Where there’s smoke, there’s fire.
After quieting a bit in recent weeks, the trade rumors surrounding Damian Lillard gained significant speed over the last 24 hours. Let’s start with the first rumor, which dropped on Friday morning:
Source: Blazers star Damian Lillard to request trade in the days to come.— Henry Abbott (@TrueHoop) July 16, 2021
If this is a surprise, you haven't been paying attention. https://t.co/FS7KL1pPPm
Many people will only believe big stories when the likes of Adrian Wojnarowski, Shams Charania, or Chris Haynes break the news. That’s their own prerogative, but I certainly do not subscribe to that train of thought. That’s a story for a different column, though (and one that I’ve written previously, too). If you’re doubting the credibility of Henry Abbott, perhaps rethink that. Abbott founded ESPN’s TrueHoop blog network before transitioning to ESPN.com’s NBA deputy editor back in 2014. There’s no reason to believe he’s any less credible than any of the reporters the NBA community looks to for breaking news. But, I digress.
About an hour later, this gentleman stoked the fire:
Damian Lillard has officially requested a trade from the Portland Trailblazers.— Barry Bondz (@BarryBondz) July 16, 2021
Knicks, Lakers, Heat, and Warriors are the four teams Lillard’s interested in.
Now full disclosure, I have no idea who Barry Bondz is. By the looks of his Twitter profile, he’s not an NBA reporter. But, he is a Recording Artist. His Wikipedia page labels him as a rapper. We know Lillard doubles as a rapper when he’s not dropping a double-nickel in NBA playoff games. So, maybe Lillard knows the guy? Maybe Lillard’s people are connected to his people? Who knows.
Fear not though, Sixers fans. Quinton Mayo was able to confirm at least one of the teams Bondz identified in his tweet. He also added another:
Damian Lillard would like to be traded to the Philadelphia 76ers or New York Knicks, sources tell me.— Quinton Mayo (@RealQuintonMayo) July 16, 2021
Mayo, formerly of NBC Sports Washington, is a Washington Wizards insider, podcaster for Blue Wire, and the host of Bet MGM Tonight. So, his credentials are impressive. Mayo clearly comes from a journalistic background, so I would think he understands the power and responsibility he has with his craft.
I have no reason to doubt these people, but I also have no reason to trust them. But, for the sake of dissecting possible trade outcomes, I’ll assume what they’re saying is true.
Having laid out the latest rumors, let’s take a look at why the Sixers could be on Lillard’s wish list.
A Common Theme
Even if you don’t buy what Mr. Bondz is selling, there is a particularly interesting and sensible commonality amongst the teams he listed. That theme also makes the Sixers an attractive destination. The Blazers averaged exactly 1 point per possession when the play ran through the ball-handler in the pick-and-roll this season. That ranked in the 100th percentile in the NBA this season. That was also with Jusuf Nurkic playing only 37 games. The Blazers also averaged 1.06 points per possession on isolation this season, which also ranked in the 100th percentile in the league.
The Lakers, Heat, Warriors, and Knicks are all inextricably linked by one characterization–they all have a versatile power forward or center that can play in the pick-and-roll. Now, maybe Anthony Davis, Bam Adebayo, Draymond Green, and Julius Randle rank a bit differently as screeners. But, Davis is one of the game’s best three-level-scoring bigs. Adebayo is a great screener, versatile playmaker, and superb athlete. Green is perhaps the best power forward or small-ball big in the league when it comes to flowing an offense into a dribble hand-off or pick-and-roll; he’s certainly revered as a screener, as well. Many of the iconic shots you’ve seen Steph Curry and Klay Thompson hit have derived the requisite spacing from Green’s screens. Randle proved himself to be one of the most dynamic power forwards in the league this past season.
The Argument Against Embiid
While Joel Embiid is not a great pick-and-roll screener, you can make the case that he hasn’t experienced a pick-and-roll-heavy offense enough to need to be great at it. Forcing him to pivot and shift his weight on a play-to-play basis probably isn’t appetizing, given his injury history and his fluctuating (but improving) physical conditioning. But, he has the physical profile of someone who could turn into a very good screener if he has a partner who can dissect opponents in the pick-and-roll action over and over again. One thing is certain–he is absolutely the most dominant big of the ones listed above.
Portland’s Offense Isn’t The Problem
If Lillard’s reasons for wanting out are purely rooted in basketball, the common denominator amongst the teams listed favors the Sixers as being a desirable destination for the star guard. The twist is that there’s reason to believe Portland’s offense isn’t the foundation of Lillard’s frustrations. His lasting memory of this past season may very well be carrying the Blazers to multiple overtimes by himself because no one else was helping, only to drop 55 points in a losing effort against the undermanned Nuggets. But, the Blazers scored 117.3 points per 100 possessions this season–second-best in the league.
Defense Is At The Heart Of The Problem
A more understandable source of doubt in his current franchise lies on the defensive side of the ball. The Blazers score all they want, but they also let opponents do the same (allowed 115.3 points per 100 possessions this season–second-worst in the NBA). It seems more likely that his frustration is that his efforts go unrewarded because his team doesn’t get the stops needed to make it all matter. If defense is his concern, the Sixers–anchored by Joel Embiid’s rim protection–allowed 107 points per 100 possessions this season. That was second-best in the league. The Lakers, I must add, were the best defensive team in the league. But, they burned virtually all of their assets to acquire Anthony Davis.
