The Long Goodbye
Anthony Davis’s days as a Pelican are numbered, but any successes he can produce will help the team in the long run.
For sports fans in New Orleans, 2019 is turning out to be a very strange year.
We began it knowing it will be the last season for the city’s AAA baseball team before it moves to Wichita, Kansas. In football, the Saints, of course, were denied a trip to the Super Bowl on a no-call by the officiating crew. In the days after the NFC Championship, as the city was trying to overcome the unimaginable loss, its second biggest sports star, All-NBA forward/center Anthony Davis, announced he would forgo a mega-contract worth about $240 million over five years and wanted to be traded to a team that will allow him to compete for championships.
At the beginning of this season, the NBA’s general managers voted Davis the best player in the league at two positions, center and power forward. Around the same time, Pels’ coach Alvin Gentry said there is no other player in the world that he would rather have on his squad. At just 25 years old, Davis is just entering his prime and could get even better. In short, he is to the New Orleans Pelicans what quarterback Drew Brees is to the New Orleans Saints – invaluable.
With the trade request, however, the Pelicans have been forced to determine what Davis is worth. He believes he’s the best player in the NBA. Unfortunately, in his time with the Pelicans, he’s only won one playoff series. That was last year, when Davis put the team on his shoulders and led them to the postseason. The Pels got knocked out of the playoffs in the second round by the eventual NBA champion Golden State Warriors, but basketball experts predicted the Pelicans were on the rise. If the Pelicans could keep the talent they had and maybe attract a player or two more, they could become a legitimate contender. Then in the offseason, two starters left the team, and many questioned whether New Orleans could match, much less improve, their playoff expectations going forward. That put Davis and the team in a precarious position. With the personnel losses they suffered and an inability to recruit equal or better talent to replace what they lost, the team appears to be stagnant. Davis, of course, voiced his decision to move on from the only NBA team for which he’s played.
The Los Angeles Lakers entered trade talks with the Pelicans to try to land Davis. They fell through. Davis wasn’t traded before the NBA’s trade deadline on Thursday. That leaves L.A. with a fractured team as a number of role players feel hurt that they were offered as trade bait. In NOLA, Davis says he wants to play the rest of the season, and the Pelicans seem willing to let him, despite the chance for injury and resulting decrease in his trade value.
The toothpaste is out of the tube and will be nearly impossible to put it back, but there is a slight chance Davis could change his mind and sign an extension with the Pelicans. Because of NBA rules designed to keep star players in small markets, no other team can offer him the amount of money the Pelicans can. While there is no doubt that the franchise would like their superstar to remain in the Crescent City, there remain lingering questions as to whether or not the Pelicans can attract the talent to build a championship-caliber team around him. Their Thursday trade of sharp shooting Nikola Mirotic to the Milwaukee Bucks in exchange for Jason Smith, Stanley Johnson, and four second-round picks makes it look as if they are conceding that they will be rebuilding the roster.
Unfortunately, in this era the NBA’s biggest stars’ careers are judged on whether or not they win a championship. Some, like LeBron James, have forsaken money for the opportunity to grab a ring. If Davis decides not to re-sign with New Orleans, he will become a free agent in 2020 and can take his talents and championship dreams to wherever he chooses. That will force the Pelicans hand. They will have no option but to trade him this offseason and try to get a matching level of talent to replace him – much like what happened with the franchise’s last superstar Chris Paul, who played in New Orleans for the first six years of his career. But without Davis, questions about the team’s long-term viability in New Orleans will surely arise. Will the team’s fans be willing to support the club if it loses its superstar and has to go through another rebuilding process? If not, would owner Gayle Benson be inclined to move the team to a larger market with less competition for fans’ entertainment dollars or sell to someone who would?
Davis has been out of action with an injured finger and has missed nine games, but he was cleared to practice this week.
He will return to the court soon, and when he does, Pelicans fans will have no option but to wish him success. While no one likes to be in the situation he has put himself, his team and the fans in, I don’t think support will be lacking. The better he does, the better, ultimately, the Pelicans do. If he can play like the superstar he is for the next several months, his trade value will increase. That will only help the team he leaves behind in the long run. Athletes’ careers are limited in time. Fans understand Davis’ desire to be a champion. There are few that will hold that against him. Still, New Orleanians are known for not leaving New Orleans. It goes against the grain for someone to want to leave the city, and locals are dumbfounded as to why one would. And there is no guarantee that he will win a championship by joining a new team, Paul – who has chased rings with the LA Clippers and Houston Rockets since leaving New Orleans – can tell him as much.
Hopefully, Davis and the Pelicans can get the best for both parties – an opportunity to compete, be successful, and win in the post-season.