Four Darkhorse Teams That Could Pull Off A Damian Lillard Trade

We’re in a very weird spot in the Damian Lillard trade sweepstakes. Lillard, by all accounts, only wants to play for the Miami Heat, which would love to bring him on board and have him partner with Bam Adebayo and Jimmy Butler. The problem that those two sides are facing, however, is that Miami can’t really put together a package that would interest the Portland Trail Blazers, as the centerpiece of a deal would presumably be Tyler Herro, whose skillset is repetitive alongside Scoot Henderson, Shaedon Sharpe, and Anfernee Simons.

It’s unclear how this resolves itself. Maybe the Blazers and Heat can work something out with a third team that would more value Herro’s services, maybe Portland decides to just do Lillard and solid and takes whatever Miami can offer. Or maybe, just maybe, Lillard becomes more amenable to playing his basketball somewhere else, and the other 28 teams in the NBA become more plausible landing spots for the All-Star guard.

We decided to examine that scenario here and attempt to answer a simple question: If a mystery team decides to enter the fray for Lillard, who would make the most sense? We decided to look at teams that haven’t necessarily been linked to Lillard, but feature the sorts of packages that could be appealing to Portland while simultaneously giving Lillard running mates next to whom he can compete at a high level. With the understanding that this is all hypothetical for now, there’s no guarantee Lillard backs off of his reported stance, and it’s possible he just ends up on the Heat no matter what, here are four potential landing spots.

San Antonio Spurs

This is the only team on this list that has any sort of link to a Lillard trade — in the aftermath of his request, Ramona Shelburne of ESPN tweeted that Lillard “has a deep respect for the San Antonio Spurs organization.” (She did, of course, note this after saying that Lillard’s preference is a trade to Miami.)

Now, having respect for an organization and wanting to work there are two entirely different things, but let’s imagine for a moment that Lillard would come around to the idea because this entire piece is predicated on Lillard eventually coming around to the idea of a trade somewhere else. San Antonio has not made the playoffs since 2019, which is tied for the second-longest drought in the league. For a franchise that was synonymous with success for so long, that’s a pretty remarkable drought, although it must be noted that the Spurs aren’t exactly the kind of team that tries to do quick fixes in order to say they made the playoffs, only to lose in the opening round.

Having said that, there’s shooting for a quick fix and building out a good basketball team, and Lillard could help San Antonio achieve that second thing pretty quickly. The team won the most important lottery since LeBron James came into the league, and now has a guy in Victor Wembanyama who can become the best player in the world. With Lillard under contract for at least the next three years, the bet the Spurs would theoretically make here is that their French rookie can reach that point while Lillard is at the end of his prime, and I don’t know about you, but I am terrified at the thought of the 7’3 two-way monster who earns the title of being the planet’s best basketball player on his rookie contract pairing up with Damian Lillard while he can still get the job done at a high level. There is a belief that Wembanyama can compete for an All-Star nod as a rookie, and if he did that alongside Lillard, he’d be the first All-Star teammate Dame has had since LaMarcus Aldridge in 2014-15.

Add in the fact that their skillsets would be spectacular fits alongside one another and this feels like a wonderful partnership if San Antonio wanted to pursue it. As for Portland, a deal with the Spurs could get a collection of players who are quite the snug fit alongside its trio of promising young guards, as a package revolving around Keldon Johnson, Devin Vassell, and Devonte’ Graham’s salary would work financially. If San Antonio wanted to keep one of Johnson/Vassell (along with Jeremy Sochan, who we’ll keep out because of his prior relationship with Wembanyama), guys like Khem Birch and Doug McDermott can provide the salaries to facilitate a deal, while youngsters who would be a bit repetitive in Portland like Malakai Branham or Blake Wesley can be sent back. The Spurs can also put together quite the package of picks, as they have 31 picks going forward, including 14 first-round selections. And if they really wanted, there’s a way to do this deal that also gets Jusuf Nurkic’s salary off of the Blazers’ books — something like Lillard and Nurkic for Johnson, Graham, Birch, Wesley, and former Blazer Zach Collins works, as would replacing Birch and Collins in that deal with McDermott.

The overarching thing here is there are a whole lot of ways that San Antonio can make this happen. While this isn’t a franchise that is known for going star hunting, Lillard would be an incredible running mate for Wembanyama and a perfect cultural fit, and it’s not hard to imagine a Spurs team built around those two competing for a ring sooner rather than later.

Utah Jazz

No team in the NBA can beat Utah if it decides to put together a pick-heavy package for any superstar. In the event that Portland prioritized getting draft capital back for Lillard, the Jazz are able to throw together a collection of firsts from themselves, Cleveland, and Minnesota that would be appealing for any team that has a superstar on the trade block. And perhaps most importantly for a star who wants to compete for a championship, Utah has so much in the war chest of picks that it can go out and get another running mate pretty easily.

