By Shawn Ness | October 16, 2023
After a long summer of trade rumors, Damian Lillard finally got his trade request, not to the Miami Heat, which he said was the only team he wanted to play for, but the Milwaukee Bucks.
Lillard will be suiting up with two-time MVP, Finals champion, and MVP, Giannis Antetokounmpo, arguably one of the top three players in the world.
Lillard, a 7-time All-Star and All-NBA player, and a former Blazer for life, got the trade after a rocky two seasons of finishing 13th in the Western Conference. In the 2021-22 season, Lillard suffered an abdominal injury that sidelined him for the season after 29 games. The injury lingered into 2022-23 and caused him to miss 25 games.
Now, Giannis is one of the best players in the league, among the fastest and certainly among the strongest. Meanwhile, Lillard is arguably the second-best shooter in the league, only behind Steph Curry. With the threats of Lillard being able to shoot lights out from behind the arc, and Giannis essentially being able to bully anyone in the paint and move from half-court to dunking in two long strides, both players need to be under constant pressure from two or more defenders. This will always leave one of the two open, and leaves opposing teams in a virtually impossible defensive position.
If you double Giannis down low or at the top of the key, that leaves Lillard open for a three, which would be easy money for him against his defenders. And if you double Lillard at the 3-point line, Giannis is left unattended and will make lunch meat of whoever is left guarding him. And if defenders do somehow manage to guard Giannis, since he is an above-average passer – especially for a power forward – he should easily be able to find Lillard behind the arc for a three, and vice versa.
“Teams are going to give [Giannis] attention. They're not gonna allow this dude to come downhill and just dunk every time, because that's what’d happened ... so it's two on the ball and you popping back to open threes, and I'm a sniper,” Lillard told reporters in an Oct. 4 press conference.
This duo will also be a disaster to guard in transition. Giannis is one of the best spacers in the league with how fast he can cover ground. He can go for an all-out sprint and beat whichever defender is in front of him, and if he does get beat, then he can easily find Lillard for a transition three, which has grown to be a specialty of his.
It has been long talked about that the best possible pairing for Giannis would be Steph Curry, but now they have the second-best option in Lillard. Lillard has shot 37% or better from three in the last four seasons, as the only time it dipped was in 2021-22 when he shot 32% in 29 games. Lillard has long been one of the league’s best scorers, averaging over 25 points per game in every season since 2015-16, when Lillard became the best player on the Trail Blazers’ roster after LaMarcus Aldridge was traded to the Spurs.
I don’t think people are realizing the potential for this. This could potentially be Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant-level basketball or Lebron James and Dwyane Wade, Kevin Durant and Steph Curry-level play. The magnitude of potential for this duo is just enormous.
There is one issue; can Lillard stay healthy enough to make a deep playoff run? He has done it before. Lillard carried the Blazers to the 2018-19 Western Conference Finals, only to lose to Durant and Curry’s Golden State Warriors in four games, where Lillard averaged 24 points for the series. It is unclear if his abdominal injury is still posing problems for him, as Lillard looked better last season where he missed 25 games. He will be 33 this season, Giannis is only 28. The championship window is rather small, where Lillard will likely only be a solid producer for two or three more years, whereas Giannis has at least another seven left in the tank.
The ceiling for this duo is a championship, plain and simple, and it will likely be a nightmare for coaches to come up with a game plan to guard the two stars.
The Bucks did give up one of their big three pieces, Jrue Holiday, who was their best perimeter defender, and one of the premier perimeter defenders in the league. His offensive game left some things to be desired, as he was a solid 19.3 PPG on average last year. In the playoffs, his numbers dropped two points with an even steeper drop in his efficiency, going from nearly 55% on two-pointers and 38% from three to barely 40% on twos and 28% from behind the arc. Part of that issue was with his mid-range game. With the Bucks' roster consisting of two 7-footers in the paint at any given time, he could not quite find his spacing, and it suffered even worse in the playoffs.
This will be the first time during Lillard’s prime that we will see him as something other than the first option. Decreased usage and workload might be the thing he needs to string together some healthy final seasons that could be the boost he needs to finally get himself a ring.