Giannis Antetokounmpo made headlines at the end of August when he said he wouldn’t sign an extension with the Milwaukee Bucks unless he felt assured that everyone in the organization was committed to competing for championships. Four weeks later, the Bucks have pulled off the biggest trade of the offseason, acquiring Damian Lillard from the Portland Trail Blazers for Jrue Holiday, Grayson Allen, an unprotected future first round pick, and two unprotected pick swaps.
It is a definitive statement from GM Jon Horst and the Bucks ownership that they are committed to keeping the championship window open around Antetokounmpo as long as possible, giving Antetokounmpo the best player he’s ever called a teammate. (That, of course, can also be said for Lillard, who has never played with anyone as good as the two-time NBA MVP.) In the immediate aftermath of the trade, the Bucks jumped up to the top of the odds sheet to win the NBA title, and there’s good reason for the excitement around what Lillard can bring to Milwaukee.
What the Bucks lose in trading Holiday absolutely should be acknowledged. The Bucks were an elite defensive team in no small part to Holiday’s point of attack prowess and his strength and versatility as a perimeter defender. In the regular season, Holiday was a terrific offensive player as well, averaging 18.5 points and 6.8 assists per game on strong efficiency in his three seasons with the Bucks, providing a steady hand to run the offense and get Giannis and Khris Middleton the ball in their spots. How they navigate the drop-off on the defensive end from Holiday to Lillard will be something to watch, but they do have two of the best rim protectors in the NBA in Giannis and Brook Lopez to help mitigate the loss in point of attack defense.
What they gain in this trade is immense, as they get an All-NBA caliber point guard who is coming off of one of the best seasons of his career. Lillard’s performance in 2022-23 was a bit overlooked because of the Blazers struggles and how he was eventually shut down for another tank effort to end the year, but he averaged 32.2 points and 7.3 assists on 46.3/37.1/91.4 shooting splits in the 58 games he appeared in. His ability to control the game and to take over on offense is something the Bucks have never had from a perimeter player during Giannis’ tenure, and for a team that has had its share of playoff flameouts specifically because they did not have someone who could simply create a bucket at any given time, that is gigantic.
Holiday had a particularly stark drop-off in his shooting efficiency from the regular season to the playoffs in his three years with the Bucks, and for all of the positives he provided on the defensive end, they were lessened by his shooting woes on offense and how that only further condensed the floor on Giannis. The Bucks offense had a tendency to grind to a halt in the postseason, struggling to create quality looks, particularly when they faced a team capable of building a wall against Giannis like we saw in the first round against the Heat last year.
With Lillard’s ability to stretch defenses well beyond the three-point line, Giannis is going to see space he’s never encountered on the court. It figures to be a terrifying proposition for opposing defenses deciding whether to stay attached to Dame all the way out to the range he’s capable of knocking down shots from, or to try and sink back and show as many bodies as possible at Giannis, which has long been the coverage plan against him. Aiding in the transition will be Lillard’s former head coach Terry Stotts, who joined new Bucks coach Adrian Griffin’s staff as an assistant this summer, and will know exactly how to deploy Dame in the best ways as they look to craft a new offensive approach around their two dynamic stars.
Many of the same things that were so tantalizing about the Lillard/Jimmy Butler/Bam Adebayo trio in Miami remain true in Milwaukee, as the Bucks have the kind of wing and frontcourt defenders that should make Lillard’s life easier on that end. There’s less concern about Lillard being a below-average defender when Brook Lopez and Giannis protect the back line. If Middleton is healthier than he was last year, he’s a solid wing defender as well. The Bucks could opt to try and hide Lillard on defense, but even when that’s not possible, he’ll have the kind of support he needs to mitigate the problems that come when he gets attacked over and over.
Lopez’s abilities as a drop defender, in particular, should help Lillard tremendously in pick-and-roll coverage, as Lopez has the unique ability to slow down both the ball-handler and a rolling big man all at once while his guard recovers. For Lillard, who isn’t a great screen navigator, that should help him considerably, and playing with Lopez will provide more cover than he got from Jusuf Nurkic. There do figure to be some adjustments Milwaukee will need to make defensively, as they’ll need to be more proactive in providing that support and help on the perimeter with Lillard out there than they had to with Holiday. That will shift responsibilities some and it’ll be incumbent on Griffin to craft the best coverage scheme to provide that assistance for Lillard while also not giving up the principles that have made Milwaukee so dominant on that end for years.
Still, this is undoubtedly an upgrade, and while there will be a learning curve on both ends of the floor in terms of maximizing this partnership, the ceiling of this team is absolutely a championship squad. Lillard and Giannis can make a very good case for being the best duo in the NBA, particularly when factoring how they complement each other, and watching them work should be as much fun for Bucks fans and impartial NBA observers as it is a nightmare for opponents tasked with slowing them down.
Giannis’ message was heard loud and clear by the Bucks organization, and they answered emphatically with the acquisition of Lillard. A championship is the expectation, and Dame and Giannis have been given everything they could’ve possibly wanted in terms of an on-court co-star. Now it’s on those two superstars to make the most of their pairing and deliver on the potential.