The Damian Lillard Saga: Shaping Up and Unraveling the Key Factors at Play

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By journalsofus.com

As September reaches its final days, the NBA gears up for training camp, and the Portland Trail Blazers are engaged in intensified discussions with rival front offices. Their goal is to devise an optimal return strategy for their illustrious seven-time All-Star, Damian Lillard, as per sources in the league cited by Yahoo Sports.

The Damian Lillard Saga: Shaping Up and Unraveling the Key Factors at Play
Damian Lillard

In contrast to the initial talks back in July, which revolved around Lillard’s trade request and did not yield a deal to his favored destination, Miami, or other potential landing spots like Brooklyn, the commencement of training camp, along with the looming media day on October 2nd, has unofficially set the deadline for Portland to part ways with Lillard and embark on a new era for the Blazers. This scenario is even more pressing than the ongoing situation in Philadelphia, where James Harden still holds hopes of joining the LA Clippers, according to sources.

The Blazers possess promising young talents in Scoot Henderson and Shaedon Sharpe, along with 24-year-old scorer Anfernee Simons. Reacquiring Lillard, aged 33, with four years and over $200 million left on his contract, especially after the very public spectacle surrounding his trade request, stands in stark contrast to Portland’s aspiration to turn the page and embrace a new chapter with their current roster. Meanwhile, in Philadelphia, there’s a lingering possibility of Harden reporting for camp, aiming for a championship run and subsequently enhancing his trade value, a scenario that the Sixers require to part ways with the All-Star. However, Harden has previously declared his unwillingness to be part of any organization with Philadelphia president Daryl Morey on board. Thus, more drama seems imminent for the Sixers, whether it’s at their practice facility in Camden, New Jersey, or during their training camp stint in Colorado Springs, Colorado. On the other hand, Portland’s situation appears to be moving swiftly towards a resolution, with an increasing buzz around potential trade partners outside of Lillard’s preferred destination, the Miami Heat, reverberating throughout the league. The pace at which the Blazers can finalize negotiations hinges on the approach taken by general manager Joe Cronin and his front office in handling the complex multi-team frameworks they’ve been exploring recently, according to sources familiar with the matter.

Currently, Toronto and Chicago are the two most discussed potential destinations for Lillard among league insiders. While many NBA insiders anticipate Portland engaging with Miami before sealing a deal with another suitor, the Heat have not been at the forefront of the Blazers’ recent talks concerning Lillard. Additionally, the Phoenix Suns and Utah Jazz have emerged as peripheral teams that could play a role in larger deals facilitating Lillard’s exit from Portland.

Constructing such a high-profile trade involves assembling numerous pieces. One aspect of the ongoing Lillard negotiations that has come into focus is Portland’s serious consideration of acquiring Deandre Ayton, the center for the Phoenix Suns, as part of a multi-team deal, as confirmed by sources. This potential deal seems to revolve around sending Portland’s center, Jusuf Nurkic, back to Phoenix, thereby providing the Suns with a capable defensive anchor for their new head coach, Frank Vogel, and a pic

k-and-roll partner for their array of perimeter playmakers, without the expectation of Ayton’s desired offensive workload.

The Damian Lillard Saga: Shaping Up and Unraveling the Key Factors at Play

This situation presents a delicate balancing act for the Suns since they had previously stated that Ayton was not available for trade during the summer. Vogel publicly endorsed Ayton, a former No. 1 overall pick, as possessing “All-Star-level” talent during his introductory press conference. If the trade for Nurkic falls through, the Suns require Ayton to bolster their title ambitions alongside Kevin Durant, Devin Booker, and Bradley Beal. What they don’t need is a potentially disgruntled big man who believes the Suns were actively trying to trade him for Nurkic. Nevertheless, there is an argument to be made that splitting Ayton’s contract on the Suns’ books into two valuable rotation players could provide Vogel with considerable depth, enhancing their championship aspirations.

