BOSTON — The NBA’s trade deadline has passed Thursday without an Anthony Davis deal, which catapults the Boston Celtics to the front of the line among suitors with hopes of acquiring the All-Star big man this summer.
The Athletic reported a few minutes before Thursday’s 3 p.m. deadline that Davis will not be traded. Davis’ representation pushed hard for a deal that would have delivered Davis to the Los Angeles Lakers and paired him with fellow Klutch Sports Group representative LeBron James. But the Pelicans appeared unmoved by Los Angeles’ offers, all at a time when Boston couldn’t make a deal because of a snag in the collective bargaining agreement that prevents teams from acquiring two players signed via the designated player exception (or often referenced as the "Rose Rule”). Teams cannot acquire two such players via trade and Boston already had one in Kyrie Irving.
When Irving opts out of the final year of his current contract after the season, it will pave the way for the Celtics and Pelicans to talk unencumbered about a potential trade package. Boston has an assortment of young talent, headlined by 2017 No. 3 pick Jayson Tatum and 2016 No. 3 pick Jaylen Brown, along with multiple future first-round draft picks that might have encouraged New Orleans to tread cautiously at Thursday’s deadline.
The Celtics could get competition in the Davis pursuit depending on how the ping-pong balls dance in May’s draft lottery. A team like the New York Knicks could inject themselves into the race should they emerge with the No. 1 pick in a draft that’s expected to be headlined by Duke standout freshman Zion Williamson. Other teams will have motivation to make a charge based on the successes or failures of the 2018-19 season as a whole.
But as the rest of the Eastern Conference powers loaded up for a playoff push, the Celtics exercised patience, likely in hopes of making the biggest splash possible this summer.
Boston shifts to the driver’s seat in the quest for Davis. Boston and New Orleans, who league sources indicated had conversations in advance of the deadline with reports suggesting that Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge pledged to be aggressive this summer, can continue those discussions with the possibility of putting the parameters of a deal in place even before July 1 (especially if Boston uses some of its 2019 draft stock to select players for New Orleans with eyes towards completing a deal once eligible).
The Celtics can headline any trade offer with some combination of Tatum, Brown, and their available draft picks, which include a 2019 first-round pick from the Kings (though that pick has slipped in value with Sacramento’s success this season), a future Memphis Grizzlies first-round pick (maybe the new gem of the bunch, particularly as Marc Gasol is traded to Toronto), and a lottery-protected future first-rounder from the Los Angeles Clippers.
The tricky part is making salaries match. The Celtics should be reluctant to include the likes of Marcus Smart, Al Horford, or Gordon Hayward to simply match dollars (particularly if they have to eat a bulky contract as part of the deal). Alas, these are the pain points in constructing a deal to acquire a top talent.
The Celtics have to hope that Tatum and Brown continue to trend upward the remainder of the season to bolster their trade values. That, though, would also make it harder to part with them in a deal, but Ainge has been shrewd when it comes to acquiring top-line NBA talent.
The past two weeks have seen repeated suggestions that Davis does not desire to sign a long-term deal with Boston and his father chastised Boston about its lack of loyalty when it traded Isaiah Thomas for Irving. Ainge, again, is unlikely to be deterred as the Celtics have operated confident that, once a player comes to Boston, they won’t soon desire to move on. It also seems likely that the narrative will shift about Davis’ interest in Boston now that the deadline has passed and Boston is on equal footing in terms of when they can acquire him.
The Celtics have additional motivation in securing Davis as it would provide the necessary confidence for Irving to sign his own long-term extension here. Irving’s future has been in question the past two weeks, even if some of it was simply spin to plant seeds of doubt with New Orleans about Boston’s future, and Irving knows a top-tier running mate could be key in Boston’s title goals, especially in an East that got beefed up at the deadline.
Boston’s focus, in the short term, should simply be on finishing the season strong. The Celtics have played some of their best basketball in recent weeks while surging to the No. 3 spot in the East. The best way to sell Irving on any future here — regardless of how the Davis drama plays out — is another deep playoff run in which this core showcases its abilities.
That task got tougher this week with East rivals Philadelphia, Milwaukee, and Toronto all making moves to beef up their rosters.
Still, getting past Thursday’s deadline was maybe the biggest moment of the deadline for Boston. It eliminates one of the bigger hurdles in the quest for a chance to land Davis. The Celtics may have the best odds in the league now and, should they desire to make it a reality, they have the necessary assets to make the sort of offer that can deliver the star big man.
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