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HomeBasketballNBADissecting the Damian Lillard trade

Dissecting the Damian Lillard trade

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It finally happened.

After nearly three months of speculation, and back and forths, Damian Lillard on Wednesday was dealt to the Milwaukee Bucks from the Portland Trail Blazers.

A three-team trade, the Phoenix Suns helped facilitate the move. There are a lot of moving parts, but the deal is essentially Lillard to Milwaukee, Bucks guard Jrue Holiday to Portland along with Suns center Deandre Ayton; and Blazers center Jusuf Nurkic, Bucks guard Grayson Allen and spare parts to Phoenix.

Lillard ending up in the Cream City is an interesting move. All summer we’d heard how Lillard, a seven-time All-NBA selection in 11 years in Portland, would only accept a trade to the Miami Heat. Lillard ends up in a much better spot, being paired with arguably the best player in the world — Bucks superstar Giannis Antetokounmpo. 

Milwaukee following the trade became the favorite in Las Vegas to win the 2024 NBA title. The deal is good for Milwaukee. It gives the team an elite three-level scorer to pair with Giannis, and take some of the scoring burden off Antetokounmpo and wing Khris Middleton.

The move goes beyond that, though. 

For so long, we’d heard how Giannis was so loyal to Milwaukee — the team and the city. The last two seasons, though, saw Milwaukee’s seasons end with early playoff exits, culminating in a first-round upset loss to the 8-seed Miami Heat this past spring.

Giannis earlier this month essentially challenged the Bucks’ front office to make a move of this caliber, saying on multiple occasions he’d leave the team “if there’s a better situation.” Milwaukee’s brain trust went to work, getting the best player on the market — another future hall-of-famer to pair with Giannis. The trade shows Giannis the Bucks are serious about winning, and will give up valuable pieces to do it.

Holiday was great in Milwaukee. He played an integral role in bringing the Bucks the 2021 NBA championship — the franchise’s second title and first in 50 years. Holiday, named to the last five All-Defensive teams, has been one of the best defensive players in the league for the last decade. He’s shown the ability to be a capable scorer when called upon, but not at the level of Lillard. 

The same can be said of Lillard’s defense. Lillard has never been known as a plus-defender. Shipping Holiday out puts enormous pressure on Giannis and Bucks center Brook Lopez to play All-League-level defense each night. 

Offensively, though? The Bucks could be scary.

Lillard and Giannis form a lethal pick-and-roll combination. Lillard makes it easier for Giannis to operate more off the ball than he has the last few seasons. There will be fewer of those “Giannis pounds the ball at the top of the key before barreling into the lane for a bucket or foul” possessions. 

A healthy Bucks core of Lillard/Giannis/Lopez/Middleton is the favorite in the east, despite some questions about Lillard’s play on the defensive end.

What’s next for Holiday?

Holiday likely won’t even suit up for Portland. The veteran will, and should, be shipped out to a contender. 

Portland is going with a youth movement and has plenty of young guards — Scoot Henderson, Shaedon Sharpe, Anfernee Simons — who should get the lion’s share of the minutes. 

Holiday is a fit with several contenders. He could fill the void in Boston left after guard Marcus Smart was moved to Memphis. The Lakers could use a strong defender at the point of attack. Same for the Clippers and 76ers. Ironically, Miami makes sense for Holiday, too, after the Heat lost its starting backcourt in free agency.

Fresh start for Ayton

Ayton, the No. 1 pick in the 2018 NBA Draft, seemingly fell out of favor with all the major players in Phoenix. The 25-year-old Ayton’s demeanor and perceived lack of toughness, along with there not being enough shots to go around, is presumably what pushed the Suns to move on.

Going to Portland will give Ayton a new lease on life. There aren’t any expectations for the Blazers, so Ayton will be able to continue to develop into a more well-rounded player. 

Ayton is a perfect fit in Portland, manning the paint for a team set at the wing for the next five years. The Arizona product has averaged a double-double in each of his five seasons. Ayton in Phoenix’s run to the 2021 NBA Finals put up 16 points and 12 rebounds a game on 66 percent shooting. He’s a talented player. Ayton just needs to keep his head in the game.

More depth for Phoenix

Nurkic isn’t one of the best bigs in the league. But he’s a wide body who is known to punish players attempting to run through his screens. The 6-foot-11, 290-pound Bosnian will likely be called upon to do all the dirty work while Kevin Durant, Devin Booker, and Brad Beal get all the headlines. No one can stop Denver superstar Nikola Jokic, but I suspect Nurkic will put more effort in to try than Ayton did last spring.

The other pieces Phoenix got in the deal – wings Grayson Allen, Nassir Little, and Keon Johnson — give the Suns depth they didn’t have following the Beal trade. All three wings are 6-foot-5 and give Phoenix a little more defensive versatility. Allen is hated around the league, and for good reason, but he shot 40 percent from 3 last season on five attempts a game.

Good for all?

Initially, I didn’t think this was a good deal for anyone involved. But each of the three teams got something it desired. Milwaukee got another star to pair with Giannis and put a stop to any chatter on his future with the Bucks. Phoenix added depth at multiple positions. Portland got a standout young player and draft picks for Lillard.

This is a big year, though, for the Bucks and Suns.

Both teams have made moves it hopes will bring a championship. Anything less will be a disappointment. 

I still have Denver as the title favorite, as the Nuggets have continuity to go along with Jokic.

But I wouldn’t be surprised to see either of Milwaukee or Phoenix celebrating next June with the Larry O’Brien trophy.

As for Lillard, we’ll see if running from the grind is worth it. And no one will be interested in hearing anymore soliloquy from Giannis if the Bucks are bounced early from the playoffs.

Lillard is 33 and a small guard. Milwaukee has to win a title in the next two years, or it’ll be back to square one — worrying if it’ll lose the best player in franchise history.

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