Nurkic’s annual salary of $17.5 million is roughly half of Ayton’s $33.2 million paycheck, necessitating additional financial maneuvers to accommodate this aspect of the Lillard trade puzzle. Potentially, adding the $18 million salary of Raptors forward OG Anunoby could help match the financial aspects, provided that Masai Ujiri’s front office decides to move on from one of their core pieces, following various trade scenarios that were explored before the February deadline and during the offseason. However, the multitude of trade discussions with little concrete outcome, except for the addition of Jakob Poeltl, has left many NBA insiders skeptical about Toronto’s willingness to execute such a trade.

Trading Anunoby and other assets for Lillard represents a significantly different proposition compared to trading for picks from teams like Memphis or New York. For Portland, the question arises: what assets will they receive in return? If you’re Portland, could the possibility of acquiring Anunoby reignite conversations with potential suitors like the Knicks, potentially leading to a more favorable return for Cronin’s staff? Alternatively, Anunoby might remain in Portland.

There are numerous factors to consider, making the Raptors one of the most viable contenders to land Lillard, aside from the Heat, similar to the Cleveland Cavaliers’ surprising acquisition of Donovan Mitchell last September. However, it’s unlikely that Scottie Barnes would be the centerpiece of Portland’s return. Sources have indicated that Toronto has made it clear to all interested parties that Barnes is their franchise focal point. Any deal with Toronto could include recent first-round pick Gradey Dick, as sources suggest, similar to how rookies Ochai Agbaji and Walker Kessler were added as extra draft compensation in Utah’s trades for Mitchell and Rudy Gobert last offseason. In the event of a deal with Miami, league insiders anticipate that Portland would seek the Heat’s recent first-round pick, Jaime Jaquez Jr., as part of the package.

The Damian Lillard Saga: Shaping Up and Unraveling the Key Factors at Play
 

It appears improbable that All-Star forward Pascal Siakam would be included in a trade package for Portland. Siakam is entering the final year of a lucrative contract and has yet to secure the substantial extension he is eligible for. Committing to Siakam would be a perplexing decision for the Blazers, especially after granting Jerami Grant a five-year, $160 million contract in July, when they did not appear interested in backing Siakam’s future contract. Does it make sense for a rebuilding Blazers team to invest in an All-NBA talent in his prime?

Anunoby introduces his own set of financial considerations. The 26-year-old swingman has a player option for the 2024-25 season, explored several agencies before leaving Klutch Sports for CAA, and conveyed to various representatives that he seeks more ball-handling opportunities that could translate into a higher salary. Perhaps there’s a greater chance of achieving this in Portland, where Barnes’ development won’t hinder Anunoby’s progress. It’s challenging to envision Phoenix fitting Anunoby’s next contract into their already substantial payroll, as part of the three-team concept described earlier. However, if any ownership group is willing to make such a significant financial commitment, it’s the leadership in Phoenix.

Regarding Chicago’s involvement, the Bulls do not appear as strong of a partner as Toronto in the Blazers’ pursuit. Chicago has explored trade scenarios for Zach LaVine throughout the offseason, but Portland does not seem eager to acquire the All-Star guard. The Blazers already have a high-scoring athlete in Simons, who, although not matching LaVine’s production, is four years younger and commands a significantly lower salary. Chicago might explore rerouting LaVine to another destination, possibly using that package to engage Portland, as mentioned on PHLY. However, LaVine’s market value has been limited by his salary and injury history, and despite being known as available since July, he remains with the Bulls.

Keep an eye on Utah, as they could potentially play a role in a three- or four-team scenario involving Lillard. If Portland eventually deals with Miami, the Jazz, along with the Bulls, Hornets, and Nets, are reportedly interested in acquiring Tyler Herro from the Heat, according to sources. Many executives prefer Miami’s offer, if the Heat are willing, which could include Herro and Nikola Jovic, along with Jaquez, Caleb Martin, and more.

These dots will eventually connect, leading Lillard from the Blazers to another franchise in the near future. The extent to which these connections solidify, and the number of other teams and players involved in the process, will depend on what Portland’s front office believes is the best possible package they can secure, regardless of whether it aligns with the opinions of rival personnel and fans.

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