Five important questions after the Damian Lillard trade
The shocking move raises as many Q's as it A's.
I suspect you’ve heard the news by now, but just to recap:
BOOM. But an epic, unforeseen trade like this raises some questions (five, to be precise). Let’s discuss.
1) How does Lillard change the Bucks’ geometry?
Lillard and Giannis are the most formidable duo in the league (with apologies to Jokic/Murray, Booker/Durant, James/Davis, and Leonard/George). Lillard is the instant fix to so much of what has plagued Milwaukee in the past, and his fit with Giannis is as snug as two yin-and-yang bugs.
Khris Middleton didn’t look the same after returning from surgery (although he was the Bucks’ lone bright spot in the playoffs), and Jrue Holiday habitually quailed in the postseason (as I detailed earlier this summer). Lillard is the second-best off-the-bounce shooter in the league, and he’s a lot closer to Steph Curry than he is to third place. Not even Curry can match Lillard’s ICBM range. It is difficult to overstate how impossible a Lillard/Giannis empty-corner pick-and-roll will be to guard. The Bucks also employ former Blazers head coach Terry Stotts, who knows better than anybody how to weaponize Lillard both on and off the ball.
The typical tactic against Giannis has been to station a battalion of defenders between him and the basket, like soldiers bracing the gates against an unrelenting battering ram. That may no longer be viable. Holiday has become an elite regular-season shooter, but Lillard scoffs at paltry descriptors like “elite.” Look at the differences in shot placement between Holiday and Lillard:
Lillard’s dots are so far away, stretching defenses past their breaking point. Logo Lillard isn’t just a catchy nickname; it’s well-earned, and Milwaukee has seen it first-hand. Look at this nonsense:
If teams try to erect fortifications against Giannis, Lillard will have little trouble launching from anywhere he wishes. He’s used to seeing double-teams and high traps to force the ball from his hands. But how can defenses try this with Giannis waiting to catch the ball and steamroll to the hoop instead of Nurkic?
Five players simply aren’t enough to build two walls.
Lillard’s shooting overshadows his excellent passing, too. Giannis won’t be the only beneficiary. Particularly when the Freak rests, Brook Lopez can return to a more traditional pick-and-roll/pick-and-pop role as part of a two-man game with Lillard. It will be fun to see the talented Lopez catching Lillard’s laser passes instead of Jusuf Nurkic, layup-missing machine:
By most advanced metrics, Lillard was the best or second-best offensive player in basketball last season (with Nikola Jokic). The Bucks have long struggled with creating halfcourt offense, particularly in the postseason. Lillard doesn’t just fix that problem; he turns it into a strength. Portland has had a top-10 halfcourt offense in four of the last five years. The one exception? The season Lillard played 29 games.
If Lillard can stay healthy (something Jrue struggled with, too), he’s a walking offensive system. And that’s without Giannis.
2) Will this trade help or hurt Phoenix?
The Bucks weren’t the only title contender to improve. The Suns rid themselves of former first pick Deandre Ayton (and his hefty contract) and received back Jusuf Nurkic, Grayson Allen, Nassir Little, and Keon Johnson.
Based on Internet outrage, I’m apparently the only one who likes this trade for Phoenix. Ayton is by far the best player involved in Phoenix’s end of the deal; no one’s arguing that. But here’s the thing: he’s not a great fit for the Suns as currently constructed, and his relationship with the franchise had pretty clearly run its course. I assumed he would be moved this offseason, no matter what. Given that, I like the return!
In fairness, while Nurkic was once a tough-nosed, sweet-passing big man, those days are long gone. Injuries have sapped him of his mobility, and he is a below-average starting center in the league (and that might be kind). His inability to finish alley-oops (the only way a center on this team will ever touch the ball) makes him a poor fit for the Suns on offense, and he can’t switch onto guards on the perimeter anymore on defense (a particular bummer, given Kevin Durant and Bradley Beal’s propensity for switching defenses).
It is worth noting that Nurk isn’t a complete train wreck, though, despite popular opinion. He allowed just 57.9% shooting at the rim, a much better mark than Ayton’s 61.8%, and his Defensive Estimated Plus/Minus was better than Ayton’s last year, too. He’s also an excellent defensive rebounder, a legitimately underrated part of his game that will be important for a Phoenix team that was bottom-ten in that category after the Durant trade. And new coach Frank Vogel has a long history of making something potable from lemons, if not lemonade.
Rim-running fives of adequate quality are a dime a dozen. If the Suns want to find a minimum-contract guy to eat up some center minutes, they should be able to without a ton of trouble. (I’m only quarter-joking when I say the Suns should give Dwight Howard a call.)
No matter what happens, center will be Phoenix’s weakest link. But the West, frankly, doesn’t have many big men who can take advantage of that. Jokic, of course, is the looming thunderhead on the horizon, but we just watched him eviscerate Ayton. I’m not convinced Nurkic will be meaningfully worse in that particular matchup (although he certainly won’t be good!).
If the Suns downgraded in the middle, though, they upgraded elsewhere. Grayson Allen is instantly the best offensive player on Phoenix outside the big three of Durant, Devin Booker, and Beal. He started for the Bucks last season as they decimated the regular season, and I’d bet he does the same for Phoenix. Allen’s a deadeye shooter with some off-the-bounce juice, and his triple-jacking tendencies will be a boon for a Phoenix team that’s a little too midrange-dependent for my tastes.
Allen’s defensive issues are an overblown concern. I don’t think teams will pick on him much when Bradley Beal is on the floor. Allen might be a better defender than Beal at this point, and even if he’s not, Beal will be a juicier target as teams try to get him tired and into foul trouble.
I’ve also long been high on Nassir Little, who can play either forward position. He’s not a knockdown shooter, but he’s a willing one, and he’s a capable rebounder and defender whose progress has been stunted by injuries. He’s a sneaky pick to snag that last starting spot or at least provide solid two-way production off the bench.
The Suns were flummoxed by their inability to find a reliable fifth starter last season. They already added a bunch of situational depth pieces earlier in the summer, but now, between free agent signee Keita Bates-Diop, Allen, and Little, they have three legitimately good players who can all compete for the final starting spot. (And that’s assuming they don’t just default to last year’s eventual starter, Josh Okogie, for some perimeter defensive help.) They might forgo center entirely and run out a small lineup at the end of games, although that hasn’t typically been Vogel’s M.O.
A team with as much superstar talent as this one has to pay the piper somewhere. The lack of point guard depth can be papered over. The center position is a problem, but that was the case regardless of whether they moved Ayton. Ayton’s considerable abilities as a scorer are functionally useless on this team, and his decent-to-good defense and rebounding aren’t good enough against the only team that matters. Phoenix decided to add weapons at other positions and punt on center. I like the thought process.
3) Was this the best deal for Portland?
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