Anthony Davis plopped onto the bench and began unwrapping the black tape from his fingers on his left hand. It was midway through the third quarter in a tight game against the Los Angeles Lakers, and the Pelicans’ franchise player had just gotten the word from his coach Alvin Gentry. Davis was finished for the night.
To the casual fan just now tuning into the NBA season, this must’ve been an unthinkable decision. Davis was marvelous and hadn’t suffered an injury. He had 22 points and eight rebounds in just 21 minutes. Why were the ESPN broadcasters saying he’d be done? Are the Pelicans trying to lose?
This is where we’re at in the league’s most confusing soap opera. The Pelicans are playing Anthony Davis, but only for 20 minutes because, well, it’s not entirely clear. It could be because they’re protecting their best asset from catastrophic injury (sort of) or they’re imposing punishment against their player for demanding a trade earlier in the month or they’re following orders from the league. But why would the league want this? Why play him at all?
Davis’ situation is fanning the flames of a raging debate in basketball circles: To play or not to play? The conversation has engulfed Davis during this most-awkward New Orleans debacle. The once-favored son finds himself under fire and facing boos from his half-empty home crowd. Meanwhile, facing discipline from the league office for violating rules against competitive integrity and sitting healthy players, the Pelicans have agreed to play Davis but not in fourth quarters.
The compromise is the worst of both worlds. Davis risks a career-altering injury to himself and, by benching him in critical moments, it sends the message loud and clear that the Pelicans, as an organization, are not trying to win games.
The half-measure is a bad look for everyone involved and it’s time for NBA commissioner Adam Silver, the Pelicans and Davis to come together and shut Davis down. Before it’s too late.
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Do you remember the pit in your stomach when Zion Williamson went down?
Moments after Williamson’s left foot burst through his Nikes and caused him to fall to the Cameron Indoor floor clutching his knees, social media began to mourn en masse. Reports surfaced. Out for the game: Knee. It was as if we all witnessed a basketball death. On the local Raycom broadcast in North Carolina, the play-by-play announcer solemnly offered “thoughts and prayers” to Williamson and his family.
Remember how that felt in the moment? That it all seemed so cruel? The nauseating sense of dread didn’t arise solely from the injury itself, or the fear of the unknown diagnosis. The financial backdrop compounded the unsettling nature of it all. A fluke play in an amateur (see: Unpaid) regular-season game could have derailed Williamson’s imminent professional career and jeopardized the millions of dollars he had coming to him as the expected No. 1 overall pick in June’s draft.
And then, the good news came. After further evaluation, it appears Williamson avoided serious injury and is considered day-to-day with a mild knee strain. It’s unclear when he’ll play again this season.
Basketball is a high-velocity contact sport. There’s a risk of injury every time a player steps onto the court. When the benefit of lacing up outweighs the risks, the player plays. When it doesn’t, he sits.
Most of the time, those risks are determined by the medical team. But the rubric is changing. Basketball is a billion-dollar business and the financial part of the equation looms larger than ever. In some eyes, the financial risks for Williamson may be too large to roll the dice. Scottie Pippen, a Hall of Famer and father of a four-star recruit in the 2019 high school class, appeared on ESPN’s “The Jump” and argued that Williamson should sit out the rest of the season -- before the injury.
"I think he's locked up the biggest shoe deal, I think he's definitely going to be the No. 1 pick, I think he's done enough for college basketball that it's more about him personally," Pippen said. "I would shut it down. I would stop playing because I feel he could risk a major injury that could really hurt his career."
Then the shoe blowout happened. The calls for Williamson to shut it down only got louder.
Golden State Warriors center DeMarcus Cousins knows first-hand about the risk-benefit analysis of playing basketball. In 2018, five months away from a free-agent market that could have netted him a nine-figure deal, Cousins suffered an Achilles tear. The market went dry and he signed a one-year, mid-level exception with the Warriors for $5.3 million. One injury meant that more than 200 players would have a higher 2018-19 salary than a two-time All-NBA player in his prime.
