clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Trail Blazers Lost Talent, Bought Momentum in Damian Lillard Trade

Here’s what Portland gained and lost swapping Dame to the Milwaukee Bucks

Phoenix Suns v Portland Trail Blazers Photo by Steph Chambers/Getty Images

The Portland Trail Blazers have traded franchise cornerstone Damian Lillard to the Milwaukee Bucks. The deal, reported by Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN, includes the Phoenix Suns, who receive several Portland veterans in return for center Deandre Ayton. Let’s take a look at how the Blazers did in the trade.

Details of the Deal

Portland Sends Out: Damian Lillard, Jusuf Nurkic, Nassir Little, Keon Johnson

Portland Receives: Deandre Ayton, Jrue Holiday, Toumani Camara, a 2029 first-round pick from Milwaukee (unprotected), and the right to swap picks with the Bucks in 2028 and 2030.

Current Talent

Damian Lillard is the best player listed in the trade. Normally you don’t want to be the team sending out that player without overwhelming return to the positive. The players received in return don’t jump off the page, but a few asterisks color the story.

First, Lillard was always going to be the key player in this kind of deal. The Blazers were not getting Lillard-like talent in return. They hoped for a young superstar instead. They didn’t get that in Ayton, but the 25-year-old, former first-overall pick did average 18.0 points and 10.0 rebounds while shooting 58.9% over 67 appearances for the Suns last year. Those numbers aren’t bad, considering Ayton probably didn’t get the chance to spread his wings to their farthest extent with the glittery talent alongside him in Phoenix.

The caveat here is that the Suns were willing to trade Ayton for the semi-mercurial, oft-injured Nurkic, plus Grayson Allen, Nassir Little, and Keon Johnson. That’s not exactly murderer’s row. We don’t have to ask what Phoenix thought of Ayton’s value. They obviously didn’t think of him as a superstar despite his age and former draft position.

Portland’s argument will be that he’s still young and needs a change of scenery. That’s valid. That doesn’t say much about Ayton’s ceiling or consistency, though. Acquiring him is a hope, not a guarantee.

Jrue Holiday is a fantastic player, but not long for the Blazers. They have star point-guard-in-waiting Scoot Henderson and a crew of youngsters to bring up over the next three years. The 33-year-old Holiday would be a fantastic mentor for Henderson, particularly on the defensive end. It’s safe to say that Holiday doesn’t see himself in that role. He’d be wasted in in Portland, competing for minutes that nobody really wants him to get. The Blazers will likely move Holiday once a decent offer comes available for him. (Perhaps the Miami Heat would like to discuss Tyler Herro, a couple youngsters, and future firsts in exchange?)

Toumani Camara is a second-round pick, 52nd overall in this year’s draft. His worth will have to be determined on the court.

We will need to see who Portland can net for Holiday before passing final judgment on the deal, but between Lillard, Nurkic, and Little, the departing players outweigh the incoming by a significant amount. Ayton may change that story, but it remains to be seen.

Age provides the ray of hope for the Blazers. Portland traded away the 33-year-old Lillard and 29-year-old Nurkic for a 25-year-old center. Moving Holiday for younger players or draft picks would only increase the rejuvenation project. Portland may not have gotten better, but they certainly got younger, pending a Holiday trade.

Salary Cap

Portland sent out $71.5 million of current salary in this deal. They took in approximately $70 million, making the move practically a wash as far as their current cap position.

The real eye-opener comes when you consider total contractual obligations. Portland dropped $306 million of current and future salary over the next four years, taking back only $181 million. If they did nothing else but this, they’d save $125 million.

$36 million of that current salary and $78 million total belong to Holiday. The final number may go up or down, depending on the deal they work out for him. As just mentioned, best guess is that they’ll look for young players or future assets that will save them even more.

Throw in $7 million of non-guaranteed money owed in Camara’s salary, and you can see why this move made huge financial sense for the Blazers. They are going to struggle over the next couple years no matter what. The only thing worse than losing is paying a fortune to do it. Their tab got much cheaper the instant they hit “send” on the trade acceptance. It’s a 40% off coupon on Scoot Henderson’s growth curve and they snatched it up.

Future Assets

The unprotected 2029 pick from the Bucks, along with the 2028 and 2030 pick swaps, stand out as the most sparkly incoming assets for Portland. This is the kind of haul they were hoping to get from Miami, the Brooklyn Nets, or whomever else they dealt with.

The timing of the picks matters greatly. 2028—the date of the first swap—is five years from now. Assuming all are still playing, Lillard will be 38 by then, star forward Khris Middleton 37, and NBA MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo 34. Middleton is already struggling with injuries. Antetokounmpo’s game is predicated on overwhelming athleticism. The Blazers will hope that the sun has set on Milwaukee’s title aspirations, that the Bucks will be watching ping-pong balls instead.

Measuring these picks in Dame Years, Portland will have pick swap rights when Lillard is 38, Milwaukee’s pick outright when Dame is 39, and another pick swap when he’s 40. During those exact seasons, Portland’s own hopefuls will be flowering. In 2028 Henderson will be entering his fifth season at the age of 25, guard Shaedon Sharpe his sixth at the age of 25, guard Anfernee Simons his tenth season at the age of 29, and Ayton his tenth season at the age of 30. That’s four players entering or playing in their prime with the potential of three legitimate lottery picks coming on board besides

That doesn’t count the potential for more picks coming from the Holiday trade or the Blazers moving Sharpe and/or Simons in the future to generate same. Obviously it doesn’t count any players they Blazers might draft themselves in the interim, nor the possibility that by 2028, Portland will be the team ready to trade lottery picks for a star to complete their roster. The Blazers don’t just have future assets now, they have options.


The Blazers approached this Lillard transition like surfers. They paddled over the current swell, passing up the opportunity to ride it in, anticipating the next two waves would be bigger.

Portland won’t make a run at anything significant soon. Their opportunity for that passed when they lost Dame. But they have the Henderson-Sharpe-Simons-Ayton quadrangle upcoming as the next generation, then their own picks and Milwaukee’s providing the one after that.

This approach may not generate a run at a title. That depends on the abilities and development of players still growing (and some yet undrafted). It does restore momentum to a franchise that got into a wide, comfortable eddy during the Lillard era with no practical way forward save a complete tear-down and rebuild. The Blazers have a current plan and a 5-7 year plan, each contributing to the other, each with multiple options to trade players or picks.

Portland just got younger, cheaper, and bought themselves a future at the expense of the present. Unless they could get a miracle player for Lillard—and by all accounts the Nets and Raptors weren’t answering the phone on calls for their young stars—this was about as well as the Blazers could have done.

That they managed it while laboring under a trade demand says something about Lillard’s inherent value, also about the wisdom of the front office, not jumping at the first deal under public pressure, but waiting for a move that gave them something prized...even if that something remains ephemeral for now.

Trail Blazers fans can now get on with the business of mourning the loss of Damian Lillard appropriately, knowing that hope for the future lies right in front of their feet, around the corner as well. If you can’t buy talent, buying momentum is the next best thing. The Blazers did a little of both with this trade. Let’s see what they do with it.