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Searching for an Equitable Damian Lillard Trade

Portland’s point guard admires Miami and Brooklyn. Is either one realistic?

NBA: Portland Trail Blazers at Philadelphia 76ers Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports

Damian Lillard created quite the stir last week when he mentioned the Miami Heat and Brooklyn Nets as possible trade destinations should he and the Portland Trail Blazers ever part ways. The declaration evoked responses from teammates past and present. It also created quite a stir in the Blazer’s Edge Mailbag.

The most common question was whether this means a Lillard trade is more likely. The simple answer to that is, “No.” Lillard said in that same interview that he expects to remain in Portland for the start of the season...his familiar line. Responding to a media question didn’t change his outlook. But a potential trade is never as far away as Trail Blazers (or Lillard) devotees would like it to be. The declaration comes with an asterisk. Portland still needs to do something, else a, “Yes,” is right around the corner.

After that, the next most common queries had to do with the Heat and Nets themselves. Here’s an example:

Dave,

What kind of trades are possible if Dame wants to go to Miami or the Nets? Are any realistic trades there? I don’t see any except ones that would trade stars for stars like for [Jimmy] Butler or Bam [Adebayo] or Mikal Bridges. That wouldn’t make sense, right? How would this even get done?

Gary

My official line on this, oft-stated on our weekly podcast, is that a Lillard trade will be difficult right now because of talent and the size of his contract. But deals are always available in the NBA for players of Lillard’s caliber. As we saw with Kevin Durant last season, it may take a few months, but if a superstar becomes available, somebody is going to find a way to trade for him.

The Heat and Nets are not the only possibilities for Lillard. Nor do trades have to fit within the confines of two teams. Three-and four-team swaps happen regularly in the NBA. Juggling around salary cap obligations and draft picks creates a raft of options. But for simplicity’s sake, let’s confine ourselves to the rosters of each team as currently constructed and keep the trades direct between Portland and these two franchises.

Miami has more incentive to take Lillard than Brooklyn. They made the NBA Finals. They lack shooting and don’t have a long-term, full-time point guard. They’d forecast Dame putting them over the top.

As you’ve identified, the Heat couldn’t trade Jimmy Butler or Bam Adebayo for Lillard without making the move lateral or worse. Their package, for salary’s sake, would center around guard Kyle Lowry and a shooting guard. Tyler Herro or Victor Oladipo are strong possibilities.

Here’s the problem. At 37, Lowry doesn’t fit with Portland’s timeline. The Blazers would likely waive Lowry, allowing him to join a contender. Plus, with Shaedon Sharpe and Anfernee Simons still on the team, the Blazers need a shooting guard like a cow needs a subscription to Milk of the Month Club.

If the Blazers and Heat were to talk seriously about a Lillard exchange, Miami would have to go into full Phoenix mode, offering multiple future picks and swaps, unprotected. If Portland could get two picks and the right to swap on a third, far enough out past this generation that they could expect the Heat to ascend the draft standings, they’d have to at least listen. They’d still have a trio of (perhaps) Herro, Simons, or Sharpe, implying another trade to gain a young player at another position or more future picks. Their work would be cut out for them, but they’d at least have building blocks to start with.

The problem with this deal is that the payoff comes far in the future. It could be a good one, but General Managers who stock far-off assets also understand that they might be accumulating them for another executive to use. The tortuous “in-between” years get GM’s fired before they get to use their shiny picks. That, and the accompanying PR issue of trading Dame, might cause the Blazers to shy away.

The Nets are in far better position to entice Portland, but they might not value Lillard as highly. (Full disclosure: My discussions with colleagues in Brooklyn have led to muted hopes.) Mikal Bridges is off limits, of course. Pairing him and Dame would be the reason for Brooklyn making the deal.

The needle-moving player from Portland’s perspective is center Nic Claxton. He’s young and an apt defender, carrying the potential to grow into perpetual All-League status. He’d help the Blazers restart the next generation in fine fashion.

Portland has an advantage here in that Brooklyn is stuck, at least for now. They have multiple future assets (courtesy of that Durant trade) but they’re not going anywhere right away. Lillard could change that for them, making their future picks building blocks instead of franchise saviors. Nor would the Blazers require a massive number of picks coming back, should Claxton be in the offing. The center and one future asset should be enough to form the basic foundation of the deal, with contracts providing the balance.

Portland’s offer out would be Lillard and center Jusuf Nurkic, to replace Claxton in Brooklyn’s lineup.

I’d like to ask for Phoenix’s unprotected 2027 or 2029 pick in return as part of the deal. Even one of those selections would be a good get for Portland while still leaving Brooklyn plenty of picks in the tank, Failing that, the right to swap picks in either year might also work. Ideally you’d structure it so the Blazers could trade places in 2007 and, if they opted not to, the right would convey to 2009.

The salary cap balance would require more players coming back to Portland. The obvious choices are either Ben Simmons OR Spencer Dinwiddie and Joe Harris. We could get into more permutations deeper in Brooklyn’s roster, but Simmons or Dinwiddie/Harris are the easiest contracts to make work.

The Nets’ valuation of Simmons factors in heavily here. They’d only move him if they considered him a salary brick. Portland would be absorbing that salary, but the contract runs just two years. In the meantime, their lineup would look like this, depending on who the got with the third pick of this year’s draft:

PG Scoot Henderson

SG Anfernee Simons/Shaedon Sharpe

SF Ben Simmons

PF Jerami Grant

C Nic Claxton

Or...

PG Ben Simmons

SG Anfernee Simons/Shaedon Sharpe

SF Brandon Miller

PF Jerami Grant

C Nic Claxton

The defense in those lineups is pristine compared to Portland’s current roster. They’re not perfect—distance shooting may be an issue—but for a rebuild, that’s a good start. The first group, in particular, is young and hyper-athletic. It should cause Portland to look twice.

The Dinwiddie/Harris duo doesn’t offer quite as much defensive and positional versatility, but both contracts expire after the coming season, freeing Portland from tax-ceiling hell and opening up future possibilities of clearing actual cap space.

If I had to choose, I’d find the Nets scenario more palatable. It all depends on how much Brooklyn values Claxton versus Lillard. If they were open to parting with him, I’d think about it for sure...presuming, of course, that a Lillard trade was in the offing anyway.

Neither the Miami nor the Brooklyn possibility is strong, but depending on how the wind blows, I’d say both were open. Lillard isn’t dreaming when he considers a trade to either destination. It’s just a matter of who is willing to compromise what.

Thanks for your question! You all can send yours to blazersub@gmail.com and we’ll try to get through as many as we can!