There's a real world where Damian Lillard could have been reporting to training camp on Monday as a member of the Brooklyn Nets. With trade talks between the Portland Trail Blazers and his top destination, the Miami Heat, going nowhere, Lillard instructed his agent to inform the Nets and Milwaukee Bucks he was interested in coming to both teams.
Brooklyn showed no interest in entering negotiations, and 10 days later, Lillard was traded to Milwaukee. Lillard's interest in the Nets was well-documented throughout the summer. Nate Jones, an agent at Goodwin Sports, which represents Lillard, detailed the seven-time All-Star's reasoning Thursday on Twitter:
“Dame had Brooklyn on his list because he wanted to play with Mikal (Bridges) who he has believed in from Day 1,” Jones wrote. “(He) also believed in Ben Simmons bouncing back.”
Lillard's interest in playing alongside Bridges should come as no surprise. The Villanova product emerged as one of the league's top rising stars following his trade to Brooklyn last season, averaging 27.7 points on 47/38/89 shooting splits in 30 appearances.
Brooklyn Bridges got a nice ring to it. Mikal was a stud last night. 🔥
45 PTS (career-high)
— SLAM (@SLAMonline) February 16, 2023
Bridges continued to turn heads during the FIBA World Cup, emerging as Team USA's second-best player behind only Minnesota superstar Anthony Edwards.
Mikal Bridges showed out in the #USABMNT quarterfinal win over Italy 🇺🇸
— NBA (@NBA) September 5, 2023
As a former Defensive Player of the Year candidate with knockdown catch-and-shoot ability and a growing repertoire as an on-ball scorer, Mikal Bridges' malleable skillset is tailor-made to fit alongside a high-usage star. This bodes well for the Nets, who have Bridges under contract at just $23.3 million annually for the next three seasons and will be looking to cash in their stockpile of draft picks for a top option.
Damian Lillard's belief in Ben Simmons is more noteworthy. After sitting out the entire 2021-22 season and appearing like a shell of his old self during 42 appearances last year, the former No. 1 pick has become an afterthought in the discussion surrounding Brooklyn's future.
Simmons' health appears to be trending in the right direction. The 27-year-old is playing 5-on-5 with no restrictions ahead of training camp and recently called his body “the strongest it's been” since joining Brooklyn. Simmons has no shortage of confidence in what a healthy version of himself can do this season, saying he's “ready to dominate people” and alluding to the numerous accolades he collected with the Philadelphia 76ers.
The Aussie will open the year playing point guard for a Nets team that ranked 23rd in offensive rating last season after trading Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving. His ability to return to his Philadelphia form will determine Brooklyn's ceiling in 2023-24. Many will remain skeptical of Simmons' ability to bounce back, but Lillard appears to believe in the three-time All-Star, and coming from a player of his caliber and basketball IQ, that means something.