Brentin Mock is a staff writer at CityLab. He was previously the justice editor at Grist.
Cities’ pursuit of NBA New Orleans Pelicans forward Anthony Davis is eerily reminiscent of how they vied for Amazon HQ2. We probably have to get used to it.
The NBA trade deadline has officially closed as of 3 p.m. today and the most important question in the basketball league right now is: What city will New Orleans Pelicans All-Star power forward Anthony Davis end up in?
In that respect, Anthony Davis is Amazon, and like Amazon did in 2017, he has announced that he wants a new city home. And also like Amazon, Davis has inspired a whole genre of similes and metaphors to describe his largeness and largesse, a great deal of which I will indulge to death in the following paragraphs. I promise this won’t be like when that guy wrote that Tom Brady is just like Jimi Hendrix, or when your local Patch outlet called your neighbor’s new app “like Uber but for Dungeons & Dragons.” No, unlike other metaphor-based columns, this one will be spot-on. Indulge me.
Like Amazon, Davis is the biggest thing in the world, and his pending trade deal is, as ESPN’s Zach Lowe wrote, “in a literal sense, one of the biggest stories in the history of the NBA,” and sans hyperbole. At 6 foot 10 inches, Davis is not the NBA’s tallest player, but his wingspan, go-go-gadget legs, and his unibrow, though horizontal, somehow makes him appear as if he’s the most gigantic thing on the court. He is number 2 in scoring, rebounds, and blocks, and would possibly be number 1 in those categories if he hadn’t been out with an injury the past few weeks. He’s also top ten in steals and double-doubles, and one of just a handful of big men in the top 40 for assists.
Simply, Davis is his own vertically integrated company on the court, boasting an inside and outside game along with offense and defensive weapons. He can play just about every position—the most complete player in the NBA outside of LeBron James, just like Amazon is probably the most complete company outside of Apple. Like Davis, Amazon looms larger than what it actually is because it is both retail, wholesale, and cyber-sale; it is the plug and the distro; the cook and the block-hugger; “Breaking Bad” and “The Wire;” and that metaphor is now sufficiently milked.
Just as Amazon outgrew Seattle, Davis has now outgrown New Orleans. And, let’s face it, New Orleans is just the southern version of Seattle, except with culture and without jobs. Both are port cities that entities such as Amazon and Davis have used as their points of entry into their respective industries before becoming the supervillain-sized conglomerates that they are today.
When Davis announced in the end of January that he would not be re-signing with New Orleans, he technically became available to any of the 29 other teams in the NBA (under certain terms and with some exceptions), just like any of the hundreds of cities that submitted proposals for Amazon’s HQ2 technically had a shot of landing it. However, reallifedly, only about two, maybe three, cities have a shot at landing Davis, just like reallifedly, only about two or three cities had a shot at HQ2.
Davis has already signaled where he wants to go—even though its kinda against league rules for players to publicly signal such things so early in the season. Davis still has one year left on his contract with New Orleans. But when you’re Davis, you can do what you want because like Amazon, you are bigger than life and no governing authority can contain you. If Davis wanted, he could grab LeBron, Kevin Durant, Steph Curry, Michael Jordan, and Jay-Z and just form a whole new basketball league. Just like if Amazon wanted, it could grab Facebook, Google, and Microsoft and start a whole new U.S.A. But what would be the fun in that? There’d be no presidents to troll.
So Davis has decided he might only go to Milwaukee, currently one of the best teams in the league, or Los Angeles, where the Lakers would instantly become one of the best teams in the league if he were added to the roster. Other cities like New York and Boston still have a small chance at him after July l, and have either placed a huge chunk of their teammates and future draft picks on the trading block or are heavily considering this. Every other NBA team has likely already examined what assets they can sell off to acquire Davis. Many of them may have secretly already made offers, but we won’t know the details of those proposals because they are kept under tight wraps—yep, just like most of the cities that made offers for Amazon’s HQ2.
And like most of those other cities clamoring for Amazon, those offers don’t really mean diddly squat. We know Davis is going to Los Angeles just like we knew that LeBron was going there—just like some urban economists knew that Amazon would pick New York or D.C. And so far, the city most likely to land Davis, Los Angeles, has itself taken the most desperate measures to land him.
