, here we stand, less than a week before the NBA Draft — the self-imposed, pseudo-deadline that New Orleans GM David Griffin set to trade Davis — and he still isn’t a Laker. A deal that everyone expects to get done hasn’t come to fruition. The longer this holding pattern remains, the more worrisome it is that this process will become a repeat of the February trade deadline.
There are reasons to be optimistic about Davis eventually donning the purple and gold, but the whole situation has borne out some interesting subplots that are worth taking a closer look at.
The first is that Kyle Kuzma is evidently the player among Los Angeles’ young core that New Orleans “covets” the most. On the surface, this is objectively ridiculous. Kuzma is a perfectly fine player who draws a lot of praise because of his ability to score at a high volume. But he isn’t overwhelmingly efficient, he’s almost 24 years old, and he doesn’t have a ton of value beyond scoring.
This isn’t to say that it isn’t wholly enjoyable to have Kuzma on the team — he’s a supremely entertaining Laker — but the idea that he holds more value than Lonzo Ball or Brandon Ingram, even from purely an age standpoint, suggests something fishy. In my view, the point of the Pelicans portraying Kyle Kuzma as a line in the sand is to paint Los Angeles as an unreasonable trade partner. If the Lakers were truly unwilling to part with Kuzma, no matter the other parameters of the deal, then they should rightfully be ridiculed. That’s a severe misunderstanding of the value of the team’s young players relative to Anthony Davis.
Fortunately for the Lakers, they have put out their own side of the story that suggests more artful negotiating. An earlier report indicated that the team was willing to give Brandon Ingram, Lonzo Ball, and the no. 4 pick to New Orleans for Davis. Those are the team’s three best assets (LeBron James excluded, obviously). Assuming those three pieces are already on the table, then refusing to add Kuzma to that package actually makes sense. The Lakers will need some cost-effective depth around their star duo (or trio, if things break right), and Kuzma’s low salary and existing chemistry with James make him a natural fit.
From a negotiating perspective, this also tracks. Back in February, the Lakers were offering everything they possibly could for Davis, which gave them nothing to counter with when the Pelicans said no. By withholding some of their trade chips in this round of negotiating, they’ve allowed themselves some wiggle room if New Orleans isn’t pleased with the existing offer. However, the fact that Kuzma is still a sticking point in this process indicates that the Lakers and the Pelicans might not be that close to a deal.
Let’s think about why that might be the case. According to reports, the Clippers aren’t offering Shai Gilgeous-Alexander. The Celtics are probably not offering Jayson Tatum. The Nets don’t have a ton of first-round picks to offer after unloading two in the Allen Crabbe trade. The Knicks would be less interested in a Davis rental if his only season in New York coincided with a Kevin Durant rehab year.
There is nothing on the table that comes close to approximating the value that the Lakers are prepared to surrender. That suggests that New Orleans is conducting a bit of its own tradecraft.
Davis is the best player available in a trade this offseason, by a large margin. The Pelicans clearly would rather have a stronger market for him than just one team. Based on the Kuzma reporting, the Lakers have no interest in bidding against themselves, so New Orleans is almost stuck with either taking whatever the Lakers ultimately decide on, or not having a deal until another team starts making serious offers. Even for a player with one year left on his deal, the Pelicans had to be expecting more of a bidding war.
As a result, the Pelicans are likely leaking the Lakers’ offers to try to increase interest among other teams. They’ve already demonstrated that they believe the Lakers are being difficult, which would signal that they’d like to find other trading partners. And they’ve broadcasted the exact specifics of what the Lakers are willing to part with so that the rest of the league knows what it has to beat at the bargaining table.
New Orleans had to have hoped that by giving a timetable for a Davis trade, other teams would respond accordingly. However, there doesn’t appear to be any urgency from any franchise beyond the Lakers, and even Los Angeles has refused to be too eager in these proceedings. That could mean that the Lakers finally realize how much leverage they have. Even though the team arguably needs Davis, they also don’t need to overpay when nobody else is overwhelming the Pelicans with other offers.
So yes, in some ways it’s very silly that Kuzma has become the face of the stalemate in the Anthony Davis trade talks. From another perspective, it’s a sign that the Lakers have learned a few things from their last attempt to acquire Davis. They have the upper hand and they are taking advantage of the fact that they are Davis’ preferred destination.
The Lakers are still in the lead to get Davis. But they seem more comfortable letting the process play out naturally instead of rushing to get a deal done, and getting fleeced as a result. Hopefully, this new and more mature strategy can yield better results than their prior technique did at the trade deadline.