Two Big Questions For Evaluating The Lakers’ Anthony Davis Gamble

The NBA offseason lurched into high gear on Saturday night.  There it was, plastered prominently across the bar’s TV screen: Breaking News; Anthony Davis traded to Lakers.

I immediately went to Twitter, eagerly searching for the details of how much Los Angeles had to give up.  A day or so later we finally got the full story: the Lakers were sending Ball, Ingram, Hart, this year’s 4th overall pick, a top-8 reverse protected 2021 1st rounder (which becomes unprotected in 2022), a 2023 pick swap, and a 2024 1st rounder (with the right to defer to 2025) to the Pelicans for the one contract year of Anthony Davis’s services.

My initial reaction: wow, that’s a heckuva lot to give up!  But there is a lot to breakdown when evaluating this trade from the Lakers’ perspective, so let’s dive into the salient questions.

How Much Better Does Davis Make the 2019-20 Lakers?

The paragraph header sounds kind of silly, right?  A lot better, of course.  But I think it’s worth trying to quantify the impact Davis has more precisely, particularly on championship odds.  After all, the one sure thing the Lakers are getting with this trade is the opportunity to have one prime Anthony Davis year, paired next to a post-prime but still extremely valuable LeBron James.

It goes without saying, but Anthony Davis is a superstar.  The advanced metrics laud his impact; he’s been a top-15 BPM and top-10 RPM player over each of the past 2 seasons.  He is only 26, so his best years are likely still ahead of him.  While there may be debate about where exactly he ranks on the Mount Rushmore of the current league, I think the prevailing view is that he is firmly a top-10 player right now and maybe even a top-5 player.

Let’s try and place a ballpark estimate on the percentage chance that the Lakers win the championship this year, under two scenarios: our current one, where the Lakers have traded for AD, and a hypothetical alternative world where another team has instead acquired Davis.

The current Lakers (on June 18th) have LeBron, Anthony Davis, Kyle Kuzma, and not a whole bunch else.  They can clear up a little more cap space depending on the timing of the trade, but they appear to be unable to get enough cap space to offer the full max to a 10-year plus NBA veteran.  It seems likely, or at least plausible, that they break up their remaining cap space and acquire other role players to build around their core.

With all this being said, the 2019-20 Lakers have shot up to 3-1 odds to win the title at the Westgate Las Vegas SuperBook, which would imply a 25% chance to win the championship.  When I see a number like this, I immediately discount the true odds in my heads, so perhaps 15-20% is a better estimate.  As a sanity check, Neil Paine of 538 wrote that their super early CARMELO model projection for the 2019-20 Lakers has them as about a +5.8 efficiency team.  In previous research, I have found that a team of that strength typically has closer to a 10% chance to win the title, but there is reason to expect that a LeBron James led squad could have another gear in the playoffs.  So a 17% chance at the title seems like a more reasonable estimate.

Though 17% might not sound like a huge number, keep in mind that only 1 of the 30 teams claims a title at the end of the season.  The 83% of the time where they do not win consists of many scenarios where the Lakers make a deep playoff run but come up a little short.  Heading into free agency, Los Angeles appears among the favorites.

To quantify the marginal impact of Davis on this year though, it’s worth considering the counterfactual universe where AD is instead traded to another team.  In that universe, the Lakers would of course still have Ball, Ingram, and Hart but these players are young and have less short-term value.  LA would also have the cap space to add another star next to James, but getting a max free agent to sign would be no sure thing.  Moreover, the Lakers might not have wanted to commit too much money beyond 2019-2020 in order to keep the option open of signing Davis in the summer of 2020.  Making an educated guess (because I do not have a ready-made projection model), the pre-AD trade roster plus a lower tier star player like Jimmy Butler or Kemba Walker feels like a second tier contender with something like a 7-10% chance of winning the title.  And there is always the possibility that they would not have picked up a star at all.

Without the aid of a statistical model, I think the Lakers increased their title odds from roughly 5% to about 17% in 2019-2020 with this trade.  That 5% figure comes from averaging the Lakers’ chances in the scenario where they acquire a second tier star with the scenario where they do not.

How Much Does This Trade Increase the Lakers’ Chance of Re-signing AD in 2020?

