For over two years now, Boston Celtics fans have salivated over the prospect of Danny Ainge pushing in his chips and emptying his treasure chest of assets to acquire Anthony Davis. The line of thinking is simple enough: Boston has the best assets and Davis isn’t going to compete for championships with the New Orleans Pelicans. Recent reports even have Davis having Boston on his short-list of teams he’d like to play for. Combine it all and Davis should be wearing green anytime now.
As Lee Corso would say: Not so fast, my friend!
There are a few things happening here. Let’s start with the easy ones. First, Davis is incredible. He’s one of the top-five players in the entire NBA. He’s a center in an increasingly center-less league, but somehow that doesn’t really matter because of his skill set. Davis can step out and shoot. He can handle the ball and pass it. He can post up, roll to the basket or break his man down off the dribble to score. On defense, he can cover on the perimeter and hold his own on switches against guards. He’s one of the best shot-blockers in the game and a fantastic rebounder.
In a basketball world where we prize unicorns, Davis certainly fits the bill. And he’s gotten over the health concerns that once caused him to miss significant time each season. All 30 NBA teams, including his incumbent Pelicans and the Celtics, would give up the world to acquire Davis.
Next, let’s all recognize that Boston has the best asset base in the NBA to trade for a player of Davis’ stature. The Celtics have all their own first round picks, plus future first rounders that are still outstanding from the Sacramento Kings, Memphis Grizzlies and Los Angeles Clippers. Ainge also has exciting young players like Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, Robert Williams III and Terry Rozier that he could offer in a trade to New Orleans.
So, why isn’t Davis playing in Boston yet? Well, there are a few reasons. The primary thing keeping Davis from being a Celtic is that NBA rules prohibit Ainge from swinging a trade for Davis at the moment.
Why is this? Because the Celtics previously traded for Kyrie Irving. Both Davis and Irving signed contract extensions under the “5th Year 30% Max Criteria”, which is informally known as the Rose Rule (as Derrick Rose was the first player to sign such an extension), and currently known as the Designated Player Rookie Extension. This rule allows a player coming off their rookie scale contract to sign an extension that allows them to skip the 1-6 years of service 25% max salary tier and go immediately to the 7-9 years of service 30% max salary tier. To get there, players have to meet certain criteria. When Davis and Irving signed their extensions, it was based on MVP awards, All-NBA selections and being voted in as All-Star starters. The Designated Player criteria now is based on winning MVP, Defensive Player of the Year, or All-NBA selections.
Why does this mean Boston can’t acquire Davis? NBA teams are prevented from acquiring two such players via trade at the same time. The idea behind this rule was to keep teams from stacking their rosters via trades to acquire multiple All-NBA talents. Because the Celtics already traded for Irving, they can’t trade for another player who signed the same type of extension.
But, wait…neither Irving nor Davis actually qualified for the 30% max! This surely means that the restriction is removed, right? Unfortunately, no. It doesn’t matter if a player qualifies. All that matters is that those are the terms the player signed under.
Ok…so Boston can never acquire Davis. Why does this keep coming up? There are reasons for that. The first is that this isn’t a lifetime restriction. The instant that either Irving or Davis are no longer under their current contracts, the restriction goes away. Irving has a player option for the 2019-20 season. He’s already ruled out signing an extension this year, because it makes no financial sense for him to do so. Barring something really unexpected, Irving will opt out of his deal for next year, which will make him a free agent. Once Irving opts out any restriction on trading for Davis is removed.
The other reason this comes up is that a lot of people don’t understand the restriction the Celtics have on trading for Davis at the moment. As you can see, it’s complicated. It involves an extension rule that most don’t understand, while also understanding that it doesn’t matter that neither player qualified for that extension.
You can also add that it is Anthony freaking Davis we’re talking about. You hear a report that he likes the idea of Boston and people get starry-eyed at the possibility of acquiring one of the NBA’s best players. Rules go out the window in the minds of most in that situation.
And that last part is also why Davis isn’t playing for the Celtics right now. He’s one of the best players in the NBA and the Pelicans have no intentions of parting with him. Davis has also said he doesn’t want to play anywhere else whenever he’s asked. He regularly says he wants to win in New Orleans. The team doesn’t want to trade him, and he doesn’t want to go anywhere. Yet.
That “yet” is the big one to watch here. Davis won’t be a Celtic this season, but it doesn’t remove the opportunity down the line. Irving will opt out, clearing the way for Boston to put together a package that satisfies the Collective Bargaining Agreement. But what’s more important is what happens with Davis and the Pelicans this summer. He’s eligible to sign a Designated Player Veteran Extension this summer. That would immediately bump his salary to the maximum allowable amount, while also adding somewhere between three and five years to his contract. And also somewhere in the neighborhood of $200 million to Davis’ bank account.
If Davis doesn’t sign that designated extension, then go ahead and fire up the trade machines (RealGM has the original and best one!) and let the speculation begin. Until then, put it out of your mind. Much like kids who are breathlessly anticipating Santa’s arrival, you can watch the Celtics play Davis and the Pelicans on Monday night and dream about what might be. Just know that the waiting is the hardest part.