With that experience, it’s no surprise that Cousins passionately advised Williamson to sit out.
“College is bulls*** … get ready for the next level,” Cousins exclaimed.
Denver guard Isaiah Thomas also pleaded for Williamson to rest up for the NBA. In 2017, in the midst of an All-NBA campaign, Thomas suffered a torn labrum in his hip just weeks before he was eligible for a max-contract extension with the Boston Celtics. That offseason, the Celtics shipped Thomas to Cleveland, which later traded him to the Los Angeles Lakers, who decided not to keep him.
He’s now playing on a veteran minimum deal.
“One injury could change somebody career,” Thomas tweeted.
They were talking about Williamson, but it might as well be for Davis, too.
Look, The Brow is not Zion. While the NCAA doesn’t allow Williamson to be paid, Davis is earning $25 million in salary this season and is due another $27 million next season before he can become a free agent (Davis also has a player option for $28.8 million in 2020-21, which, according to agent Rich Paul, won’t be exercised.). Davis will have secured over $100 million in salary before his 28th birthday. If something goes wrong, plenty of people won’t feel the same empathy for Davis as they did for a teenaged Williamson.
And yet, the same conversation -- to play, or not to play -- has engulfed the NBA, Davis and the Pelicans, raising thorny questions about the integrity of the game against the backdrop of legalized sports betting.
There’s no pain-free answer. The Pelicans could sit Davis and maximize their 2019 draft pick, a logical strategy that I highlighted last month given the NBA’s draft incentive structure. Even after instituting draft reform that flattens the odds somewhat at the top, the system still indirectly encourages teams to lose games to improve their chances of landing a franchise star in the draft. The Pelicans, who shipped out Nikola Mirotic and acquired-and-waived Markieff Morris at the trade deadline, have made it clear which direction they’d like to take.
From the Pelicans’ perspective, sitting Davis would also protect him as a trade asset until this summer when he’s expected to be traded. Sure, Davis could suffer an injury while training or, say, slipping in the bathroom as fellow Klutch Sports Management client John Wall reportedly did earlier this month. Even then, some have a tough time being convinced that a player the caliber of Davis could see a precipitous drop in value in the case of a major injury.
Sitting Davis to protect him from injury (or as an asset) poses its own problems. For one, it would be a clear sign of tanking. In general, benching healthy star players is not good for business, nor the integrity of the game. Thus, after a string of high-profile “DNP-Rest” games in 2016-17, the NBA implemented a league policy against healthy scratches in 2017 and remains in effect. According to the league memo, “teams are prohibited from resting healthy players for any high-profile, nationally-televised game. Any violation of this provision shall constitute conduct prejudicial or detrimental to the NBA, and shall result in a fine of at least $100,000.”
Muddying the waters even more is Davis’ desire to play for the Pelicans now despite openly wanting to leave the organization. Sources close to the situation indicate that Davis has always wanted to play regular minutes but also wanted his contractual intentions to be known to the front office so they could plan for the future. Davis has left decisions about his playing time up to the team and, after fearing a severe fine from the league office, the Pelicans and Davis decided to meet in the middle, multiple sources confirmed to NBC Sports.
The solution: Play Davis only in limited minutes and not in the second half of back-to-back games.
It’s a tortured existence. The Pelicans are much better off with Davis on the floor, even with the outside noise. In 160 minutes with Davis on the court since he returned from his trade demand, the Pelicans have outscored opponents by 22 points, or a rate of plus-6.6 every 48 minutes. When the superstar is on the bench, the Pelicans are a minus-56 in 224 minutes, or minus-12 points every 48 minutes. Duh, he’s Anthony freakin’ Davis. But what’s most troubling is that in the last five games he’s played, Davis has sat out each fourth quarter in their entirety.
This league-approved tanking method has bewildered the rest of the league. Executives are left to wonder where the league draws the line on widespread practice of healthy scratches in the name of injury prevention. Household names such as Chris Paul, Joel Embiid, Blake Griffin, De’Angelo Russell, Gordon Hayward, LaMarcus Aldridge and Cousins have been “DNP-Rested” this season at one point or another. It’s all in the name of strategically avoiding injury that could alter their respective franchises. How is Davis’ situation any different?
