By Henry Abbott
A source who once worked closely with LeBron James told me that the most underreported story in the NBA is the degree to which LeBron is a control freak. That’s something we will dig into another time on TrueHoop -- it’s fascinating. And easy to believe. No player has done half of what LeBron has done to take over. Case in point: Until not that long ago, agents exerted a lot of control over where their clients played. Now, LeBron owns the agency.
Working the controls has come with infinite benefits and one rock in the King’s shoe: It’s easy to blame the boss. In January, when Pelicans superstar Anthony Davis took the extraordinary step of publicly demanding a trade, it was hard not to wonder: Was LeBron behind this? It’s hard to imagine that being asked of any other player ever, but no other player has ever been so good at working the channels of power.
In this case: Davis is a client of LeBron’s agency, Klutch Sports. LeBron won’t win another title unless the so-so Lakers can attract a player or two of Davis’s rarified quality. But it all failed. The Pelicans essentially ignored the trade request right through the February 7 trade deadline. Power-play, unplayed.
So as Davis and the Pelicans play in Los Angeles tonight at 10:30 ET (ESPN), Davis won’t be a Laker.
The whole episode, though, illuminates the NBA’s great mystery of last summer: Why would the NBA’s best-ever player sign a four-year contract entrusting the last years of his peak to the unproven front office of the Los Angeles Lakers? Where was the control freak that day? By the time he signed his Laker contract, LeBron had written and re-written the control-freak playbook: Sign short deals, often one-year deals, and you can make the front office do whatever you want. The tacit threat is if they don’t get you the team you like, you’ll find another. Which (sorry Cavs) is precisely how LeBron ended up as a Laker.
It just didn’t make sense that LeBron would spend 15 years mastering the art of controlling a roster, and then give all that power away, sit back, and trust Lakers’ brass Magic Johnson and Rob Pelinka to do all that. The Lakers haven’t won a playoff series since 2012.
Watching the Davis saga unfold, I felt something like an epiphany. Maybe LeBron didn’t entrust anything to anybody. Maybe he was never expecting the Lakers’ front office to solve anything. Maybe he, or Klutch, have their own ways to attract superstars to the Lakers. Maybe LeBron only appeared to be entrusting his future championships to the strategic thinking of Magic and Pelinka. LeBron’s 15 years have surely taught him he has 100 ways to get great players to the Lakers, or any team. It didn’t happen to work, but Anthony Davis just demonstrated one of them.
My friend David Thorpe makes his TrueHoop newsletter debut today. He explains a few different ways it could have worked.
What the Lakers should have said
By David Thorpe
The Pelicans evidently did not want to make a deal with the Lakers. Which is understandable, emotionally. By the time trade talks were serious, the Pelicans had already been humiliated. They had announced they would not trade their All-Star center, Davis. Then, sure enough, Davis made NBA shockwaves by demanding a trade. Tense times. Pelicans general manager Dell Demps may have even felt his job was on the line, and he’d be right -- he was fired immediately after the trade deadline.
In other words: the Lakers were dealing with a man, a team, and a city with every reason to be bloody-minded. Yes, the Lakers had leverage -- Davis, by all indications, wants to play there -- but they didn’t have a willing partner. Without patching up the Pelicans’ dignity, no deal.
Years ago when he ran the Nuggets, Masai Ujiri pulled off one of the best trades in Nuggets history, sending the overrated Carmelo Anthony to New York for a collection of young talent. There’s a lesson for the Lakers in how Ujiri opened the press conference, announcing “we got killed.” It was a line that spoke volumes. Of course the Knicks were prepared to deal with Denver, because of Ujiri’s charm.
I believe if Magic Johnson and Rob Pelinka had taken a page from that playbook, and said these six things to the Pelicans, Davis would be a Laker today:
1. No one will utter a sound to anyone. If we can’t formalize a deal, we assure you there will be no mention of our offer, or yours, to anyone. If you decide to publicly declare what we offered, we won’t respond in any manner. Maintaining trust is paramount to finding a deal now, or later.
2. Study our roster and know that everyone but LeBron is available. We can add two picks to the offer as well. Give us your fair idea of whom you want from our team, and we’ll give you an answer in a few hours. If you have questions about anyone, ask. Everything we can legally tell you, we will.
3. We’re open to taking anyone else from your team that you want to trade, knowing you’ll be getting a number of our young players and will need playing time for them to develop.
4. Once we know whom you value most from our roster, what picks you want, and whom you want us to take, we ask that you formally formulate the proposed transaction, and we’ll do the same. Those two offers can be the basis for a working model, and we’ll tweak from there.
5. As things get close, we’re available to fly to a location of your choice to finalize things.
6. We’ll tell agents only if we have a deal or not. The integrity of your team and ours going forward depends on this.
Why the Pelicans should have traded Davis to L.A. anyway
The general consensus seems to be that the Pelicans were smart to keep Davis. They can trade him to the Lakers later, or not at all, for a slew of young talent. This summer, the CBA rules will let the Celtics join the bidding, and they might offer the highly-regarded Jayson Tatum as well as their valued draft picks.
