Our NBA insiders are debating the biggest topics in the league. Sports Illustrated senior writers Chris Mannix and Howard Beck revisit the Anthony Davis trade nearly four years later.
Chris Mannix: Howard, can you believe it has been three and a half years since the Pelicans shipped Anthony Davis to Los Angeles for Brandon Ingram and every draft asset the Lakers could fork over? Los Angeles saw immediate returns, winning a title in AD’s first season as a Laker. The Pelicans’ post-Davis road was bumpy—three coaches in four seasons, win totals in the 30s and years of speculation as to whether Zion Williamson’s body would ever allow him to showcase his undeniable talent—but this season it has all come together. So I ask you this: Who won the trade?
Howard Beck: Wow, sooo many layers to this deal. And so many ways to judge it. And man, let me tell you: We will almost definitely be judging it, over and over, as the Pelicans keep collecting those draft picks and pick swaps, including the pick that—if all goes horribly wrong in Lakerland—might just turn into Victor Wembanyama next June. NBA Twitter might just melt down if that happens (well, assuming Twitter hasn’t already imploded). But, with a few caveats, I’m going to stand by what I wrote at the time of the AD deal, in June 2019: that the Lakers won the trade but lost the negotiation. They won, because the team that gets the best player—in this case, a young, perennial All-Star with MVP potential—wins almost by definition. And the Lakers got the desired result: a championship in ’20. Did they surrender far too much in the trade? I argued at the time that they did, and I still believe that’s true. (Reminder: The Lakers gave up Ingram, Lonzo Ball and Josh Hart, the draft rights to De’Andre Hunter, two future first-round picks and a pick swap.) Davis and the Lakers had all the leverage, since he was a pending free agent who was determined to land in L.A. and told other suitors he’d refuse to re-sign with them. So the Lakers arguably should have been able to get him for less. They did overpay. But they got their championship, and isn’t that the whole point of the exercise?
Mannix: You can’t say the Pelicans won the trade, simply because of that 2020 title. Championships—any championships—are hard to come by, and the Lakers got one in (very) large part to Davis’s play in the bubble. But the way I’ll frame it is like this: There are probably a few people within the Lakers’ organization who wish they had that deal to do over. Not getting Davis; he’s an All-NBA player who, if he stays healthy, has several dominant years left in him. But what they gave up to get Davis.
There is no one—not a coach, not a front-office executive, not a ball boy in New Orleans—who wouldn’t do that trade over again. The Pels got maximum value for a player who publicly declared he had no interest in being there. Zion wasn’t part of it—remember, they landed the rights to draft Zion before they moved Davis—but they got an elite scorer in Ingram who has turned into one of the NBA’s better clutch performers. They got Hart, who they later used to acquire CJ McCollum, who has been brilliant for them. And they have the kind of draft equity that put them among the teams listed as having a realistic shot at Kevin Durant last summer. For the Lakers, the question is this: Does one title make the whole deal, regardless of what happens in the future, worth it?
Beck: I’m sure Lakers brass felt absolutely vindicated when they raised the Larry O’Brien trophy back in October 2020 (and boy, does that date still sound strange), in the Disney bubble. Banners are forever, and that one was No. 17, tying them with the Celtics for the most in NBA history. That matters. If they never win another title with LeBron and AD, my guess is the Lakers (and most of their fans) will still say it was worth the price to get that one. But the truth is they shouldn’t have had to surrender as many assets as they did in the deal, given that they had all the leverage. And when you see the Lakers flailing around the last two seasons, when you see them struggling just to be a play-in team now, it just underscores how badly they botched the AD deal. Their roster is broken, and they don’t have the tools to fix it because the Pelicans own so much of their draft capital. Which means, sadly, they really might not win another title (or even make another Finals run) while LeBron is still playing.
And meanwhile, the Pelicans look not only like a legit contender, but also a team with lots of room to grow—and all those Lakers picks to use in future trades. That has to sting in L.A. So the end result is the Lakers got their title, and the Pelicans made one of the quickest jumps from teardown to contender we’ve ever seen. So maybe they both won?
Mannix: The Davis trade did hurt the Lakers’ future flexibility, but it does feel like an easy excuse for the current plight. Would L.A. be in this situation if it had kept the 2020 title team intact? What about if the Lakers had agreed to put Talen Horton-Tucker in a deal for Kyle Lowry in ’21? Or paid Alex Caruso to return that summer? As much as that deal looks like an overpay now, the Lakers made a handful of mistakes in the aftermath that make it look much, much worse.
Beck: Right, all of that. And, uh, the Russell Westbrook trade, which cost them two key members of their championship team. So many bad moves to choose from! For sure, the Lakers would have been much better off just keeping their 2020 core together. But even that route wouldn’t have guaranteed anything. Contenders need to replenish and retool along the way, and that’s hard to do when you’ve traded most of your draft capital in a single deal (and then exacerbated matters by trading all of your depth). But in 10 years, or 20, people will mostly remember that AD helped LeBron get his fourth ring and the Lakers their 17th. They’ll probably talk about the Pelicans’ side only if New Orleans makes a Finals or two (or wins its own title). So the old axiom probably still holds: The Lakers got the best player and got the championship, and so they won the trade—even if it seems a bit pyrrhic at the moment.
Mannix: You might be able to argue that the Lakers won the trade … now. But what about a few years from now? The Pels are generating a lot of excitement right now. Zion is healthy [frantically looking for wood to knock on], Ingram is a stud and the CJ McCollum deal, which wasn’t universally lauded at the time, has worked out brilliantly. Couple that with shrewd roster management (Herb Jones, Jose Alvarado) and it’s tough to look at this New Orleans team and see anything but a long-term contender. How long before we rank the Pelicans among the NBA’s best? Two seasons? Next season? This season?
Beck: I’ll just say it: The Pelicans are already here. They have the elite talent, the defense, the depth, the versatility to compete with just about anyone. Are they too young or new to contend for a title this season? Maybe. But this is a legit top-tier team right now and, as you note, should be for years to come. With some trades, you know on Day 1 who won the deal. With some, it takes a year or two. With this one, we’ll surely be reassessing annually, especially if the Lakers fall off a cliff in the next few years and the Pelicans become a perennial powerhouse. But this much we know right now: The Lakers got their championship with AD and raised another banner in those crowded arena rafters. The Pelicans, for all their savvy moves, are still dreaming of their first.