The Damian Lillard to Brooklyn Nets speculation isn't slowing down anytime soon. During an appearance on Showtime Sports, the seven-time All-Star identified the Miami Heat and Nets as “obvious” trade destinations:
“Miami is the obvious one. Bam (Adebayo) is my dog.” Lillard said. “Brooklyn is another obvious one because Mikal Bridges is my dog too. Both have capable rosters.”
Damian Lillard's response when asked which of the Heat, Knicks, Celtics, or Nets he wouldn't mind being traded to:
Miami and Brooklyn.
“Miami is the obvious one. Bam is my dog. Brooklyn is another obvious one because Mikal Bridges is my dog too. Both have capable rosters.” pic.twitter.com/UZEy6cvqIp
— Erik Slater (@erikslater_) June 7, 2023
In a follow-up question, Lillard was asked whether he believes he will still be a member of the Portland Trail Blazers at the start of the 2023-24 season:
“I do,” he replied after a slight hesitation.
Regardless of Lillard's response to the above question, this is the third consecutive offseason with rampant speculation surrounding his future in Portland. His decision to answer a question about a trade and label “obvious” destinations will turn heads around the league.
Lillard pointing to the Nets as a logical landing spot should not come as a surprise. I've extensively covered his connections to Mikal Bridges and Brooklyn since his courtside appearance at Barclays Center for Game 3 of the Nets' first-round playoff series against the Philadelphia 76ers. When asked if he knew Lillard would be attending, Bridges offered a coy response:
“I know people,” he said at his exit interview.
The duo recently appeared together on Instagram Live and have been seen partying together in prior offseasons:
Entreguen absolutamente todo lo necesario, pero Mikal Bridges debe ser un Blazer. pic.twitter.com/3XhCeyB8bZ
— BLAZERS ARGENTO (@BlazersArgento) April 15, 2023
Lillard has sung Bridges' praise in recent years, calling him his “favorite small forward in the league” during a 2021 interview with Yahoo! Sports. He identified Bridges as a player he wanted to see Portland acquire ahead of the 2022-23 season. More recently, he named Bridges and Devin Booker when asked which NBA players he is a fan of during an ESPN interview.
This would be less of a story if Brooklyn didn't have the assets to acquire Lillard. But they do, and he knows it. He also surely knows that the Nets have interest in acquiring a dependable star following their three-year-long circus with Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving at the helm:
“It goes back to how we build,” general manager Sean Marks said ahead of the offseason. “Do we build quick and expedite this thing? If a player comes around that we know, ‘Hey, this player or players would fit within a group and give us an opportunity to really get back in and be contenders again.’ That could happen.”
We've seen time and time again that the most critical aspect of these superstar trade negotiations isn't which team has the best assets; it's where that star wants to go. Miami and Brooklyn are on Damian Lillard's list. And of the two, the Nets have the better assets.
The Heat can offer a maximum of three first-round picks with Kyle Lowry and Duncan Robinson as their main salary fillers. Lowry is on a $29.7 million expiring contract next season. Robinson is owed $57.5 million over the next three seasons, a deal largely viewed to have negative value. Portland is unlikely to have interest in paying Tyler Herro $120 million over the next four years with Anfernee Simons and Shaedon Sharpe in place as the backcourt of the future.
Meanwhile, the Nets can trade up to eight first-rounders, including an enticing pool of 2027, 2028 and 2029 picks from the Phoenix Suns, Dallas Mavericks, and 76ers. They could build a package with salary fillers of Spencer Dinwiddie, Joe Harris, and Patty Mills, all of whom have deals expiring next season.
This would open $47 million in cap space for Portland next summer, which should be enticing for a team set to enter a full-scale rebuild. Dinwiddie should also have trade value at the deadline, allowing the Blazers to recoup even more draft capital.
Brooklyn could throw in Cam Thomas as a sweetener as well. The 21-year-old should be attractive to a rebuilding team after becoming the youngest player in NBA history to score 40-plus in three straight games. Marks could also deal Royce O'Neale or Dorian Finney-Smith to a third team and re-route picks to Portland to save the Nets draft capital.
All of this points to one reality:
If it came down to these two teams, Brooklyn has the firepower to outbid Miami for Lillard.
That begs the question: Is trading for the Portland star a wise move for the Nets?
Damian Lillard will turn 33 in July and is owed $216 million over the next four seasons, so a deal is far from a no-brainer. However, the seven-time All-NBA selection is coming off the best statistical season of his career, averaging 32.2 points and 7.3 assists per game on 46/37/91 shooting splits. A trade would likely open a 2-3 year window for the Nets to build a championship roster.
Brooklyn could construct a starting five of Lillard, Bridges, Finney-Smith, Cam Johnson and Nic Claxton. In reality, that team likely has a second-round ceiling. However, the interesting aspect of acquiring Lillard lies in what the Nets could do beyond that. The NBA's new collective bargaining agreement makes building rosters with three stars far more difficult. But in the Nets' case, Bridges' contract offers a rare luxury.
The rising star is owed $23.3 million annually for the next three seasons, presenting one of the best-value deals in the league. With potentially five-plus first-round picks left over after a Lillard trade, Brooklyn would have the ammunition to acquire another star and form a big three. Should Damian Lillard hit the market, the Nets' willingness to pull the trigger will ultimately depend on whether they believe they can attract that 1A/1B star during his window.
The offseason has much in store for Brooklyn. Less than four months after the collapse of the Durant-Irving era, the Nets are on the shortlist of one of the league's top players. That has to feel good for a team that many crossed off the relevancy list at this year's trade deadline.