Anthony Davis or Not, the LeBron Bargain has Never Been Clearer
To be fair and to state the obvious, LeBron James is not the only one driving the story of the Anthony Davis trade. Davis is the superstar who requested the trade. Rich Paul is Davis' agent, and he's the public face of every subsequent demand that Davis will make as he tries to force a deal before Thursday afternoon’s trade deadline. There are also four or five reporters who will be conveying every bit of information that emerges from Paul and co. over the next two days, amplifying every twist, helping to make this the biggest story in sports.
But if the story isn't going away for the next 48 hours, we should all be clear about who's really the main character. Davis doesn't just want to be traded before the deadline—he wants to be traded to LeBron's team. He's not just speaking through his agent, but he's speaking through Paul, the agent who got his start when LeBron hired the then 24-year-old to oversee his marketing. And as for the reporters who will be amplifying every new development ... I mean, LeBron literally gave them a shoutout during the Super Bowl.
Meanwhile, James has played one game in five weeks. A groin injury that began with a day-to-day diagnosis has kept him sidelined for nearly 20 games. The Lakers have gone 6-12 without him. At one point it was reported that if it were the playoffs, LeBron would have been playing. He came back last Thursday to help beat the Clippers in overtime. Against the Warriors Saturday, he opted to sit out again. Against the Pacers Tuesday night, he's listed as probable.
LeBron's time on the sidelines has been telling. Without nightly triple-doubles and the kind of MVP impact we've all come to take for granted over the past 15 years, there’s been nothing to do but focus on everything else that comes with the LeBron experience.
Almost every player on the Lakers has been mentioned in Davis trade talks over the past two weeks, and most of that has happened about as publicly as possible. The noise has been so loud that it forced LaVar Ball to come out of retirement. And yet, according to reports, one of the few players who hasn't been made available is Kentavious Caldwell-Pope—another client of Paul and Klutch Sports, and a career journeyman who has an automatic no-trade clause after signing consecutive deals with the front office that had just spent several years definitely not tampering with James.* (An earlier version of this article said that KCP negotiated the NTC, but he didn't; that veto power was triggered by early bird rights).
Meanwhile, there have been steady rumors that James is unhappy with the job Luke Walton is doing and the people around him would prefer a coaching change. After the Warriors game Saturday night, news of a heated exchange in the L.A. locker room was leaked to the media almost as soon it happened. Shortly thereafter, a few longtime Lakers reporters looked into the reports and explained that the incident was relatively typical post-loss tension and not quite as dramatic as initial reports implied. So where did the initial reports originate?
If any of this sounds quasi-conspiratorial and gossipy and kind of embarrassing to think about seriously, that's only because it's how the entire NBA has been operating for the past eight days. And whether it's Davis power plays or Kyrie Irving supposedly on the way out of Boston or fights in the Lakers locker room, a lot of what's currently driving the NBA to madness seems like it can be traced back to LeBron—even if there are rarely any direct links, there's always plenty of circumstantial evidence to make you wonder.
A year ago at this time, LeBron was going half-speed through Cavs games and Cleveland had lost eight of 12. Wednesday, February 7th, LeBron was told that the Cavs had several trades in play for the following afternoon's trade deadline—that night, he responded by putting up 37 points, 10 rebounds, and 15 assists. The Cavs beat the Wolves in overtime. A few days later, after trading nearly half the roster, Cleveland went into Boston and dominated the first-place Celtics, 122-99.
This is the bargain that any LeBron team agrees to up front. He's one of the greatest players ever, he gives average rosters a higher floor that probably any player in the history of the league, and he can work through back-channels to recruit stars who will give you a shot at a title. But there are real costs that come with him. Coaches get fired. Teammates get traded, or they have to play entire seasons knowing they might be. Rumors will swirl after every loss. LeBron may sit out without explanation, or he may play at half-speed until he has the roster he wants. Then, when it all works and everything comes together, there will be one player who gets the lion's share of credit.
For the past five weeks, the Lakers have been living exactly half of the equation above—all of the LeBron costs, none of the benefits. That story could begin to change against the Pacers tonight, and the shift may continue through the rest of the season. If LeBron's on the floor, he's the biggest story in the NBA, and the Lakers can compete with anyone. As tough as the West may seem, betting against L.A. in any non-Warriors playoff series will be terrifying. Meanwhile, if the Lakers can trade for Davis this week, they will spend the next several seasons contending for titles.
But then, there's also the alternative: if LeBron and Rich Paul can't guide Davis to Los Angeles by Thursday, what's the plan? Does LeBron come back and play the rest of the season with all the teammates he's been trying to trade, taking orders from the coach he's been trying to fire? Does Davis promise to sign in L.A. in 2020? Will the Lakers spend another year preserving cap space and stockpiling the roster with one-year deals?
In a weird way, if the Lakers can't get AD and the whole L.A. story goes sideways, it might be more appropriate. If LeBron were able to conjure another title team out of thin air in L.A., it would almost certainly leave him looking like the greatest player of all time and the most revolutionary power broker the league has ever seen. He would be described as equal parts Michael Jordan and Jerry West, half-player, half-empire-builder. He'd be revered by the anyone who's ever cared about basketball, and any flaws or complicated would be airbrushed away. (Maybe that airbrushing will happen regardless, and considering how great LeBron has been, maybe it should.)
The true story is more interesting. LeBron should be revered and celebrated for a dozen different reasons, and his ability to wield leverage and manifest his own destiny has been every bit as revolutionary as everyone says. On and off the court, he's been a catalyst for the most entertaining era in NBA history. But there are limits to his power, and there are qualifiers to any story of what he does for a team. Think about what Brandon Ingram and Kyle Kuzma have been dealing with this season, or imagine life as Luke Walton, who's spent most of the season working with a deeply flawed bench full of players that his best player helped handpick this summer. Think about the Lakers fans who have to sit through shorthanded losses and then read that Walton may be fired so the team can go hire Jason Kidd or Mark Jackson.
As great as LeBron has always been, this is the other side of the deal: his power makes life harder on almost everyone around him, he creates news cycles that are exhausting even for outsiders, and every minute he's not on the court, he will make you quietly wonder whether any of this is actually worth it.