In a remarkable three-team blockbuster, Damian Lillard will be moving to Milwaukee, which might help the Bucks with both their immediate and long-term difficulties.
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The long-awaited Damian Lillard trade saga has come to a dramatic conclusion: The seven-time All-Star will join the champions of 2020–21, neither the Miami Heat or the Toronto Raptors. The Milwaukee Bucks are the unexpected winners of the Lillard sweepstakes following a devastating loss as the top seed in the opening round of the 2022–23 NBA Playoffs, amid groans of displeasure from franchise icon Giannis Antetokounmpo.
Like sleeping or falling in love, Wednesday’s three-team bombshell came together slowly—extremely slowly, with months of inactivity and mainly pointless rumors about the Heat—and then all at once. Lillard is now traveling to Milwaukee. Deandre Ayton and Toumani Camara will be traveling with Jrue Holiday from Milwaukee to Portland, where they will be joined by three unprotected future firsts (a 2029 pick, exchange rights in 2028 and 2030, and a pick). To complete the trade, Jusuf Nurkic, Grayson Allen, Nassir Little, and Keon Johnson are all traveling to Phoenix.
The Bucks will suddenly have one of the NBA’s top offensive players joining the league’s top defensive frontcourt, assuming Lillard plays for his new team after rumored threats to sit out if he were dealt somewhere other than Miami. When Giannis is deciding whether to sign a new, three-year extension, they will make sure to send him the strongest possible message that they are “going for a championship” and “on the same page” as he is. And they’ll undercut Miami and other East Coast rivals? Boston? Philadelphia? New York?—that intended to either add Damian Lillard this summer or poach a discontented Giannis soon after.
In essence, the Bucks went all-in to give up future flexibility in the draft and cap space, but by doing so, they may have found a solution to their biggest problems, both now and in the future.
It is impossible to overestimate Damian Lillard’s greatness as a lead ball handler, which is where the first explanation stems from. Damian Lillard led all players in the offensive portion of the EPM last year. He also placed first in RPM, second in BPM, and second in RAPTOR. Other than the fact that they are all sophisticated stats that assess total offensive impact, you don’t need to know what those acronyms stand for. And in every single one, Lillard finished either first or second behind Finals MVP Nikola Jokic.
Or, if you’re more interested in traditional metrics, Lillard averaged a career-high 32 points per game before being sidelined for, umm, “right calf tightness” while Portland, coincidentally, looked to improve its draft position. This was the most points ever scored by a player who transferred to another team the following season. He is a top-tier pick-and-roll creator who should instantly form a powerful thunder-and-lightning tandem with Giannis, a career 37 percent 3-point shooter on high, difficult volume, and one of the NBA’s best clutch players. Due to the Bucks’ greatest vulnerability, which was their propensity for fumbling late-game possessions in the postseason, “Dame Time” is both a moniker and a fix.
With this big-deal, the Bucks are engaging in an intriguing tactical reversal at point guard. Holiday is one of the NBA’s top defensive guards and was named to the All-Defensive team each of the three seasons he spent in Milwaukee. However, Holiday has inconsistent postseason shooting. Only renowned thrower Dillon Brooks was ahead of Holiday in the last three postseasons’ true shooting percentage rankings among the 43 players who attempted at least 300 shots.
Damian Lillard, on the other hand, is a master of offense but, at best, a disinterested defender. Cleaning the Glass reports that Portland has had a defensive rating of 27th or worse each of the previous four seasons. This isn’t necessarily his fault, but as a frail 6-foot-2 guard who spends much of his time on the offensive glass, Lillard did little to stop Portland’s defensive decline.
But given the startling first-round loss this spring, it’s not a major surprise to see Milwaukee change course so drastically. The Bucks may lessen their reliance on Khris Middleton by using Damian Lillard’s half-court playmaking and clutch scoring. Middleton’s health and performance are now in doubt due to a string of ailments. Milwaukee can wager that a frontcourt including Giannis and Brook Lopez will be effective. The trade-off of attack for defense has a significant present and future cost. Because they still owe New Orleans two swaps and two outright picks from the prior Holiday trade, the Bucks already did not control any of their remaining four first-round picks. Now that they are missing out on three more, For the following two years, they are unable to improve their squad with a future first, after which their 2032 (!) pick will be available for trade. In the backcourt, make up for any defensive backsliding.
Additionally, Damian Lillard’s contract complicates Milwaukee’s cap sheet at the same time as the new CBA’s more severe luxury tax penalties. Lillard is a diminutive 33-year-old guard who is owed an estimated $122 million on a two-year extension that doesn’t take effect until 2025–2026, which is one of the reasons the market for a player with his talent took so long to emerge. If the Bucks don’t quickly turn this momentum into another Finals appearance, Giannis might still decide to go, leaving them without any draft picks and on the hook for $63 million for a 36-year-old Lillard later on.
With regard to Nurkic, I’ll let my colleagues discuss the knock-on consequences of this box office sensation and do need for a 33-year-old player whose contract is up for renewal this season, the Trail Blazers will almost certainly trade Holiday to another team. If they do, their final compensation for Damian Lillard will consist of a few picks, Ayton, and the removal of Nurkic’s remaining three years and $54 million in salary.
This deal, however, finally materialized for Portland after months of inaction. Due to the lack of a more thorough analysis of Phoenix’s part of the bargain. To sum it up, though, I don’t believe Nurkic is the ideal “defensive anchor” Frank Vogel can “build his defense around.” This season, some Suns games are likely to end with scores in the 150s.)
Because the Blazers want to build around their young backcourt combination of Anfernee Simons, Shaedon Sharpe, and third-round pick Scoot Henderson, Portland has always made it clear that it doesn’t want to add a guard as the centerpiece of any Damian Lillard trade. Ayton is a 25-year-old former first-round pick with significant playoff success on his resume, so it makes sense that Portland would prefer his change-of-scenery upside to that of Miami’s Tyler Herro. However, Ayton has several flaws, including both his stagnating skill set and effort level.
With a new center and a ton of backcourt scorers already on the roster, the Blazers might be a deceptively enjoyable League Pass team to follow in 2023–24. Naturally, Damian Lillard’s new squad has a much higher position. Thanks to some unsustainable point differential luck, the Bucks earned the East’s top seed last season, but the NBA’s oldest roster’s demoralizing playoff defeat signaled they no longer truly belonged in the top tier of title contenders.
But to regain co-favorite status alongside heavyweights like the Celtics and Nuggets, who were the defending champions, the Bucks had to rely on a tried-and-true strategy. The Bucks traded a smorgasbord of future selections and swaps for Holiday in response to their most recent early playoff elimination in 2020; that risk paid off with the franchise’s first championship in 50 years. They won’t have to wait as long for the next one if Damian Lillard fits as well as it seems he will on paper.