Davis is not injured enough, it seems. Kawhi Leonard has missed over a dozen games this season in “load maintenance” recovery protocols after missing most of last season with a leg/thigh issue. LeBron James recently sat out a coveted Saturday night ABC matchup against the Warriors due to “load management” even though he played a game on Thursday and had the day off before the game. According to multiple sources with knowledge of the situation, the league office sent out a reminder memo to all teams on Feb. 20 that re-emphasized proper reporting of injuries relating to load management or return from injury management. The Lakers had not followed the proper protocol, sources said, which called for the team to indicate James was out for load management relating to a recent groin injury. The league felt the semantic oversight, sources said, was not worthy of the $100,000 fine.
Davis, on the other hand, has been deemed healthy by the Pelicans’ training staff. But still, there are plenty of examples of extensive healthy scratches not being disciplined by the league. Front office executives have privately brought up several analogous cases to NBC Sports. One is J.R. Smith, who was the Cavs’ starting shooting guard until he was suddenly healthy-scratched in late November after he described to The Athletic what he saw as blatant tanking by his organization: “I don’t think the goal is to win. The goal isn’t to go out there and try to get as many wins as you can.”
The Cavs and Smith have agreed it’s best to have Smith away from the team. Same with Carmelo Anthony and the Houston Rockets (and the Chicago Bulls). Other examples: Enes Kanter and Chandler Parsons were both medically cleared with their respective teams, both were starters and both were very public about wanting to play. Neither teams faced fines for resting their healthy player. After Parsons was not traded at the deadline, he has suddenly been playing for the Grizzlies, who are all but eliminated from playoff contention and need their 2019 pick to fall in the top eight to keep it from going to the Boston Celtics. After sitting as a healthy scratch 10 times since January, Kanter was waived following the deadline and signed by Portland where the 26-year-old has thrived off the bench. In both cases, rival executives believe the teams had kept their players on ice to protect a potential trade asset.
“It begs the question,” wondered one longtime general manager to NBC Sports, “why were those situations not met with the same requirements as the Davis one?”
It’s a question shared by many frustrated team officials around the league. One possible and rather obvious answer: Davis is much better than Kanter, Anthony, Parsons and Smith, and therefore is held to a different standard. Some might argue that it’s a double standard. Why have a rule if it’s not going to be enforced?
Another name raised by league executives is Kristaps Porzingis. Over 12 months have passed since Porzingis suffered a torn ACL and Mavericks owner Mark Cuban already indicated he’d miss the rest of the 2018-19 season to continue his rehab from the injury he suffered with the Knicks last February.
That’s an abnormally long absence. According to one NBA team’s internal study on the injury, the average return to play for a torn ACL in the NBA is 293 days, or 9.8 months. We’re at 387 days with Porzingis. If Porzingis returned on the final day of the regular season, he would miss 428 days, or 14.3 months. The study also eliminates any height correlation, noting that fellow big man J.J. Hickson returned in 211 days and Kendrick Perkins, 224.
This wouldn’t raise too many eyebrows around the league if it not for the fact that the Mavericks, who at 27-34 have the ninth-worst record in the league, keep their 2019 pick if it lands in the top-five slots on draft lottery night.
“Why is (Porzingis) allowed to sit,” a high-ranking team official asked, “so the teams he’s been on can tank?”
The Mavericks have not heard a peep from the NBA in this case, multiple sources say, because it is an injury-related instance and Porzingis hasn’t been medically cleared to play anytime soon. It’s an open secret in league circles that Porzingis’ recovery has not gone as smoothly as many initially hoped.
This is the gray area that makes Davis’ situation so problematic. In response to an inquiry by the New York Times, NBA spokesperson Mike Bass denied an ESPN report that the Pelicans were told the league office would levy a $100,000 fine for each game that Davis missed. Instead, Bass says, the league intervened due to rules that ensured the integrity of the game.