The snap judgment is that the Celtics can make the better offer, largely because Tatum is much better than Ingram. I don’t assume that’s set in stone. Or, I assume that both players have a ton of elasticity in what they might become.
If you look at the nitty gritty of Ingram’s game, there is every reason to believe he could be Tatumesque. The model for Ingram is Tobias Harris. At 19, Harris was a first-round pick who was too skinny and weak to play power forward but not skilled enough to be a perimeter-based wing. He made just 26 shots from 3-point land that rookie season on 26 percent accuracy. He didn’t improve much in his second and third years. His breakout came in his fourth year, when he graduated from a bad shooter to a solid one, averaging more than one made 3-pointer per game, while hitting 36 percent.
At 26, Harris is one of five players this season averaging better than 20 points per game while making more than 40 percent of his 3s. The others are Paul George, Kyrie Irving, Buddy Hield, and the best shooter of all time, Stephen Curry. This year, he was part of a huge trade, where his addition to the 76ers might have given them the best starting five in the East.
All three forwards -- Tatum, Ingram, and Harris -- are 6-foot-8 or 6-foot-9 and were drafted as teenagers. Tatum had the best rookie season, mostly because of a scintillating playoff run mopping up minutes from injured Celtics. Harris, though, along with Ingram’s former Laker teammates Julius Randle and D’Angelo Russell, should remind us all that young players can improve dramatically over time. Who they are is not an assurance of who they will be.
This is not an argument that Ingram will be better than Tatum. Only that he could be as good. They had almost exactly the same stats in their one season at Duke, and most experts would argue Ingram had the better overall season. And they’re both very young: Ingram’s first legal beer would have been during this year’s preseason. Tatum is six months and a day younger.
Ingram might still be getting used to his height. He grew more than eight inches in high school and is still developing physically, with a reported 7-foot-4 wingspan and 9-foot-2 standing reach -- dimensions more typical of an NBA center. I see a lot of Paul George in him (and for you old-timers, watch the video above and think about George "The Iceman" Gervin) -- both were late bloomers physically. Ingram is not as strong or explosive as George but he’s a far better ball-handler than George was at this age. Ingram’s length and skill with the ball help him get to the free throw line at an incredible rate -- 4.8 attempts per game in his second season and 5.5 this year, 21st in the NBA, ahead of Curry, Jimmy Butler, and Bradley Beal. Tatum shoots only 3.2 free throws per game. George was 23 before he surpassed Ingram’s current rate. James Harden draws fouls as well as anyone in history, and even he turned 22 before drawing six free throws a game.
Shooting is what distinguishes Tatum. He projects to be an elite shooter, and that’s a big reason his free throw attempts are low — he shoots more than he drives into traffic to draw contact. As Tatum’s role grows on offense, we can expect him to draw more fouls. It’s that shooting talent that has him earmarked for greatness, with a lot of cognoscenti saying he’ll shine brighter than Ingram.
But who knows how well Ingram might shoot in the future? After what has happened with Russell and Randle, who both blossomed after leaving L.A., no one can say the Lakers have great player development. Ingram was an excellent shooter at Duke and made 39 percent of his 3s in his second Laker season (41 of 105). This year, for unknown reasons, he just has attempted only 1.8 3s per game. But maybe trade rumors woke something in him: in 29 games since returning from injury at the end of last year, he is shooting better than 50 percent from the field, averaging a shade under 20 points per game. In his last three games he has scored 27, 29, and 32 points. Six of his last seven 3-pointers went in.
Young players seldom score like as much as Ingram this season. Luka Doncic is the only current 21-or-under player who averages better than 19.5 points per game. Among players that young, Ingram is the NBA’s third-highest scorer, just behind the Hawks’ emerging star John Collins. Armed with a solid 3-point shot, Ingram will be an elite scorer.
We learned a long time ago from John Hollinger’s evidence that typical players don’t make giant leaps in skill development. But when they do, shooting is the most likely area. It’s the least crazy improvement to expect.
The other is adding strength, which could make Ingram a special defender, and not only because of his freakish length. Unlike most players that tall, Ingram has played guard his entire life, meaning he is naturally comfortable defending in space. The shooting guards he chases around out there are often quicker, but never bigger. And there are flickers of hope: The Lakers played Ingram with Lonzo Ball, LeBron, Kyle Kuzma, and either Ivica Zubac or Tyson Chandler over 220 possessions with considerable success -- both lineups were in the top 20th percentile in defensive rating (the 118 possessions with Zubac had elite ratings). Considering how much energy LeBron is conserving on defense these days, that says a lot.