A 12% increase in championship win probability is not the only benefit of the trade for the Lakers.  What I think has perhaps been under discussed is that this trade appears to increase the odds that Davis is in purple and gold throughout the early 2020’s.  This is of tremendous benefit because Anthony Davis is still just 26, and 27-29 are typical peak years for a player.

I think here too it is worth putting some percentages on things.  After the trade, it appears likely that Davis will resign with Los Angeles in 2020, though perhaps on a 1 year deal plus a player option.  How likely?  I would say my prior is in the neighborhood of 85-90% likely that Davis remains beyond 2020.  Things could fall apart for the Lakers this year and Davis could decide to walk, but given that Los Angeles appeared to be his preferred destination pre-trade, I think that it is likely he gives them more time.

What about the in the scenario where someone else signs Davis, most likely Boston or New York? AD could certainly still sign with the Lakers in the summer of 2020, but I think he could plausibly be tempted to remain in his 2019-2020 landing spot, particularly if that team had a successful season.  There is a lot of uncertainty forecasting a decision a year into the future; Davis’s thought process could certainly change.  I think AD would probably still sign with the Lakers in the summer of 2020 (after all, they still have LeBron under contract for the 2020-2021 season) but I would put this likelihood in the neighborhood of 65-75%.

I think quantifying the increase in likelihood that Davis signs with Los Angeles past 2020 is a really important part of evaluating this trade.  If you think the Lakers were a coin flip to sign Davis if he were traded somewhere else but now have them at 95% post-trade, that’s really different than if you had them at 95% regardless.  If this trade is not substantially increasing the Lakers’ odds at keeping Davis past 2020, then it loses a lot of its value.

AD would really boost the 2020-2021 and 2021-2022 Lakers, particularly because LeBron James is already entering his age 35 season this year. I think those Laker teams with Davis would probably be in the neighborhood of 15% likely to take the title each season.  Without Davis and with an aging LeBron, those teams would not figure to be serious title contenders unless LA acquired another max caliber player, which could of course still happen.

It should be noted, however, that all the young players and draft picks that the Lakers gave up in this trade means that they have less firepower to make moves to boost potential AD-led 2020-2021 and 2021-2022 squads.  This makes it all the more important that the trade actually increases his odds of re-signing; if it does not, they have sacrificed some trade assets in the early 2020’s for no future benefit, beyond 2019-2020.

Where Does This Leave Us?

I will again emphasize that the probabilities I offered earlier were just educated guesses, my non-model based priors.  I expect disagreement, and I could be persuaded to think differently if presented with a convincing argument.  My main point is that I think it’s important for each analyst to think carefully about these questions when evaluating this trade. To summarize, the questions are:

1. How much do the Lakers’ 2019-2020 championship odds increase in the scenario where they make this trade vs. the scenario where another team trades for Davis?

My answer is that they go from roughly 5% likely to take the title to 17%.  Another analyst could disagree; maybe they are truly now 25% favorites.  However you answer this question is extremely important because this is where the up-front value in the trade lies.

2. How much more likely are the Lakers to re-sign AD in the summer of 2020 now vs. if another team had traded for him?

This question implicitly gets at how much you think the trade helps the Lakers of the seasons beyond 2019-2020.  If being on another team for one year would have substantially hurt the chances that Davis donned purple and gold in the future, then this part of the trade provides real positive value.  If Davis was a sure thing to go the Lakers either way, than this trade looks a whole lot worse from their perspective.  I estimated (with no inside information of course) that the Lakers went from 70% to 90% likely to sign Davis long term with this trade.  So I think there is some value here.

That this trade has value for the Lakers next season and, probabilistically speaking, the few after that is a testament to how dominant a player Anthony Davis is.  The Lakers are taking a huge gamble, however, because their late 2020’s squads will likely be bereft of high-end draft talent.  Also, all NBA players have the potential to suffer injuries or a performance drop-off, so investing so many resources in one player (even a superstar like Davis) inherently has risks.  I should note that I really like the trade from the Pelican’s side; the asset haul is substantial for just a single guaranteed year of Davis.

At the end of the day, I am really fascinated to see how this trade turns out for the NBA’s most storied franchise.  The NBA Finals are not even a week old and the offseason is already in full swing.

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Photo Credit:  The photo of Anthony Davis is attributed to Keith Allison and was taken on February 22, 2014. It is used under the Flickr Creative Commons License.

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