“The NBA did not tell New Orleans that it would be fined $100,000 per game if Anthony Davis were held out for the remainder of season,” the league said in a statement. “The Pelicans were advised that the team had not identified a proper basis for making that determination at this time and league rules governing competitive integrity therefore require that he be permitted to play."
But where was the league on the Phoenix Suns and Eric Bledsoe, another one of agent Rich Paul’s clients, back in March 2017? Bledsoe was averaging 21.1 points, 6.3 assists and 4.8 rebounds and was the team’s go-to scorer in clutch situations before he was shut down with 14 games to go. Then-coach Earl Watson said it was a “management decision” to sit the Suns’ best player even though he was healthy.
“The front office made a decision and I had to live with it,” Bledsoe told the AZ Central. “I wasn’t OK with it, and I don’t know what basketball player would be. I want to compete.”
Phoenix lost 12 of its final 14 games, securing the NBA’s worst record over that span.
The Suns ended up with the second-best chances at the No. 1 pick, but, as luck would have it, they slid to the No. 4 pick in the draft lottery (and later selected Josh Jackson). The Suns avoided discipline from the league despite their conspicuous tank, league sources say, likely due to the fact that the healthy scratch rule hadn’t been implemented until later that summer.
However, it stands to reason that shutting down Bledsoe, a borderline All-Star, had violated the “competitive integrity” policy that had seemingly already been in place. Yet the Suns avoided punishment, a fact that makes it hard to reconcile with the current situation. How is the Bledsoe situation any different than the current saga with Pelicans and Davis?
It has puzzled the major stakeholders in the league who have to navigate uncomfortable disputes with players and teams. Said one prominent player agent, who doesn’t represent Davis: “It can’t keep dragging on like this. It’s not benefitting anybody.”
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The league has put the Pelicans in an impossible position. Pelicans coach Alvin Gentry has valiantly tried to answer constant questions about playing his best player amid a public trade demand, but he has understandably lost patience lately, calling it “a dumpster fire.” The front office must follow the league’s mandate and play Davis even if it leads to injury and a worse trade package this summer.
The trying situation was on full display before the Pelicans’ game on Monday night against the Philadelphia 76ers. Speaking with the local broadcast for the first time since taking over as the Pelicans interim general manager, Danny Ferry sat down with FOX Sports’ Jennifer Hale for a series of questions, one of which was a very direct query about Davis and the front office’s approach this summer.
“I appreciate that you have to ask the question,” Ferry said smiling. He then deftly sidestepped the question and talked about free agency and scouting the draft instead. The interview lasted four minutes with Ferry never mentioning Davis’ name even once. When asked about the goal for the rest of the season, Ferry was stern in his response.
“Competing every night,” Ferry said. “I think that’s really the focus.”
Later that night, the Pelicans benched Davis in the fourth quarter of a close game, in which Davis scored 18 points in 21 minutes. The Pelicans lost by one point as Davis looked on in warmups.
“Yeah, I’ve never been a guy who sat in the fourth quarter,” Davis said after the game. “It’s a little tough.”
Yet, there was Davis again on Wednesday night, in L.A. of all places, not long after Lakers fans cheered Davis’ pregame introduction, sitting quietly on the Pelicans’ bench as LeBron James nailed a game-clinching fade-away 3-pointer.
This isn’t just poisonous optics. It can dictate the playoff picture. With Davis looking on from the bench, the Lakers, of all teams, pulled out the win and moved within one game of the ninth-seeded Sacramento Kings, who lost in an overtime game that saw rookie Marvin Bagley III carried off the court with a knee injury.
The only way this situation gets worse is if a similar scene befalls Davis. And the longer this drags out, the more transparent it will be that the Pelicans are not trying their best to win games. It’s a bad look for everyone involved. If sitting James, Bledsoe and others didn’t violate league rules, it’s not much a rule at all. Let the Pelicans sit Davis and let’s all move on from this damaging situation.