Evidently the Lakers see Ingram’s defensive potential, too. During a tight fourth quarter Monday in Memphis, Ingram was often tasked with guarding the Grizzlies’ best player, point guard Mike Conley. I saw a defender who will be able to guard all five positions as he fills into his body. How many players can score 20 points a game and defend five positions? It’s a short list, all stars.
What I'm getting at: It’s universally assumed that Tatum is going to be a far better player than Ingram. But career arcs like Harris’s should slow that universe down. If Ingram were playing in his third year under Brad Stevens, we all might see things differently. You only have to look at the Warriors’ Draymond Green and Thompson to understand how a coaching change can make a monumental difference. Both were re-born under Steve Kerr, leading to titles and All-Star appearances. Ingram has a chance at that kind of improvement.
And, of course, that’s only one player the Pelicans could have had. In exchange for Anthony Davis, Brad Turner of the L.A. Times reports the Lakers offered a package that included Ingram, Lonzo Ball, Kyle Kuzma, two first-round picks and cap filler. Lonzo was the second overall choice for a reason. He’s an elite passer and will be an elite defender. His shooting will almost certainly improve. Kuzma is already a solid scorer (19 points per game) with the potential for growth and, at 23, looks to be a starting-level player for a long time.
It’s an open question if a Celtics’ package of Tatum plus picks from the Grizzlies and Kings would be better. The Lakers’ offer features the incredible value of five rotation players on affordable rookie contracts (adding in the draft picks). Those three young players all are NBA starters with significant potential for better-than-average production and efficiency, and two were second overall picks in recent drafts who maintain All-Star potential. To my eyes, Ingram still has a very real chance to be special two-way player. In five years, I would not be surprised if passing on Ingram will look like the Pelicans’ key mistake.
You know what players like about college? Choice.
When elite basketball players enter the NBA draft, in some ways their dreams come true. But in another way, the nightmare begins: They largely give up the power to determine where to live, work, and play. LeBron’s 2010 Decision upset the applecart — his urge to pick his own team seems contagious:
Anthony Davis announced he was not going to re-sign in New Orleans a full season and a half before his contract was up.
Kristaps Porzingis said he had no future in New York and suddenly was traded, and he’s no lock to stay long-term with his new team, the Mavericks. He even went so far as to say he’d sign the qualifying offer, at less than $5 million, to become a free agent.
Kyrie Irving claimed in early October he’d be back in Boston if the fans would have him, only to backtrack on February 1. “Ask me on July 1,” he said when asked if he still wanted to return to Boston. Free agency officially begins July 1.
Kawhi Leonard has said nothing publicly, but he’s not a sure thing to stay in Toronto despite the Raptors’ success, and his. He, of course, left the Spurs -- the league’s most stable franchise over the past 20 years -- reportedly because of how he felt he was treated when dealing with an injury.
Jimmy Butler essentially refused to play for the Timberwolves to start the season, eventually getting traded to Philadelphia.
What would all those players give for the right to pick where they play? Elite high-school prospects can do that. Assuming, as reported, the NBA age limit will soon go away, I predict some top prospects will play college basketball anyway. You better believe college coaches will be making the pitch that this is a last chance at real self-determination. In the truest sense, they’ll be right. Making that college choice is something these stars will have all to themselves.
“Well, who’s their big three?” A standard question in assessing a team’s title potential. But it’s misguided. The league’s best team this year, the Bucks, have just one star: Giannis Antetokounmpo. The Pacers have stayed relevant even after losing their top player in Victor Oladipo. The Nuggets are good with only one true star in Nikola Jokic.
The secret: a strong bench. Evidently, depth of talent matters more than number of stars. Using NBA.com’s net rating, other than Dallas, every team with a top bench is a playoff team:
What Don likes
Don Skwar, veteran of sports publishing, reads far and wide about the NBA, and he’s choosy. He writes:
You know those stories that you finish reading, and you can't wait to tell other people about? While we hope every single word in TrueHoop hits you that way, there are other great reads that nail it. Here are three from the digital hoop world that recently have done just that.
From Kangs to Kings: On the NBA's most surprising team and its push to end a 12-year playoff drought. The Athletic's Sam Amick has a very good account of Sacramento's entry and its fan base's psyche—and that of its former players who made the playoffs back in the early 2000s.
GOATs on GOATs: LeBron and MJ in their own words through the years. ESPN's Anthony Olivieri does a yeoman's job—but yeoman in the highest compliment kind of way. It's very cool to read and watch comments from James on Jordan and from Jordan on James. A great idea exercised to its fullest.
Who's Ja Morant? How did the talk of the 2018-19 college basketball season—OK, after Zion—only get one serious scholarship offer from one Power 5 college? How did he wind up at Murray State? And how did a tractor tire help vault him from a pint-sized middle schooler to a high lottery pick? It was tough finding a compelling profile on Morant, but Jeff Greer of The Athletic did one two months ago that still resonates.
Thank you for subscribing to TrueHoop. Coming next: Part 3 of Henry’s investigation into Mikhail Prokhorov.