If the door for contention out in the Western Conference swung wide open this week after a pair of brutal Golden State injuries, it appears that the Lakers just walked right through it.
Los Angeles, vying to make the most of LeBron James’s remaining window, agreed to a deal Saturday that would land them Pelicans star Anthony Davis in exchange for Brandon Ingram, Lonzo Ball, Josh Hart and three first-round picks, including the No. 4 in Thursday’s draft.
The haul was significant from several standpoints: Aside from giving James his first real star running mate out in L.A. (the Lakers will undoubtedly go for one more in free agency), it also takes a couple of other teams out of the running for a serious overhaul. In particular, it’s a blow for a club like the Celtics, who might have been able to further entice free-agent-to-be Kyrie Irving into staying had they landed Davis. (The tea leaves on him staying haven’t looked great lately.)
The players involved in the trade, and that No. 4 pick, also suggest that the Pelicans have the makings of a very solid young roster under this new David Griffin regime. Between Zion Williamson (the presumed No. 1 pick), Jrue Holiday, Ingram, Ball, Hart and whomever New Orleans takes at No. 4, the Pels figure to be very good in transition, with considerable versatility on the defensive end. It’s not hard to see how this rebuild could pay dividends more quickly than what some were thinking —particularly if Williamson ends up being the kind of star he is widely expected to be.
Above all else, though, there will be immediate interest in what this deal means for LeBron and the Lakers, and whether someone of Davis’s caliber makes them favorites in a now wide-open West, where the reigning five-time conference champs lost both Kevin Durant and Klay Thompson.
Having Davis on the roster gives Los Angeles something it should have had in James’s first year there: A player whom the offense can run through when James isn’t directly involved1, and someone who can keep the team afloat when James goes to the bench. The Lakers beat opponents by 1.6 points per 100 possessions in the time James was on the court last season, but were a disappointing -5.7 points per 100 plays worse than their foes when he was sidelined. Having Davis, and staggering some of his minutes with James’s, should alleviate that problem a great deal.
Davis is a generational talent: A terrorizing finisher in the pick-and-roll, and a long-limbed, mobile rim protector that makes players think twice about coming into the paint. He averaged 12 boards a game last season and has improved as a passer and as perimeter jump-shooter, meaning that defenses can’t back all the way off of him. He’s comfortable with his back to the basket, or facing up. He logged 25 points per game this past season and can score when defenses are geared toward stopping him alone — something opposing teams will be able to do less now he’ll be paired with another All-NBA threat in James.
This isn’t to say that there aren’t concerns still. While it seems unfathomable now that he would leave, the oft-haphazard club would be wise to make the most of this season, so Davis can go into free agency next season feeling good about the future of the club. In other words, the Lakers want to avoid what happened with Dwight Howard after trading for him several years ago.
The most obvious concern with a LeBron-Davis pairing — particularly if the Lakers strike out with other stars in free agency — remains health, which is always a question mark surrounding Davis. While we could go into how many games he’s missed over the years because of injuries (last season was odd, because he often sat to ensure he wouldn’t get hurt prior to being traded) it almost makes more sense to talk about how much he’s played instead. And in his seven seasons, Davis has only logged two, 2016-17 and 2017-18, in which he played in 70 or more games.
James is the opposite of injury prone. But this past season’s groin strain, which kept him out longer than he’s ever missed before, showed that the Lakers can’t take his health for granted at age 34. If one or both stars miss real time next year, the rest of the team may be too thin to contend. Still, this gamble seems worth it, since the youngsters they surrendered in the deal weren’t able to get it done when James was forced out. At this point, if you’re the Lakers, you have to be most focused on whatever gives you the highest ceiling, regardless of how low or unsteady the floor might be.
The Lakers still have plenty of other boxes to check off, of course. While they were able to hold onto Kyle Kuzma (an interesting choice, since Ball, Ingram and Hart all had elements that arguably make them better two-way options over time), the club still lacks shooting. While Davis’s defense is spectacular at times, the Lakers will certainly miss Ball’s outstanding work as a perimeter defender. And after last summer’s seemingly random free-agency signings, it’s unclear whether general manager Rob Pelinka will fare any better than Magic Johnson did in trying to piece together a balanced enough roster to give Los Angeles a chance at reaching its full potential.
But first things first: The Lakers landed a superstar to pair with the one they already had. And in this league, you’ll almost always be happy with accomplishing that most difficult step first, and figuring the rest out later — either through signing another star, or finding complementary pieces along the way.