The NBA has never been more popular than it is, in an era dominated by player movement, super teams, and unpredictable decisions in free agency that are immediately followed by seismic consequences.
But an even more important theme that’s manifested over the past ten years is sacrifice—dollars, shots, minutes, and Q-scores are being exchanged by the league's best and brightest for brighter cracks at the title. The Golden State Warriors sit at the forefront of this discussion—as Steph Curry, Klay Thompson, Draymond Green, and Kevin Durant are all skilled enough to be the top player on a good team—and the response to their assembly is most evident in choices made by LeBron James, Chris Paul, Jimmy Butler, Kyrie Irving, Paul George, and Durant, with Kawhi Leonard possibly up next.
Way before them, Kevin Garnett kick-started the movement by green-lighting a trade to the Boston Celtics, which soon motivated, among others, Dwight Howard, Chris Bosh, and LeBron to seek greener pastures in roles that would ease their individual stress while granting access to a larger stage. (Carmelo Anthony’s mid-range pull-ups have already aged poorly, but he’ll ultimately be remembered more for his delusions of grandeur and the greed that seeped from it than anything else. He's consistently gone against the grain in the worst possible ways.)
Sacrifice is all but a necessity for today's greatest players. It’s mostly the result of a Collective Bargaining Agreement that's reduced contract lengths and facilitated more movement. But it also stands as the most logical way to unseat Golden State, and a smart plan to lengthen individual careers. The less strain one great player assumes throughout an 82-game season, the more 82-game seasons he can have an impact on.
This leads us to Anthony Davis, the NBA’s only true superstar whose team will enter the 2018-19 season without the promise of a playoff appearance, let alone championship contention. The most dominant teammate he ever had, DeMarcus Cousins, now plays for the defending champs, but even when they were side by side—for not even two seasons, and zero minutes in the playoffs—it was hard to ignore the long-term questions provided by their positional overlap and expensive contracts.
Coming off a successful postseason in which Davis’s New Orleans Pelicans swept the three-seed Portland Trail Blazers before getting steamrolled by the Warriors, it felt like he’d never leave. I mean, take one look at the five-year, $251 million super-max extension he can sign in 2021 and it’s hard to imagine a scenario where the Pelicans don’t trip over themselves to offer it.
Of course, the great irony of super-max extensions is they don’t allow small-market teams to fill out their roster with a competitive supporting cast so long as other teams around the league are populated by multiple stars. It won't be like this forever, but here we are. Even after New Orleans was eliminated, the thought of him ever getting traded felt ludicrous. At 25 years old, Davis transformed the Smoothie King Center into a trendy happy hour throughout the entire postseason.
The five-time All-Star averaged 30.1 points, 13.4 rebounds, 2.3 blocks, and 2.0 steals per game in the playoffs. With unbounded rolls of Saran wrap where his arms should be, Davis finished third for Defensive Player of the Year and Most Valuable Player, with the second-highest scoring average in the league and one of its five highest PER’s for the fourth time in five seasons. All that is absurd obliteration, but the Pelicans still may not make the playoffs next season. They sit well below Golden State and Houston, and it’s easy to see them finishing with a worse record than Oklahoma City, Minnesota, Utah, Portland, Denver, the Los Angeles Lakers, and San Antonio (regardless of what happens to Kawhi).
With someone as powerful as Davis that shouldn’t be, but the absence of Rajon Rondo and Cousins will be felt in multiple ways. Holiday is a fine two-way player, but isn’t nearly consistent enough to thrive in a winning situation as Davis’s co-pilot. Newcomer Julius Randle and Nikola Mirotic are quality role players at best. Elfrid Payton is a backup.
If the Pelicans faint and Davis demands a trade before next July, everything that's happening with Leonard will repeat itself with twice as much intensity. Kawhi is a great wing, but Davis is on the verge of inventing his own archetype without any serious questions about his long-term health. Eligible for free agency in 2021, Davis can steer his way towards teams that are best situated to dominate, but only a select few also have enough assets to appease the Pelicans, win big right away, and feel confident enough to pay his next contract.
If Davis wants no part of the Western Conference's slaughterhouse, the Boston Celtics and Philadelphia 76ers are the only suitors with enough draft picks and blue-chip talent to make New Orleans happy while still contending for a title after Davis climbs aboard. The Chicago Bulls (his hometown team) have less impressive assets to offer, but enough cap space to lure a second star. The Toronto Raptors, Milwaukee Bucks, Indiana Pacers, Miami Heat, Orlando Magic, and Washington Wizards have some stuff the Pelicans probably want, but it's hard to see Davis wanting to stay there long term after said assets get shipped to Louisiana.
Out West, the Phoenix Suns are a dark-horse candidate that can offer Deandre Ayton, Josh Jackson, and draft picks. Sam Presti's Thunder should never be counted out, with Paul George on a long-term deal that can give New Orleans some reassuring star power other suitors aren’t able to provide. It’d be risky, but the Denver Nuggets would put Nikola Jokic on the table. The Utah Jazz don't have enough and neither do the Portland Trail Blazers. General managers around the league will go into a coma if the Warriors and/or Lakers somehow shoulder their way in.
Of course, all of this is written under the assumption that Davis will eventually be frustrated enough to want out. Maybe Payton’s new haircut allows him to take a necessary step forward, and Randle is a perfect fit beside Mirotic in Alvin Gentry’s uptempo system. Maybe Holiday feels energized by the postseason he just had and Davis elevates to an even higher level. Maybe the Pelicans will be good. So much can change in a matter of months, and right now there isn’t enough information to do anything but speculate.
Does Davis have too much pride to be anything less than the kingpin of New Orleans for the next seven years (with the largest contract in league history headed towards his bank account)? Or does he realize how disappointing it’d be to exist as Garnett 2.0—spending his prime in a castle nobody wants to visit—when his ceiling is more Garnett crossed with Tim Duncan plus remarkable athleticism, length, and a three-point shot? (I wrote in the previous sentence that it would be a disappointment if he had the same career as Kevin Garnett. That is so wild.)
For the next 12 months, Davis should be the single most important player in the NBA—depending on where he goes, if anywhere at all.