Lillard, of course, went to college in Utah, as Weber State is about half an hour away from Salt Lake City. He would join a team that surprised last season before things went off the rails a bit, and the Jazz could put together a package of players that lets them keep most of the core that helped them get to that point. Collin Sexton’s contract presents some issues, but a package revolving around him, Kelly Olynyk’s expiring deal, second-year wing Ochai Agbaji, and one of the team’s 2023 first-round draft picks (once they are eligible to get moved) along with draft capital could blow away any deal that doesn’t land Portland a star.

Doing a deal like this would give Utah the sort of start it just hasn’t been able to attract in free agency, and would give it an All-Star under contract to pair with Lauri Markkanen, Walker Kessler, and the recently-acquired John Collins. That is a dangerous team, especially if the Jazz can limit how many younger guys are heading to Portland in return. Plus Utah CEO of basketball operations Danny Ainge would probably love nothing more than to swipe Lillard from Pat Riley and the Heat, which doesn’t matter that much but would surely be a fun subplot.

Ainge, in general, is in the business of pulling off big moves, and as of right now, there is no bigger move than acquiring Lillard. Doing that and having enough in the tank to make another big move that could legitimately vault Utah into championship contender territory sure seems appealing, and would satiate Lillard’s desire to be on a team that has a shot at winning a ring.

Orlando Magic

Orlando is a tricky trade partner for Portland for a few reasons. The main one here is that the Blazers would, understandably, do everything in their power to get Franz Wagner or Paolo Banchero back, and the Magic would, understandably, do everything in their power to keep them.

Let’s assume Orlando draws that line from the jump, which would make sense because a Lillard-Wagner-Banchero trio is the entire point of doing this and would be very, very good. There is the potential for an intriguing deal built around the contracts of Jonathan Isaac (who one can argue is an intriguing buy-low candidate if he can remain healthy) and Gary Harris, along with … well, here’s where it gets tricky. Would the Blazers, which already have a plethora of guards, want Jalen Suggs or Markelle Fultz? How interested would they be in recent first-round picks Anthony Black and Jett Howard, who cannot be moved until August 1 at the earliest? Would Wendell Carter Jr. be on the table, and if he is, would there be a way to make this work where he goes to Portland and Orlando takes Nurkic’s contract back? The Magic have 22 draft picks to play with, although only eight of them are firsts and one of them is a 2025 selection from the Denver Nuggets.

Among these three teams, they certainly have the hardest path to figuring out a trade, but it’s hard not to think of what pairing Lillard with Banchero and Wagner could end up doing in the Eastern Conference. Right away, this would be a team with a good shot at making noise in the playoffs, something the Magic have done two times in the last 11 years. They have not gotten past the first round since 2010. It stands to reason that they would have a hard time satiating Lillard’s desire to compete for a championship right away — something that might make this whole thing a non-starter — but if you’re willing to bet on Banchero and Wagner staying here in this deal and becoming All-Stars (I think they can, others might not), then there is a potential championship-caliber team here.

Toronto Raptors

No team in the NBA has a better understanding of how to handle this sort of situation than the Raptors. This is, of course, the team that took a chance on trading for Kawhi Leonard while knowing full well he had the chance to leave after one year. They took that chance, he ended up leaving, and in the meantime, Toronto was able to win the only championship in franchise history.

Masai Ujiri is a savvy operator who isn’t afraid to take risks, and while you can make the case the other three teams on this list would have a higher ceiling at some point in Lillard’s time with them, the Raptors would immediately have the highest floor and the best chance of competing for a ring next season. They also have O.G. Anunoby, a player who the Blazers have been linked to in the past, and although those links happened with the hopes of pairing him with Lillard, he’d be an excellent fit alongside Portland’s young guards and is the best player who we’ve brought up among these four teams.

If Toronto wanted to take a swing and attempt to recreate their Kawhi magic with Lillard, Pascal Siakam in the final year of his contract, and Scottie Barnes, the team could push all its chips in and send Anunoby, Chris Boucher, and Thaddeus Young’s expiring salary to the Blazers, along with a bunch of picks — they sent a 2024 first-round pick with top-6 protections to San Antonio in the Jakob Poeltl trade, but could otherwise send a collection of picks and pick swaps to Portland. Perhaps Gradey Dick, the team’s 2023 first-round selection, could be thrown into the deal, but it’d make sense to want to keep him and his ability to stretch the floor.

The question that looms over this, outside of Siakam’s future, is whether a team built around Lillard, Siakam, and Barnes can be a championship contender immediately, particularly when the Boston Celtics and Milwaukee Bucks both look like they’re going to healthy and ready to go once next season rolls around. A lot of it would depend on Barnes taking the next step towards being an All-Star caliber player, but absolutely no one in the Eastern Conference would enjoy playing against them.