Philadelphia’s advantage is that it doesn’t matter through which side of the ball you view the situation. If Lillard is looking for a situation where the pick-and-roll and supporting cast make for an upgrade over Portland’s already-scorching offense, the Sixers are as attractive an option as any team in the league. If he thinks he needs to be on a better defensive team, the Sixers are more attractive than any other team in the league. Yes, the runner-up for Defensive Player of the Year would be shipped out in such a deal. But, history shows that an excellent rim protector can power a fabulous defense, regardless of the quality of the perimeter defense.
How Much Does Market Matter To Lillard?
Now, maybe Lillard’s interest is solely market-based. The majesties of Los Angeles, New York, Miami, and San Francisco are undeniable. But, he has happily played in the 21st-ranked sports market in the country for the last nine seasons. According to those Nielson ratings, by the way, Philadelphia is the fourth biggest market in the country. Of course, Nielson grades based on television market size. It’s not ranking climate, metropolitan amenities, and other attractive components of sports markets. But, Lillard has proven to be more concerned about loyalty than market. Still, one could very easily argue that Lillard might like to go to a big market after spending nearly a decade in a small one. But, that’s something that only Lillard and his circle know with total definition.
What Does Each Team Bring To The Table?
I assessed the negotiation of a deal surrounding Ben Simmons a few weeks ago when Chris Haynes reported that Lillard could want out. So, I won’t write something you’ve already read. What I will say is that Lillard likely has enough equity in that organization and community to steer where he’s traded. If the listed teams are where he wants to go, the Sixers don’t have to worry about competing with a deal centered around Brandon Ingram, Pascal Siakam, Jaylen Brown, or any other random star out there.
This essentially comes down to whether Neil Olshey is more interested in trying something else with a different star to avoid a total teardown, or selling off everything to get picks. If the decision is to retool, the Heat is the only team on that list that can offer a young star better than Ben Simmons is. But, if Pat Riley and Erik Spoelstra don’t view Bam Adebayo as available, you can stop negotiations right there. The Sixers win.
The Lakers’ Picks
If the decision is to rebuild, the picks obviously matter most. The Lakers have first rounders tied up with the Pelicans through 2025. So, if Chauncey Billups and the rest of Portland’s organization are willing to wait four years and bet on the Lakers not having a prolonged run, that could be attractive. But given the allure of Los Angeles, that’s a scary bet to make. So, who is the young Laker with enough tangible promise to entice the Blazers? (Somewhat of a rhetorical question–I don’t think that player exists.)
The Knicks’ Picks
The Knicks have some inspiring pieces, but nothing established enough to entice the Blazers without including picks. New York possesses its own first round picks through 2028. So, if the Blazers could bet on the Knicks flaming out in a few years and then capitalize on another New York rebuild.
The Heat’s Picks
The Heat’s first round picks are tangled up in various previous transactions through 2023. So, the Blazers might be excited about betting on a Miami rebuild starting in 2024. It’s worth noting that the Heat haven’t had to undergo a rebuild in over a decade, though.
The Warriors’ Picks
The Warriors own Minnesota’s 2021 first round pick in addition to their own, and then control all of their own first rounders–except for 2024–through 2028. So, that might entice the Blazers. Except, it’s hard to argue that Andrew Wiggins and a plethora of first round picks is appetizing.
The Sixers’ Picks
The Sixers can offer Ben Simmons, who turns 25 on Tuesday, July 20th, in addition to any first rounder the Blazers want–except 2025–through 2028. But the Sixers’ supporting cast of young players is something that separates their peripheral assets from the rest of the bunch. Those assets offer versatility with which Philadelphia can negotiate. If the Blazers want only a young star and picks, Philly certainly has the second-best package of the bunch. But, if they trade Adebayo, it compromises my conjecture about the big man commonality. So, maybe Lillard loses interest in Miami.
If the Blazers want young talent and picks, the Heat (Tyler Herro and Precious Achiuwa) and Knicks (RJ Barrett) enter the conversation. But, there is an argument to be had about whether some combination of Tyrese Maxey, Matisse Thybulle, Shake Milton, and Paul Reed–in addition to picks–is not more attractive than those offerings.
If the Blazers are looking for a star, young assets, and picks, the Sixers have the only suitable offer. While the Sixers’ stocking full of first rounders doesn’t differ from those of their competitors, theirs becomes more attractive when you consider the fact that they likely have the highest probability of undergoing a total rebuild in the next five years. In other words, if the Blazers are betting on a rebuild in the next decade, the Sixers might be the safest partner with which they can transact.
You might notice that I didn’t include second round picks. That’s because I do not believe that any team would allow such a discrepancy to prevent them from landing Lillard. They should include as many second rounders as needed, if it comes down to that.
What I Would Offer
If I were involved in the negotiations, my final offer would be Simmons, Maxey, Reed, three first round picks, and 2 pick swaps for Lillard.
If you look at it from an economic standpoint, the Blazers probably recall the Jrue Holiday package and how that trade has propelled Milwaukee and demand a seemingly ludicrous treasure chest of first round picks. But, this is Damian Lillard we’re talking about. Daryl Morey fishes for stars in perpetuity. If the rumors are true and the Sixers are on Lillard’s list, there’s certainly an argument to be made that Morey’s bait is the best on the market.