For months, the NBA world has been waiting for Damian Lillard to be traded, with the expectation being that the star would eventually end up in his preferred destination of Miami.
Instead, Lillard was traded to the Milwaukee Bucks on Wednesday in a stunning three-team blockbuster that sees Dame pair up with Giannis Antetokounmpo on the NBA’s new title favorite. In return, the Blazers bring in Jrue Holiday (who is expected to be rerouted via trade to a different team), Deandre Ayton from the Suns, an unprotected 2029 first round pick from Milwaukee, and unprotected pick swaps from the Bucks in 2028 and 2030.
As soon as the deal was made, there was one resounding question: Did the Blazers do better in this trade than they could’ve in a deal with the Heat?
What was most recently reported out of Miami, via Barry Jackson of the Miami Herald, was that Miami had been pretty firm on the offer being Tyler Herro, two first round picks, and salary filler in the form of Duncan Robinson or Kyle Lowry. Nikola Jovic and Jaime Jaquez could’ve entered the conversation, but pretty much that was what Miami could do and was willing to do, with guys like Caleb Martin never really being entertained. If that is what was in fact on the table, I do think the Bucks’ offer was better and my guess is they selected Milwaukee’s offer for a few reasons.
It starts with Herro, who was never going to factor into the Blazers long-term plans because they already have a glut of guards. I have to assume that if the Heat had a young forward or big man of the same talent level as Herro, this deal would’ve been done months ago. Instead, they were offering a centerpiece that was redundant on Portland’s roster, and moving him to a third team was likely going to be a bit difficult and not yield a huge secondary outcome.
Now, Holiday is likewise redundant in Portland but carries far more value to far more teams than Herro does. You’d be hard-pressed to find a contender (including, somewhat funny enough, the Miami Heat) that wouldn’t view adding Holiday as an upgrade. He’s a player they could seamlessly fit into their roster because he is an elite perimeter defender and a very solid on- or off-ball guard on offense who can fit next to most any backcourt player. Herro is maybe the better long-term prospect, but there aren’t a lot of teams clamoring to move assets for a score-first two guard at this very moment, meaning moving him requires you to narrow your focus considerably.
Beyond that, it’s clear the Blazers value Ayton pretty highly, and the Bucks deal allowed them to flip Jusuf Nurkic for Ayton because it allowed Portland to reroute Grayson Allen to Phoenix, who figures to bring helpful wing depth for the Suns. If the Suns valued Allen more than Robinson or Lowry and that was the way to get Ayton, that only adds to the Blazers reasoning to take Milwaukee’s offer over Miami’s. I admit to being among those who still believe in Ayton’s upside, while fully understanding why many folks are out on him particularly on his current contract. But given the roster Portland has, Ayton seems like a pretty good fit and gives them a center more closely aligned with their new timeline who should be better suited than Nurkic to play the tempo they want.
There was never a world in which the Blazers were going to trade Damian Lillard and get better as a team, or even get assets in return that were close to what should be the market value of a guy who averaged 32.2 points per game on insane efficiency a year ago. That is almost never out there for a star player, barring a very unique circumstance like when Oklahoma City got the haul it did for Paul George because it was the only way for the Clippers to get Kawhi Leonard as well. As such, the choice was what could they do to best maximize their return. Ayton is a guy they valued (reasonable people can disagree with that), while Holiday is the player they figured would be easiest to reroute to another team and fetch other stuff.
When Joe Cronin meets with the media to discuss this trade, he absolutely has the cover to talk about getting the best possible deal and believe he did so. I also won’t discount the role spite probably played in this to find a trade that sends Lillard somewhere other than the Heat, particularly because it is one that Lillard cannot be publicly upset with. Toronto or Chicago, two teams linked with him in recent days, would not have provided the same opportunity for Lillard, and would’ve absolutely looked like a move to spite the Heat.
But Dame’s stated goal is to win a title, and he’s now on a team that becomes the betting favorites with him. He wanted to play with complementary stars in Jimmy Butler and Bam Adebayo, and he now has a similarly snug fit with Giannis, Khris Middleton, and Brook Lopez. There isn’t a basketball reason for Lillard to be upset about this, which made it even easier for Cronin and the Blazers to make this move happen and be able to honestly say they wanted to give Lillard a chance to compete for a title, while assuredly being delighted that they found a way to send him somewhere other than Miami.