The subtle social media moment was in response to Nate Jones asking what it might take to pry Vanderbilt out of Utah. Vanderbilt had earlier that evening hit an uncharacteristic 4 of 4 from three against the Blazers.
(We managed to get a screenshot before it was taken down)
Lillard’s quote tweet response was the two eyes emoji. And while it wasn’t a particularly obvious statement, it is relatively telling given an interview the six-time All Star gave earlier this year.
Back in September, Lillard was asked which players he’d like to add to the current Blazers’ roster by Arizona Cardinals play-by-play announcer Dave Pasch. Lillard replied with the 23-year-old Vanderbilt and Toronto Raptors and Phoenix Suns wings OG Anunoby and Mikal Bridges.
As you can see, it’s pretty obvious, Portland’s six-time All Star is a fan of Vanderbilt. But how would he improve the Blazers’ roster and what would it cost?
Taken by the Orlando Magic with the 41st pick in the 2018 draft — 17 spots after Anfernee Simons — Vanderbilt was instantly traded to the Denver Nuggets where he spent his first two seasons. He was traded to the Minnesota Timberwolves in a four-team deal at the 2020 trade deadline.
In July this year, the rangy forward was again dealt in the gargantuan package to the Jazz in return for Rudy Gobert. As soon as the deal was done, questions were asked as to whether Utah’s Danny Ainge would keep Vanderbilt or move him again for more assets.
Those questions were temporarily answered when he lined up for the Jazz on opening night and in 25 games this season has put up 8.6 points, 8.3 boards, 2.8 assists and 1.2 steals, playing close to elite defense.
Vanderbilt also has another year on his deal, meaning he won’t hit free agency until the summer of 2024. His 2022-23 salary hits $4.3 million and his 2023-24 money rises to about $4.6 million.
What he brings
The current incarnation of the Blazers is not complete. They need another big, potentially two, if Jusuf Nurkic isn’t in the franchise’s long-term plans. Portland also badly requires a big wing, able to do a variety of things on both sides of the court.
Josh Hart, Justise Winslow and Nassir Little have been really good on this roster, but all three stand 6’6 or shorter. Vanderbilt could very well be that big wing, assuming he improves his shooting splits, playing either behind or next to Jerami Grant.
The lion share of Vanderbilt’s work is done at power forward, but I'd have no hesitation playing him at center for stretches. Obviously, at 6’9, he doesn’t solve the Blazers size issues behind Jusuf Nurkic, but with a 7’1 wingspan he does offer defensive versatility.
His lack of shooting makes him a liability in offense at the three but he can absolutely guard small forwards.
His rebounding verges on elite, he can pass the ball, hustle, push the pace and finish with conviction at the rim, thanks to his above-average athleticism. He also possesses a key ability this current Blazers squad needs more of ie. being able to put the ball on the floor and facilitate from the larger positions.
Honestly, if he’s able to improve his three-point shooting — he has put up 46 percent on 26 attempts this season — there won’t be much he can’t do on a basketball court. But even if he doesn’t, I’m not too concerned, as long as he’s surrounded by shooters.
The former Kentucky standout holds career averages of 5.8 points on 32 percent three point shooting, 6.4 rebounds, 1.3 assists and 1 steal in 19.7 minutes.
What are the Jazz doing?
Danny Ainge has decisively kick-started a re-tool, which could quickly become a re-build, in one offseason, trading three starters in Donovan Mitchell, Rudy Gobert and Royce O’Neale. In return he’s brought back a ridiculous haul of picks and a laundry list of young and talented players.
Before the start of the season, it appeared Utah was keen to bottom out and play the Victor Wembanyama game. And they still might, despite their strong start.
But regardless of which way up the standings the Jazz might finish, Vanderbilt is capable and young enough to be part of either a bottom out or a race to the top. Unfortunately, this might make it extra difficult to pry him away from Salt Lake City. We’ll just have to wait and see what Ainge has cooking.
What does it cost the Blazers?
So let’s try and answer Nate Jones’ question. Based on what we’ve seen over the past couple of decades, Danny Ainge can’t be the easiest person to negotiate with. And for the purposes of this piece, we can only assume the Jazz are actually willing to relinquish Vanderbilt.
The Blazers are going to have to give up a first round pick, especially considering Vanderbilt’s age. Meaning, General Manager Joe Cronin is going to have to pick up the phone and have a chat with the Chicago Bulls to remove the protections on the Blazers pick currently owed to the Illinois franchise.
If both Cronin and the Bulls can agree to terms, the Blazers should be able to offer its 2025 first rounder in a Vanderbilt deal. As far as players go, we’re not sure what the Jazz want. An easy one-for-one would be Justise Winslow’s expiring contract, which is currently a mere $300,000 less than Vanderbilt’s.
If Ainge asks for young players, the Blazers have a couple of options. Keon Johnson seems a prime candidate, combining him with Drew Eubanks, who’s trade eligible on December 15, the money is off by about $150,000. In place of Eubanks, either Trendon Watford or Greg Brown III can also get it done alongside Johnson.
It’s really interesting watching Lillard using social media to express views and interest in players. It’s obviously pretty clear he’d love to play with Vanderbilt. I mean, why would anyone not want to play with a versatile, multi-talented, 6’9 athlete?
I have no knowledge of the internal workings within the Blazers organization but I get the sense that Cronin is more receptive to ideas and suggestions from Lillard, well more so than the previous front office head. See another 6’9 athlete who made his way to the Blazers last summer at Lillard’s urging.
If Vanderbilt was the plan, I’d feel better about getting a trade done if Cronin didn’t have to deal with Oregon’s own master negotiator Danny Ainge. But there are also other pieces that need to move if Vanderbilt even becomes an option in Portland. Namely, you have to get the Bulls to change the terms surrounding an owed future first round pick. You also need to have young and talented pieces that Ainge would actually be interested in.
I will say, any one of Vanderbilt, Anunoby and Bridges would seriously address this team’s need for a bigger wing. Of the three, Vanderbilt, may even be the easiest to attain, even if you are dealing with Ainge.
Ultimately, if Damian Lillard is going to be in Portland for the next four years, you might as well make him happy and get him the players he actually wants to be surrounded by on the court.