The conversation among basketball players in Las Vegas for the G League Winter Showcase was dominated by the same topic that filled the ESPN airwaves and defined Friday night’s game between the Lakers and New Orleans Pelicans.
Did LeBron James do something wrong, like tampering, when he told ESPN he would love to play with Anthony Davis? Was it just an obvious answer to an innocent question?
There was talk that small-market teams were angered by the comments, a sign of James and other stars’ strength in openly recruiting players under contract.
Was it wrong? Most people thought it was such an obvious truth — of course, James wants to play with Davis — that hearing the Lakers star say that wasn’t a shock.
It certainly wasn’t innocent, not in the eyes of those who know how James has operated in the past and who earlier this year saw Davis join the same agency that represents James.
James doesn’t just say things. He is one of the most thoughtful, calculated and controlled stars in all of sports.
Davis may opt out of his contract after next season and his future is the subject of intense speculation.
Stars are leaving small markets for bigger ones – it’s an accepted truth in the NBA and a real challenge Milwaukee will face when Giannis Antetokounmpo becomes a free agent in 2021. They make super teams because they’re the best a player’s bet to win.
Some NBA executives felt that Davis’ signing with Klutch Sports Group, the agency run by James’ longtime friend Rich Paul, was a passive trade request, a sign of his intention to one day reunite with James and the Lakers. This belief existed before James said it would be “amazing” to play with Davis, and even if James had said “No” or dodged the question, this belief would still exist.
A lot needs to happen for Davis to leave New Orleans. The Pelicans (15-18), third from bottom in the West, have been actively trying to improve their roster, including making a strong offer for Jimmy Butler.
If he wants out, Davis may have to force the Pelicans’ hand. He will have to refuse a massive contract. He will have to tell teams that he will only sign with the Lakers. And yet, the Pelicans would not be beholden to Davis and his wishes.
The thinking among NBA insiders is that it will happen eventually — and it will have nothing to do with what James said last week.
The best of the West
Another topic of conversation at the Winter Showcase was the Western Conference and how Houston’s struggles — which were amplified by a Chris Paul hamstring injury that will keep him out for a few weeks — paved the way for a new team to challenge the Golden State Warriors.
However, this season the main challenge to another Warriors title run could come from the Eastern Conference, where four teams have better net ratings (the difference between points scored and points allowed per 100 possessions) than the Warriors.
Although Denver hasn’t really slowed down despite injuries to key veterans such as Gary Harris and Paul Millsap, scouts seemed to favor Oklahoma City as the second-best team in the West because of the Thunder’s top-tier defense.
Scouts are still in wait-and-see mode with the Lakers. James’ presence is the only thing that separates them from every other team in the league. And that counts.
Former USC guard Jordan McLaughlin might have had the best performance of all at the Winter Showcase, scoring 32 points with eight assists and six steals in the Long Island Nets’ win on Thursday. McLaughlin, who is not on a two-way contract, is a little short at 6-foot-1 in the eyes of some scouts. … Former first-round pick John Jenkins (6-4, 215) played well in Las Vegas and could get another chance with a team looking for a shooter with good size. …There have been rumors that the New York Knicks could be the team to watch when it comes to Bulls forward Jabari Parker, who is already out of Chicago’s plans after signing with his team hometown during the offseason. … Some NBA executives believe Austin Rivers, who Phoenix waived last week, could end up with Golden State as the Warriors try to improve their bench.