It is sometimes inconvenient just to have to play basketball. If the Knicks, Suns, or Cavs were allowed to forfeit the rest of the season without losing revenue or face, they’d likely accept that invitation. The Wizards typically look more interested in fighting each other than whoever they’re supposed to be competing against. The Warriors show up fully engaged about twice per month. It’s mid-February, and hooping for a living is fantastic work if you can find it, but the NBA calendar is long and there comes a point in the season where you more or less know where you’re headed and wish you would just arrive there already. Everybody’s a little bored and groggy by mid-February, and some squads are outright depressed.
The Lakers and Pelicans are currently vying for the number one spot on that depression index, having failed to consummate an Anthony Davis trade that might not have left both franchises satisfied but would have at least eased their squad-wide emotional dyspepsia. The Pels are having a tiff with Anthony Davis and his agent Rich Paul, who are refusing to go along with the Davis Has A Sore Finger Or Whatever diagnosis designed to keep The Brow away from the team for the rest of the year. It’s not totally clear why Davis and Paul want this, other than that it’s the opposite of what Dell Demps and company want, because it must be about as miserable for Davis to play in front of fans who know he wants out of New Orleans as it is for the Pels to field a player who’s almost definitely leaving in the summer.
The All-NBA big man put up a stat line worthy of fellow number one overall pick Anthony Bennett on Tuesday night—1-for-9 with six boards—in a 30-point home loss to the Orlando Magic. Then, even worse, he picked up a shoulder injury on Thursday and left the arena early. This whole situation is trending toward total untenability. Davis and the Pels may be upset with each other, but they probably need to sit down over the All-Star break and figure out if they want to do this the hard way or the extremely miserable way.
On the other side of the A.D. non-trade, everybody on the Lakers except LeBron James knows they’re expendable, and they’re playing like it. The Pacers are not a squad you want to face if your energy is at a low ebb, and they shellacked the dazed Angelenos by 42 points two days before the trade deadline while their fans chanted “LeBron’s gonna trade you!” at Brandon Ingram. Then, after the Lakers appeared to get their stuff together with a narrow upset over the Celtics, they dropped a lethargic game against the Hawks —the exact kind of tilt they need to win if they want to make the playoffs in the ultra-competitive Western Conference.
There is perhaps not the white-hot antipathy among management and Ingram, Lonzo Ball, Kyle Kuzma, et al. that exists in New Orleans because the players aren’t marooned on a franchise they no longer want to play for, but it’s obviously not an easy task to try your hardest for a club that’s openly unenthused about keeping you around. Kuzma says he and his (possibly temporary) teammates need to focus on “having fun,” which doesn’t seem likely or even possible. If the Lakers find their way into the postseason, it seems it’s going to be in the Cavaliers-esque fashion of performing well and depending on LeBron while looking as down in the dumps as any lottery-dweller.
Every player in the league knows his roster spot isn’t guaranteed, and every franchise with a star knows they need to build something around him if they want to keep him in town. That’s fine as far as it goes, but there is a stronger than usual, league-wide restlessness this season. Maybe it’s the Warriors’ dominance; maybe it’s just a dumb confluence of fortunes, but it feels like every other franchise is displeased with their direction and every other star wants to play somewhere else. Davis wants to leave. LeBron wants Davis. Kyrie Irving doesn’t know what he wants. Kevin Durant appears only half-present. Kristaps Porzingis either forced his way out of New York or got pushed out and buried in the local papers. Jimmy Butler got traded midseason and is still for whatever reason seething with lunatic rage. 2019 is a time of great flux in the NBA, and there’s not a little aggravation to go with it.
For the time being, everybody’s staying where they are, and they’re obligated to make their suboptimal arrangements work. There aren’t any moves to be made, and there are nothing but games between now and what’s fixing to be a wild summer. The prospect of a furiously overactive offseason is exciting, in its way, but it’s also a bummer that what’s essentially boardroom intrigue should so thoroughly overshadow and infect on-court action. The business of the NBA, it seems more and more every year, is business rather than basketball, and the second thing—the reason we’re all here in the first place—is suffering for it.
The Pelicans have 23 games left on the schedule. The Lakers have 25. Grouchy, disorganized, or just plain unwilling, they’ve got to play them. Toward what end is anyone’s guess.