In case you missed it, some huge news hit the basketball world on Wednesday, just 27 days before the start of the 2023-24 NBA season. A few months after requesting a trade with an eye towards joining the Miami Heat, and just a few days after a report that the Toronto Raptors had emerged as frontrunners, Oakland’s own Damian Lillard was traded from the Portland Trail Blazers to the Milwaukee Bucks, in a three-team trade that, among other things, sends Jrue Holiday and Deandre Ayton to the Blazers, and Jusuf Nurkić to the Phoenix Suns.
The blockbuster deal will impact the NBA in many ways, and it will certainly impact the Golden State Warriors. Here’s what it means for the Dubs.
Better NBA Finals competition ... probably
Even before the trade, the Bucks were set to open the season as many people’s pick to win the Eastern Conference. They won a championship in 2021 and had the best record in the East last year, flaming out in the playoffs due to injuries.
Now they’ve reloaded with Lillard. There’s no guarantee that the move makes Milwaukee better, though. While Lillard is certainly a better player than Holiday — he graded out as one of the five-best players in the NBA by virtually every metric last season — games aren’t won on paper. Holiday is one of the best defensive players in the NBA, while it would be a positive exaggeration to say that Lillard merely struggles on that end of the court. And who knows how the chemistry will work in Milwaukee: Holiday and Giannis Antetokounmpo had a strong rapport, while Lillard, with all respect to LaMarcus Aldridge, has never had to share a court with a player in the same stratosphere as Antetokounmpo.
There’s certainly the potential for the trade to backfire. But on paper, at least, the Bucks got better. With the James Harden situation happening in Philly, Jimmy Butler getting older in Miami, and whatever bizarreness is going on in Boston, Milwaukee will be odds-on favorites to win the East. Which could make the Dubs’ path to a fifth title in the last decade that much harder.
But on the other hand ...
Worse Western Conference competition ... probably
The Suns long saga with Ayton has come to a close. I thought trading Chris Paul and firing Monty Williams might signal that Phoenix was resetting with Ayton, but apparently not.
Ayton is a flawed player, without a doubt. Most would probably make the case that Nurkić is better, which would give Phoenix a better team on paper. But Ayton is 25 and improving, and Nurkić has missed 157 games over the last four years.
The Suns project as one of the top teams battling with the Warriors in the West with their high-scoring triumvirate of Kevin Durant, Devin Booker, and Bradley Beal. And it’s worth noting that they also got Grayson Allen in the deal, to add guard depth to a guard-heavy team.
But to my eye, one of the best teams in the West just got worse, which is why my colleague Ricky O’Donnell gave the Suns a “D” grade for this trade. The Warriors are hoping that grade looks correct at the end of the year.
The Jrue factor
By trading Lillard, the Blazers are firmly hitting the rebuild button. Needless to say, 33 year old Holiday isn’t part of the rebuild. Portland could keep Holiday around to mentor 2023 third-overall pick Scoot Henderson, as well as exciting and talented young guards Shaedon Sharpe and Anfernee Simons. But it seems more likely that they’ll look for a trade partner, which could alter the landscape even further.
Some have floated the idea of the Dubs swapping Paul for Holiday, but that seems pretty far-fetched. Not only have the Warriors been raving about Paul’s initial days with the team, but they’d have to include an exciting young player to make that trade work. And part of the reason for swapping Jordan Poole’s four-year deal for Paul’s is that they can free up cap space next summer, which wouldn’t be the case with Holiday.
Instead, Holiday will likely head elsewhere, which is great for the league. Lillard goes from a lottery team to a contender, and Holiday, with a brief stop in Portland, will likely go from a contender to another contender. More stars on competing teams is good for everyone.
Except the teams that don’t get those players, such as the Warriors. Whether it’s a division rival like the Los Angeles Lakers or a potential Finals foe like the Heat, some good team will likely get a two-way star and excellent leader in Holiday, and it will make Golden State’s path to a championship that much more difficult.
Easier All-Star selections
I wrote about this the other day, but Lillard leaving the West makes it easier for the Warriors to have a second All-Star next to Steph Curry. When healthy, Lillard is a lock for the All-Star Game. Getting him out of the West makes it that much easier for Paul to earn his 13th All-Star nod, or Klay Thompson his sixth.
The guard spots are much more open this year in the West. Not only is Lillard gone, but Ja Morant’s suspension likely takes him out of the running, too. Even if Holiday stays out West, he’s far from a lock to make the team, having been named an All-Star just twice in his excellent but underrated career.
Lillard was taken sixth overall in the 2012 draft, meaning he’d been a member of the Blazers about two hours longer than Draymond Green has been with the Warriors.
With a different team now writing Lillard’s checks, the Dubs now have the three longest-tenured single-team players in the league, with Green getting ready to start his 12th year with the Warriors, Thompson his 13th, and Curry his 15th.
What a cool stat, and surely something that the Hall of Fame trio takes great pride in.
The Giannis effect
Antetokounmpo has long been linked to the Warriors, as many have speculated that he’ll eventually seek out a larger market and more proven franchise, and have pointed to his admiration for Curry as reason why Golden State could be a good fit.
Milwaukee has been keenly aware of the risk of losing arguably the best basketball player alive, and it was part of what prompted them to give Holiday a four-year, $135 million contract that many thought was an overpay.
Antetokounmpo has given no signs that he wants to leave Milwaukee, though he has stressed that his happiness is dependent on the Bucks being perennial winners. The addition of Lillard not only helps them on the court (likely), but signals their seriousness to Antetokounmpo. Giannis in the Bay was always something of a pipe dream, but even more so now.
How do you grade the Bucks trade for Damian Lillard?
This poll is closed