In efforts to get him before the trade deadline, Los Angeles reportedly offered not only half the team and its future, but also, as rumor has it, retired Laker Kobe Bryant and LeBron’s 13-year-old son. Los Angeles’ other team, the Clippers, where Davis said he also wouldn’t mind playing, just traded away its star forward Tobias Harris in hopes of possibly nabbing him. At this point, it wouldn’t be out of the question if Los Angeles offered to export 100,000 jobs to New Orleans and O.J. Simpson’s signed and sealed confession for the All-Star forward.
It all sounds as eerily thirsty as the bizarre offers cities made to Amazon: billions of dollars in tax deferrals, free buildings, property and land—one city even offered to break a piece of its boundary off for a new mini-city that would be named after Amazon. It probably wouldn’t be out of the question if one of the NBA cities offered to rename their team after Davis—the Memphis Unibrows kinda has a ring to it.
The actual host cities of the NBA teams have their own vested interest in winning Davis. Bringing in an All-Star player means more sold-out games, which is especially important for cities that are struggling to fill seats in their new arenas. More sold-out games provides the multiplier effect (in theory) of luring more vendors, contractors, janitors, floor sweepers, ticket clippers, and other arena jobs. These smaller cities probably won’t expand the number of six-figure jobs, like Amazon can offer, but it would likely be a boon for entry-level jobs and for smaller-scale entrepreneurs.
But smaller cities should probably reconsider shipping off too much of their present and future stocks in hopes this will happen. The arms war that just concluded at 3 p.m. today was basically just the first round RFP that Amazon did after it made its HQ2 announcement. In the time since Davis made his trade demand, he and his agent have likely collected all of the info and data from cities making offers, and now they know the most disposable parts of each team, and the strengths and weaknesses of each city.
You might argue: Well, it’s not actually his decision, it’s the decision of the owners of the Pelicans franchise, and you’d be correct, to an extent. While the Pelicans’ owners do have some say over where Davis ends up, it is only temporary at best. Davis could change his mind deciding to stay put, and don’t think New Orleans would not jump at the chance to retain him if that happens. Davis still has a year left on his contract and whatever city that lands him would absorb that contract, meaning they’d only get him for a year. And then the decision solely belongs to Davis.
New Orleans could also, of course, just not trade him until his contract expires. But even in that case, Davis holds the cards. He could sit out the final year until he gets the deal he wants, kinda like what Kawhi Leonard did to get out of his San Antonio Spurs contract, or what Le’Veon Bell is doing with the Pittsburgh Steelers football team in the NFL. We have reached an unprecedented era in professional sports, where players have enormous power and control over their destiny. Never has there been a time when players like Davis, Bell, LeBron, and Kevin Durant have all the leveraging power, and cities and their teams have virtually none—these players are channeling their inner-Bezos. Durant has so much power he won’t even talk to the media anymore about his future plans.
That kind of power was historically reserved exclusively for city team owners, who cut and dealt away players sometimes at whim. That power mirrors, in many ways, the leveraging power that Amazon has wielded over cities, which can cut and go at its own discretion. Like Davis, Amazon collected hundreds of proposals revealing all kinds of data about how much land is at these cities disposal, how much they were willing to give, and how much they were willing to throw away to land the HQ2—all for Amazon to end up making an unsurprising decision. While the early announcement that Amazon would be picking two cities for its new headquarters did add some intrigue, there were few shocked to hear that New York and D.C.—cities that didn’t really need it—would claim those two slots.
Few will be shocked if and when Davis selects L.A. (imagine, though, if Davis picked both the Lakers and the Clippers, and the NBA somehow accommodated—mind...blown) and we later find out what other cities were willing to part with in their unsuccessful bids. Sure, it’ll kill morale among the teams’ players whose names were on the chop block, and it would devalue any other assets offered in the trade proposals. But this is a new normal that cities will have to contend with. This is not exactly welcoming news for a near-monopoly like Amazon. It is worth appreciating, however, for African Americans who’ve been working within a professional sports system that would rather keep black athletes muzzled and powerless.
Black players like Davis and the NFL’s Le’Veon Bell have flipped the power dynamic exerting their own agency and flexing power in a way that might make Bezos either proud or jealous. The next step is to see someone like Davis or LeBron become the next Bezos, creating their own league or industry and then headquartering it in a city or neighborhood that actually needs it.