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Winning Fixes Everything: How Anthony Davis’ Big Risk Paid Off

Back in January of 2019, an injured Athony Davis informed the New Orleans Pelicans he would not sign a contract extension in the coming off-season, and requested to be traded. The next day, the league fined him $50,000 for remarks he made publicly about the situation.

A year and a half later, Anthony Davis is set to play in his first NBA Finals. His messy divorce from NOLA firmly in the rearview, AD’s risky plunge into self-determination has unequivocally paid-off. 

It may feel obvious in retrospect. Teaming up with LeBron James in a big market seems like a big upgrade. And though the moments that led to this moment of vindication were far from guaranteed, Davis’ success should be prophetic for other young stars in the league.

That’s all folks

Davis’ final moments with the New Orleans Pelicans were ugly. After returning from injury, the team kept him sidelined before the trade deadline. Soon, though, he was back in action so the franchise could avoid a penalty. 

The lameduck superstar didn’t always act so graciously. His outfit on the final game of the 2018-19 season - a t-shirt which read “That’s all folks” - was a poor, and uncomfortable choice. He alienated many NBA fans, suggesting he didn’t choose his own sideline clothing. 

It was a slow-motion PR disaster. It basically cost Magic Johnson his job with the Lakers, and Anthony Davis’ standing with the public was shaky at best. With just two playoff appearances under his belt, AD was attempting to hold a franchise hostage.

Moments like these matter. How Carmelo Anthony left Denver or Kyrie Irving left Boston can be damaging for a star’s national reputation. That Zion Williamson landed in NOLA is a blessing for the Pelicans, but also for Anthony Davis. AD would be more widely and consistently condemned has New Orleans not been so lucky.

Riding with the King

Anthony Davis wasn’t the first superstar to get out of Dodge and leave a small market behind. And he won’t be the last. So even if Zion ended up elsewhere, perhaps he would still more or less absolved in seeking greener pastures.

But in addressing the NBA’s collective hindsight bias, it’s worth revisiting that joining Lebron in LA wasn’t always a clear slam dunk. The situation could very well have turned sour.

The Lakers sold the farm to land Davis in Tinseltown. LA’s current roster is a veritable who’s who of veterans and NBA cast-offs because the trade with NOLA was so costly. Forcing a trade the way AD did could have sunk the Lakers ship from the get-go.

Playing second fiddle to LeBron James is, in and of itself, also a huge risk. Ask Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving, or Chris Bosh, or Lonzo Ball - if there’s blame to be found, rarely does it land in Lebron’s lap. Teaming up with the King meant a whole new dimension of responsibility for Davis. 

And there were less risky propositions out there. Davis and Boston had a weird, messy moment of flirting. Denver, Brooklyn, and New York all had their hat in the ring. AD could have become the top dog in any number of big markets, and by openly agitating for a trade for as long as he did, the asking price grew and grew. Playing footsie with the Lakers so nakedly ultimately cost the club.

And None of it matters

An ugly, messy break up played out for months all so Anthony Davis could get out of New Orleans a year early. Like Carmelo Anthony, doing so cost his future team dearly. He burned serious bridges that Zion Williamson was able to rebuild. All to land on a wonky Lakers team with an incredibly demanding running mate. 

And despite everything, Davis made the right choice. 

At just 27 years old, AD is in his prime playing under the brightest lights. A generational talent is finally showing his stuff on the big stage, and everything that it took to get to this point sort of doesn’t matter. Winning fixes everything in professional sports, and the way AD is winning is spectacular. 

He’s been great this season, and able to more than stand shoulder-to-shoulder with LeBron James. AD is a massive part of why the Lakers are set to play in the NBA Finals, and even earned a signature moment along the way.

Before the spectacular postseason run, Davis’ move to LA was paying off. AD’s cracked the top-10 in jersey sales this season, the first time ever in his career. The move to LA helped boost his off-court endorsements. He’ll likely get a signature shoe in the coming years (as well as a max-contract). He’ll play a starring role in Space Jam 2.

That’s the nature of moving from a small market to a big market. And honestly, the math is pretty daunting. There are about 1.2 million people living in the New Orleans metropolitan area. There are 1.4 million high school students in the LA metro area

Even if the Pelicans had built a contender around Davis, there just wouldn’t be the same buzz. Positioning himself alongside LeBron James with the Lakers has severely benefited AD’s wallet, his prospects, and his legacy.

It’s something other stars around the league should be mindful of. There’s great honor in sticking with the same club or playing out a contract fully. Likewise, forcing your hand can have unforeseen and harsh consequences. For every Kevin Durant or Anthony Davis - players for whom a big gamble paid off - there are radical failures. The Paul George situation with the Clippers is a mess, and the aforementioned Carmelo Anthony trade truly was an unmitigated disaster. 

Still, stars like Devin Booker or Giannis Antetokounmpo should keep an eye on what has happened to Anthony Davis on and off the court. Careers are fleeting and stardom is not assured. Blake Griffin and Russell Westbrook know that all too well.

It is worth reflecting on the risk Davis took in betting on himself here. It was far from a guarantee things would end up this way. And yet somehow, everything seems to have fallen into place for AD. It’s vindication of the highest order, even though it was far from an inevitability. He scorched and salted the earth to get here, and yet is just a few wins away from raising the Larry OB to near unanimous praise.

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