When LeBron James returned to Cleveland for the first time after leaving for Miami in free agency, Cavaliers fans got personal. They didn’t just boo him. They held signs attacking his personal life. They chanted that his hometown of Akron hated him. They tried as hard as they could to hurt his feelings.
Then James scored 38 points and the Heat left with a victory.
It’s a scene that’s not likely to duplicate itself in New Orleans on Wednesday night, when Anthony Davis returns for the first time since his trade to the Lakers this past summer. But in an effort to prepare himself, Davis checked in with James, who didn’t hesitate to remind him how many points he scored in his return.
“Put a little pressure on me,” Davis said with a smile.
He spoke Saturday night after the Lakers beat the Grizzlies in Memphis and admitted it’s been on his mind.
“It’s getting closer and closer,” Davis said. “It’s hard not to think about it. You just wait for it to happen. It’s going to be different, obviously.”
Davis’s departure was different from James’ exit. He told the Pelicans in advance that he planned to become a free agent in the summer of 2020 — and he still does. Then he requested a trade and offered suggestions about which teams were among his preferred destinations. Most did not have the capability to acquire Davis, but the Lakers did.
The Pelicans ultimately did not trade Davis by the Feb. 7 deadline last season, despite the Lakers’ desperate attempts to acquire him.
That meant Davis had to get back in a Pelicans uniform and face the team’s fans. At the first home game he played after the trade deadline, against the Minnesota Timberwolves, some fans still wore his jersey. Others booed him multiple times before and during the game.
“I’m excited to play, just [like] I was excited to play that first game against Minnesota last year, but I think you got to embrace it,” Davis said. “I know what the reaction’s going to be. I try to look at all the guys who went and had something like that, but it’s unique, and I’m excited to go there and play for the first time with an opposing team, so it’s going to be fun.”
In his seven seasons with New Orleans, the team only went to the playoffs twice (one more time than the Lakers did during the span). The perception that the Pelicans’ ownership group, which also owns the New Orleans Saints, didn’t take its NBA team seriously didn’t help.
“We were the step-kids,” said Lakers point guard Rajon Rondo, who played in New Orleans during the 2017-18 season. “It’s just what it is. The Saints are who they are. They earned it. But sometimes the market is just like that.”
New Orleans made a first-round playoff exit in 2015. The most success Davis had came two years ago on a team that included Rondo and now-Lakers teammate DeMarcus Cousins. The Pelicans swept the Portland Trail Blazers in the first round before falling to the Golden State Warriors in the next round, but New Orleans struggled again the following season.
“[The Pelicans] just didn’t do what they needed to do to keep him,” Rondo said. “… You don’t want to let your career pass you by. He’s eight, nine years in now. He wants to contend for a title, a championship. His legacy’s on the line. I think he gave the city all he had. There was nothing else to give.”
The Lakers wanted to contend for championships again too. In June, they traded for Davis and sent three future first-round picks and the right to swap another to New Orleans. They also sent three players who had been drafted in the first round — Brandon Ingram (second overall in 2016), Lonzo Ball (second overall in 2017) and Josh Hart (30th overall in 2017).
Dealt a blow by losing first overall pick Zion Williamson to a knee injury in the preseason, the Pelicans have struggled to a 6-11 record that includes a loss to the Clippers on Sunday night. But they have seen glimpses of the promise of the players the Lakers sent.
Ingram has been particularly impressive. So far this season, he has averaged career highs of 26.3 points, 7.1 rebounds and 4.2 assists per game.
“It’s two-fold,” Davis said of the game Wednesday. “I mean, it’s going to be me against the Pelicans and then the three guys, if they play, against the Lakers, so it’s going to be a great battle. Those guys are going to try to take our heads off just to prove a point, and I don’t want to say I want to take their heads off. I just want to win it.”
AT SAN ANTONIO
When: 5:30 p.m., Monday
On the air: TV: Spectrum SportsNet; Radio: 710, 1330
Update: The Spurs (6-11) snapped an eight-game losing streak, their longest in more than two decades, on Saturday with a 111-104 victory over the Knicks in New York. Four-time All-Star guard DeMar DeRozan (22.1 points per game) and seven-time All-Star forward LaMarcus Aldridge (18.1 points, 6.8 rebounds) lead San Antonio.