When Anthony Davis demanded a trade to the Lakers and started threatening to not re-sign with other suitors in order to scare them off and force the New Orleans Pelicans to send him to his preferred destination in Los Angeles, a lot of people around the league got pissed off at both him and his agent, Rich Paul.
Pelicans ownership was so angry at Paul that they didn’t want to deal with the Lakers. But Paul forced their hand to a degree, publicly letting the Boston Celtics know that Davis would be a rental if they traded for him. Paul also said he only went public with the trade demand because then-Pelicans GM Dell Demps tried to go around him by leaking it to the press, and insisted that he would have been telling Davis the Lakers were the best fit for him regardless of his friend and client LeBron James’ presence on the team.
So yeah, to say the whole thing got a little public and messy — including a $50,000 fine for Davis due to Paul taking his trade request public — would be an understatement. But in the end, Paul — as he usually does — got his client what he wanted. The Pelicans traded Davis to the Lakers, where he won a title in his first season.
But why did Davis want to go to the Lakers so badly? Was it just to team with his friend LeBron? Was it the bright lights of L.A. luring him? The chance to compete for a title? It was a bit of all of that, and in an extremely revealing profile from Isaac Chotiner of The New Yorker, Paul confirmed that he told Davis that the Lakers would be the best fit for him, and outlined how he explained that to his star client (emphasis mine):
I asked Paul what he would say to a fan who believes that once an athlete signs a contract he owes it to the team to finish it out. “That would normally be a casual fan, and the casual fan doesn’t understand the layers that come with it,” Paul said. I asked him about his early conversations with Davis about leaving New Orleans. He grew circumspect. “I educated him on why I thought the team wouldn’t be . . . ” He paused. “All athletes are competitive and confident, until reality sets in. And I educated him on things.”
Now, what exactly did Paul educate Davis on? It wasn’t just the direct path to competitiveness that James’ presence provided. It was also the difference in organizational spending power between the traditionally thrifty Pelicans and the big-market Lakers. Because despite having one of the cash-poorest primary governors in the NBA in Jeanie Buss (worth an estimated $500 million) — for context, Pelicans governor Gayle Benson is worth $3.4 billion, per Forbes — the Lakers have always been willing to spend for a winner.
Paul seems to be well aware of that fact, and explained as much to Davis (again, emphasis mine):
For a star player like Davis to commit to a franchise, “you either need your team”—a winning mix of players—“in place, or you need flexibility, assets, money, and the ability to make decisions. And, more important, the willingness to pay the tax”—the so-called luxury tax, for exceeding the league’s salary cap, which the Pelicans at that time refused to pay. “This ain’t ‘Moneyball,’ ” Paul said. He was referring to the book by Michael Lewis, in which Billy Beane, the nimble general manager of the Oakland A’s, builds a winning baseball team on the cheap by using advanced statistical methods. But, as Paul knows, nothing quite trumps money. Players have short careers, and very few will remain sentimental about the charms of a small-market existence, particularly if their team is a loser.
The Pelicans only won one playoff series in Davis’ time there. The Lakers won four (and a title) in his first playoff run. And while the team fell short in the first round this year due to injuries and circumstances, Buss has maintained that she’s willing to pay the luxury tax to stay competitive.
“The luxury tax is for teams that have championship aspirations, and certainly that is something where we want to keep the Lakers at the top of the conversation,” Buss told ESPN in March. “Once LeBron James decided to join the Lakers, the way he’s playing it doesn’t seem like he’s 36 years old, but when you have a player like LeBron James on your team, you’ve got to go for it. You’ve got to use that opportunity to win.”
Lakers general manager Rob Pelinka offered additionally confirmation that he’s been empowered to spend during exit interviews.
“Jeanie and the ownership group has empowered the front office to do one thing and that’s to smartly build a roster to win championships,” Pelinka said. “That’s been the hallmark of this team since Dr. Buss acquired it, and continues to be today. Clearly all 30 NBA teams are confined by a salary cap, so we’ve got to be smart about how we put all the puzzle pieces together, but there is only one goal, and it’s doing it smartly to have a championship-caliber team.”
All of that is particularly relevant given that the Lakers could be facing the largest tax bill in NBA history this summer, potentially as much as $100 million, according to Bleacher Report cap expert Eric Pincus. But if that’s what it costs to keep this team contending around James and Davis — the vision Paul sold Davis on during his trade demand — then right now we have no reason to believe that the team won’t pay it.
That’s why Davis came here, and now the pressure is on the Lakers to justify his (and Paul’s) trust.