NEW ORLEANS -- On Sunday morning prior to the New Orleans Pelicans' final regular-season matchup of the season with the Los Angeles Lakers, Pelicans guard Josh Hart was asked about the potential of playing his former team in the playoffs.
"That's gonna be us being here and he stays there, that'll be the talk just about every year whenever we play them," Hart said. "If we play them in the playoffs, it'll be who won the trade, this, that and the other."
The "he" is Anthony Davis.
And the trade is the one that brought the Pelicans and Lakers together last summer.
In January 2019, Davis made it clear to Pelicans' management that he didn't want to be a part of the organization going forward. After a deal wasn't found before the trade deadline, Davis stayed with New Orleans for the rest of the season.
At the end of the season, the Pelicans hired David Griffin to run the basketball operations. His first major task was figuring out what to do with -- and where to send -- Davis. Before he could do that, the Pelicans struck gold in May when they won the NBA lottery and the right to draft Zion Williamson.
Davis still made it clear he wanted to be dealt, and Griffin landed on a deal sending Davis to Los Angeles for Hart, Ball, Ingram, the No. 4 overall pick in the 2019 NBA draft, a first-round pick in either 2021 or 2022 (if it's top eight in 2021, it will go to New Orleans, if not, it will be unprotected in 2022), an unprotected pick swap in 2023 as well as an unprotected pick swap in 2024 that the Pelicans could opt to defer to 2025.
Now, Davis is in a starring role alongside LeBron James as the Lakers hold the top seed in the Western Conference. The Pelicans' rebuild has been accelerated, and New Orleans is in the thick of a playoff push thanks to the play of Williamson, Ingram, Ball and Hart.
So when Hart says the discussion surrounding the two teams will be about who won the trade, the answer might already be known: both teams.
All Davis wanted was a chance to compete for a championship, something he has been able to do this season. The Pelicans wanted the best possible return for Davis, even if trade partners seemed to be shrinking by the minute last spring.
Griffin and the Pelicans got everything they could from the Lakers and also flipped the No. 4 pick in the draft to the Atlanta Hawks for the No. 8, 17 and 35 overall picks -- which turned into center Jaxson Hayes, guard Nickeil Alexander-Walker and international prospect Didi Louzada, who is playing this season in Australia. New Orleans also picked up a heavily protected 2020 first-round pick from the Cleveland Cavaliers in the deal while sending Solomon Hill, the No. 57 pick and a future second-round pick to Atlanta.
Davis is averaging a team-best 26.4 points, 9.4 rebounds and 2.5 blocks for the Lakers while helping to lead the team to a conference-best 46-13 record -- 5½ games better than the Denver Nuggets and LA Clippers.
Meanwhile, the Pelicans are 26-34 after Sunday's loss to the Lakers and are three games behind the Memphis Grizzlies for the eighth and final spot in the playoffs -- and a likely first-round playoff series against the Lakers in mid-April.
With Williamson hurt early in the season, the Pelicans stumbled to a 6-22 start that included a 13-game losing streak. But they have found their way since Christmas, going 18-11 for a top-10 win percentage of .621 since the holiday. While Williamson was out, Ingram turned into an All-Star, earning his first selection to the NBA's midseason exhibition.
Ingram is averaging career highs in points (24.6), rebounds (6.3), assists (4.3) and steals (1.0). Ingram has made more 3-pointers this season with New Orleans (129) than he made in three seasons with the Lakers (127), and he's making those 3-pointers while shooting a career-best 39.2% from deep.
Ingram is set to be a restricted free agent at the end of the season, but all indications from the Pelicans' front office are that they love him and want to keep him around long term -- even if it means a max deal in the offseason.
Ball has found his way since Christmas, averaging 13.0 points, 8.3 assists and 7.2 rebounds and shooting 37.6% from deep in that span. He also has formed a bond on and off the floor with Williamson.
And Hart has been a key cog for New Orleans off the bench, averaging 10.3 points, 6.5 rebounds, 1.0 steals and 2.0 3s. There are 15 players in the league averaging those numbers, and Hart is the only one who primarily comes off the bench; and the Pelicans are the only team in the league with three players on that list, as Hart is joined by Ball and Ingram.
Hart and Ingram are restricted free agents and eligible for extensions this offseason. Both could end up as building blocks for what the Pelicans want to do in the future -- which is get to where the Lakers are now.
"They are the measuring stick in the West right now, and I don't think we're that extremely far away from being able to compete at that level," coach Alvin Gentry said following Sunday's loss. "We have a lot of young guys and a lot of things to learn."
Despite being on the outside looking in at the playoffs, Ingram said he could see the light at the end of the tunnel for what the young Pelicans want to become.
"I don't see it just in games, but in the work we do every single day away from these games," Ingram said Sunday night. "How we practice and the attitudes and the character that we show every single day. I think we have the same approach every single day, and having the same approach is going to make us better."
Lonzo Brees sounds about right— Michael Thomas (@Cantguardmike) March 2, 2020
Members of the professional team that shares an owner and a complex with the Pelicans are noticing. After a couple of long passes down the court, New Orleans Saints wide receiver Michael Thomas tweeted "Lonzo Brees sounds about right," referencing Saints' quarterback Drew Brees.
Defensive end Cameron Jordan, who owns season tickets to the Pelicans and just finished his ninth season in with the Saints, is watching the Pelicans "pushing for these playoffs":
That is, a playoff push that'll very likely have New Orleans heading to face the same Lakers team that completed a regular-season sweep against them Sunday. And even if the Pelicans don't make it there, the Anthony Davis trade that sent both teams on different paths looks like a slam dunk for both organizations.