While wallowing in 13th place in the Western Conference, the Portland Trailblazers have officially shut down Damian Lillard for the remainder of the season.
Lillard will turn 33 in July, and since 2012, when he was drafted as the No. 6 overall pick, he has given the Trailblazers 11 seasons, eight playoff appearances, 830 games, 20,945 points, 5,531 assists, and 3,528 rebounds. That’s a first-ballot Hall-of-Fame career. And in return, the Trailblazers have failed to surround him with a single MVP, Sixth Man of the Year, Rookie of the Year, All-Rookie, All-Star, All-NBA team member, Defensive Player of the Year, or Coach of the Year winner since 2015.
Only in Lillard’s first two years did he play next to another All-Star in LaMarcus Aldridge, who the franchise failed to re-sign and lost in free agency in 2015.
The Trailblazers have had more than a decade to prove to Lillard they can build a contender in Portland. During that time, Lillard had given them everything he’s got. The time has come for Lillard to put himself first and find a team worthy of his sacrifice and output. With speculation swirling that Lillard could finally be moved this summer, we’ve pinpointed the five teams that make the most sense and give him the best shot at an elusive championship.
For the last four seasons, the Miami Heat have been one piece away from winning it all. Damian Lillard embodies the dawg mentality and win-at-all-costs hubris the Heat franchise is built upon.
After this summer, the Heat own all their first-round picks moving forward. And since they would presumably want to keep the core of Jimmy Butler and Bam Adebayo intact while unable to move bloated contracts like Duncan Robinson and Kyle Lowry, the trade would likely be centered around Tyler Herro, draft picks, and filler.
The Heat have struggled to score all season, as they rank 30th in points per game. Lillard would inject his 32.2 PPG into the starting point guard position, and elevate the Heat into a dangerous inside/out team, pairing with Butler for a dangerous crunch-time duo capable of hitting big shots with the game on the line. Perhaps no other team needs Lillard’s scoring more, or his clutch shooting, than the offensively anemic Heat.
While the Nuggets have been a contender, organically built through the draft and filled with as much talent as any top team, they have lacked a true second superstar next to Nikola Jokić.
The Joker is at the top of the competition for his third straight MVP award. And the supporting cast around him seems ready, finally, to win it all this year. But, of their two best players, Jamal Murray and Michael Porter Jr., neither has superstar potential. Acquiring Damian Lillard, in a swap for Murray and picks, would pair Jokić with the shoot-first guard capable of breaking down any defensive scheme, allowing him to focus on being the lead facilitator from the center position.
It might take more than Murray and draft picks; perhaps Bruce Brown Jr. can be thrown in as well. But whatever the cost, this is the all-in move the Nuggets need to monitor, and go for, if and when the opportunity presents itself. It would guarantee an NBA Finals appearance and give Jokić his best running mate who complements his skill set.
The Celtics have the most to offer. With Jaylen Brown’s impending free agency next summer, he would likely be the centerpiece of this deal. A straight-up swap would allow the Celtics to keep their depth in place and draft picks secured for future retooling. Damian Lillard would give them the elite point guard they’ve been looking for since Isaiah Thomas went down with a knee injury in 2017.
There’s always been an awkward “your turn, my turn” between Brown and Jayson Tatum. Swapping Lillard for Brown would solve that power struggle and allow Tatum to focus purely on scoring instead of being the table setter for his teammates. The Celtics are in win-now mode, a perfect fit for Lillard, who, at 33, is looking at two more years of prime playing output. The Celtics are filled with elite shooters and grit defenders, and Malcolm Brogdon would be a hell of a backup for Lillard.
A Lillard-Marcus Smart backcourt would also cover for Lillard’s defensive deficiencies, giving him the best path toward a championship at this stage of his career.
The Timberwolves shocked the world when they swapped an insane number of draft picks and young players last summer to acquire Rudy Gobert. After the dust settled on what could be the worst trade of the 21st century, observers could easily see Gobert’s inclusion in Minnesota was an awkward fit. The team has played its best when either Gobert or Karl-Anthony Towns have been out to injury, as the NBA has trended against twin-tower frontcourts. But Towns has immense worth on the trade market, and a straight-up swap shouldn’t be out of the question, giving the Blazers a 27-year-old star to retool around.
The Timberwolves would have the best backcourt in the NBA with Damian Lillard and Anthony Edwards. With Gobert up front and their bevy of three-and-d athletic wings in place, the T-Wolves would be better constructed to make a deep run in the playoffs. Defenders would have to pick their poison in who not to double when Lillard and Edwards close games together, giving Lillard a running mate with as deep a bag of offensive tricks as him.
New Orleans Pelicans
The Pelicans have the draft picks from the Anthony Davis and Jrue Holiday trades to go after Damian Lillard, plus the pieces needed to make a trade work. It would probably take Brandon Ingram ($31.65 million) to make the salaries work for both teams to match Lillard’s $42.49 million annual salary. Toss in Herb Jones or Jose Alvarado and you have a fair deal.
What a storyline it would be to reunite Lillard with his former Trailblazer backcourt mate CJ McCollum, who was traded last season to the Pelicans after playing together for eight and a half seasons. This time they would be surrounded by an unstoppable force (when healthy) in Zion Williamson, plus the skilled post-play of Jonas Valančiūnas and the sharpshooting of Trey Murphy III. Lillard has never played with a player of Zion’s magnitude. If the burly forward could stay healthy for an entire playoff run, there’s no reason to doubt the trio’s collective firepower toward winning out the West.
Lee Escobedo covers the NBA for Sportsnaut. You can follow him on Twitter at @_leeescobedo