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Christian Clark: Anthony Davis trade remains generous for Pelicans | pelicans

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The first time he spoke publicly after being named the New Orleans Pelicans’ chief basketball executive, David Griffin said, “You’re either all in or all the way out. There is no middle ground.”

This proclamation was made about Anthony Davis.

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Outwardly, Griffin maintained that the team’s relationship with the disgruntled star could be mended. But privately, Griffin understood that Davis would never play another game for the Pelicans, not after how uncomfortable he made the situation for everyone within the organization.

On June 15, 2019, 33 days after his signing, Griffin traded Davis to the Los Angeles Lakers. The Pelicans got back three players (Brandon Ingram, Josh Hart and Lonzo Ball) and three first-round picks.

Wednesday marked the third anniversary of the trade, which has been generous to New Orleans, and should be for years to come.

New Orleans’ biggest gain in the trade was Ingram, who has become a cornerstone of the franchise. He earned an All-Star appearance in his first season with New Orleans. Although he hasn’t returned since, many within the organization believe he reached new heights as an all-around player last season.

Ingram posted the best passing numbers of his career. He seemed comfortable in coach Willie Green’s offensive system, a staple of which is quick decision-making. By playing a little faster in midcourt, Ingram became harder to stop.

The numbers backed up the theory that Ingram has never had more of an impact. When he played, the Pelicans went 29-26. When he sat down, it was 7-20.

Of the three players who came from Los Angeles to New Orleans, only Ingram remains. The Pelicans weren’t interested in handing Ball a lot of money last summer, so he ended up with the Chicago Bulls in an $85 million deal. Hart was in the midst of a career year when he was dealt to the Portland Trail Blazers in February as the centerpiece of a trade for CJ McCollum.

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Adding McCollum was the push the Pelicans needed to become a playoff team. Out of the shadow of Damian Lillard, the 30-year-old thrived as a primary point guard, where he averaged 24.3 points and 5.8 assists in 26 games.

McCollum had 32 points in the Pelicans’ play-in tournament win over the San Antonio Spurs, and scored 32 points in the team’s April 1 road win over the Lakers, not only increasing the playoff odds of the Pelicans, but instead increased his chances of holding on to the Lakers’ first-round pick in this summer’s draft.

The Pelicans were able to keep the Lakers’ 2022 first-round pick only if he landed in the top 10 (the result of a trade they made with the Memphis Grizzlies in August). The choice, in fact, broadcast. They own the No. 8 pick in Thursday’s draft.

For the next two years at least, the Pelicans and Lakers will remain intertwined. The Pelicans have the option to trade first-round picks with the Lakers in 2023. Then in 2024 or 2025, whichever year the Pelicans prefer, the Lakers will have to fork out one last first-round pick, their final payment for Davis.

The NBA landscape changes rapidly, but the Lakers’ outlook does not look rosy.

LeBron James is entering his 20th season and is under contract for just one more year. Russell Westbrook is owed $47 million next season, a figure that will make it difficult to trade him without also handing over a first-round pick. Then there’s Davis, who should be in the prime of his career but has played in just 76 of a possible 144 games the past two seasons because of injuries.

The Pelicans are in a much better place than they were three years ago when Davis’ time with the team was drawing to a close. They ended a three-year playoff drought despite not getting a single minute from Zion Williamson, who was recovering from a broken right foot. Williamson is eligible to sign a five-year extension beginning July 1.

Over the next few seasons, New Orleans’ ceiling could come down to Williamson’s health and his willingness to accept becoming a face of the franchise. If he’s all the way in, a franchise that has never advanced beyond the second round of the playoffs can reach unprecedented heights. If it’s not, then by Griffin’s definition that can only mean one thing: it’s completely out.

As Griffin said three years ago at the start of this rebuild, there is no middle ground.

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