About Dame Time
Thoughts on the long-awaited Lillard trade
After alllll the rigamarole and rumors and innuendo and everything else, it’s the Milwaukee Bucks swooping in for Damian Lillard, landing him in a three-team deal that also included the Phoenix Suns. Woj broke the news on Wednesday afternoon. Here are the details:
Bucks receive: Damian Lillard
Suns receive: Jusuf Nurkic, Grayson Allen, Nasir Little, Keon Johnson
Blazers receive: Jrue Holiday, Deandre Ayton, Toumani Camara, 2028 Bucks 1st (swap rights), 2029 Bucks 1st (unprotected), 2030 Bucks 1st (swap rights)
Let’s run through some thoughts from each team’s perspective…
Congratulations to Giannis Antetokounmpo, who for the second time successfully leveraged his looming contract status to get the Bucks to fork over significant future assets to upgrade the current roster around him. Three years ago, that meant trading Eric Bledsoe and draft assets for Jrue Holiday. (Which resulted in the Bucks winning their first title in 50 years, with Holiday’s defense playing a starring role.) Today, it means trading Holiday and draft assets for Lillard. Nicely done, young man. (For what it’s worth, Giannis signed his extension less than a month after the Holiday trade.)
Credit also to the Bucks for being unafraid. This is how you operate when you have one of the three or four best players in the world, a guy who pretty much guarantees that your team will be in contention year after year. Title windows don’t stay open as long as you think, and when one closes, it’s incredibly difficult to quickly re-open it. Given the age of their principal actors, it’s likely that Milwaukee’s window will close at some point in the next few years. So they might as well try to open it as wide as possible to grab another championship with what is likely the best player they’ll have in the history of their franchise.
In Lillard, the Bucks presumably find their answer to the biggest issue that plagued them throughout the Mike Budenholzer era: the annual collapse of their halfcourt offense during the playoffs. Here’s an excerpt from what I wrote when the Bucks parted ways with Budenholzer in the wake of their first-round loss to the Heat:
It’s the one thing the Bucks never really figured out. Even the year they won the title, their offense mostly sputtered during the playoffs. Their defense was just that good.
In Bud’s five seasons with the Bucks, the team’s offense ranked fourth, eighth, sixth, third, and 12th in efficiency during the regular season, but consistently struggled to maintain that rate during the playoffs. Take a look, via Cleaning the Glass, at the drop-off the Bucks experienced from the regular season to postseason in Bud’s five years — and pay particular attention to what happened in half-court situations.
To me, this is the big “failing” of the Budenholzer era, so much as “they only won one title in five years” can be considered failing. Giannis Antetokounmpo has probably been the best player in the league for much of this five-year period, and the Bucks have consistently scored at a high level with him on the court during the regular season, and defended at a near-league-best level during both the regular season and the playoffs. But for the most part (this year excepted, weirdly, despite Giannis himself missing much of the first-round loss to the Heat), when the Bucks have lost, it’s been because their offense failed them in one way or another.
Lillard has for the most part been able to drive an efficient offense pretty much by himself. Few players in the league stretch defenses as far beyond their breaking point as he does, such is the threat of him scoring from pretty much anywhere on the floor. A few years ago, we used tracking data to show that as opposing defenses got more and more aggressive defending him, Lillard just moved his pick and rolls higher and higher up on the floor. And opponents had to chase him out there, because he’s one of the few guys alive who can do this with any degree of consistency. (Obviously, Dame has also never had a pick-and-roll partner who was nearly as threatening as Giannis. Mason Plumlee and Jusuf Nurkic, this guy is not.)
When Giannis was running ball screens with Holiday or even Khris Middleton, defenses didn’t have to worry about venturing out so far beyond the three-point line. That’s going to change. And it’s going to give Giannis more room to operate as a roll man, which is obviously incredibly dangerous. Having Lillard around to run the show full time will also free Middleton from some of the creation burden (which is a good thing, given the state of his knees). Holiday is a lot of really good things, but he’s not a traditional, “put him at the top of the floor and run 50 pick and rolls a game” type of player. Lillard is. So, again, Middleton will be able to act as more of a second-side threat and have to do less of his own creation. That’s good for his efficiency and especially for his potential longevity.
The potential to use Lillard and Middleton in the same action should also pay great dividends for the Bucks, though one thing I’d be interested in seeing is how new head coach Adrian Griffin plans to stagger the rotation. Were it up to me, I would attach Giannis and Middleton, and Lillard and Lopez. Giannis and Khris have pre-established two-man chemistry and can obviously carry the offense together, and Dame can form a really strong combination with Lopez, who would also see more offensive involvement than usual in those configurations. But that’s for another time.
Obviously, losing Holiday is a huge blow to Milwaukee’s defense. That’s especially true given that he’ll be replaced by Lillard, who has never been a good defender and will likely only become a worse one as he ages into his mid-30s. Luckily for the Bucks. they have arguably the NBA’s best drop coverage defender (Brook Lopez) and its best help defender (Giannis). Those guys can clean up just about everything, including whatever leaks spring open as a result of Dame’s deficiencies. If Dame liked playing with Robin Lopez (and he did), he will absolutely adore playing with Brook. (And Robin again. And Terry Stotts! Get the band back together!) The big guy just makes life easier so much easier for guards, given his ability to cover so much space even while being planted in the lane.
Holiday’s absence makes Pat Connaughton and Jae Crowder much more crucial. Connaughton seems like the logical fifth starter now that Allen is gone, but he also seemed like the logical fifth starter even when Allen was there. Perhaps Griffin will take more of a shine to him than Budenholzer did. Either way, his ability to knock down catch-and-shoot jumpers and to stick with big wing threats is about to be put to the test. Same with Crowder. MarJon Beauchamp is probably going to have to step into a larger role, and Malik Beasley’s shooting will be needed on many occasions.
There is a whole lot of fragility built in here given the ages (29, 32, 33, 35) and respective injury histories (very long, for all of them at this point) of Giannis, Middleton, Lillard, and Lopez. But if everyone is healthy come April and May, the Bucks are going to be incredibly tough to beat.
For thoughts on the Suns and Blazers, hit the jump…