Could LA Lakers Actually Land Damian Lillard If He Forced a Trade?

Eric Pincus@@EricPincusLA Lakers Lead WriterJune 29, 2021

Portland Trail Blazers guard Damian Lillard, right, and Los Angeles Lakers forward LeBron James embrace after an NBA basketball game in Portland, Ore., Friday, Dec. 6, 2019. (AP Photo/Craig Mitchelldyer)
Craig Mitchelldyer/Associated Press

Sunday afternoon's bliss was interrupted by a massive tweet from Yahoo Sports' Chris Haynes.

Chris Haynes @ChrisBHaynes

The backlash from Portland Trail Blazers’ coaching search and his concerns over whether a championship contender can be built have become major factors that could force Damian Lillard to request out, league sources tell @YahooSports. https://t.co/syN8upvWPx

Haynes is not fishing for clicks. He's an excellent reporter with a strong enough relationship with Damian Lillard to get the All-Star guard on the record regarding the Portland Trail Blazers' coaching search to replace Terry Stotts, "Jason Kidd is the guy I want."

The Blazers hired Chauncey Billups instead, but he was on Lillard's list, according to Jason Quick and Shams Charania of The Athletic, with the quote, "I like J. Kidd and Chauncey."

Yet, something isn't sitting well with Lillard in Portland. There's no reason to believe he's demanded a trade yet, but Haynes' Sunday report seemed like a big step in that direction.

Naturally, fans around the league took to social media to "GM" the veteran guard to their franchise, especially Lakers fans who would love to see LeBron James and Anthony Davis paired with an explosive shooter like Lillard. More on that later...but let's first set some realistic expectations.


Does Dame Have Leverage?

First, given Lillard is heading into the first season of a four-year $176.3 million supermax extension, why would the Blazers honor such a request?

That was a hotly debated question in NBA circles on Sunday. Lillard is under contract through at least the 2023-24 season, with a $48.8 million player option for 2024-25. With three fully guaranteed seasons ahead, Portland has no obligation to trade their best player and no obligation to send him to a contender of his choice. Right?


Farbod Esnaashari @Farbod_E

Sources tell myself & @AdamNBorai: There is a growing rift between Portland Trail Blazers ownership, Damian Lillard, & the front office. Dame has been in touch with players on other teams this off-season & monitoring Portland's future before committing to anything. More to come.

"Portland has the leverage contractually, for sure, but Dame could pull a [James] Harden and make it messy to gain leverage," one player agent said.

"He's a star [and stars have a lot of power in the NBA]," a former Western Conference executive said. "I think [a trade] will be agreed to mutually, but Portland will direct it."

The New Orleans Pelicans had a miserable final year with Anthony Davis in 2019 after his midseason trade demand led nowhere until the offseason, ultimately landing him in his desired spot with the Lakers for a sizable bounty.

Conversely, Kobe Bryant infamously demanded a trade in 2007. The Lakers briefly shopped Bryant but ultimately decided it was not in their best interest. Soon after, the team acquired Pau Gasol and went on to the NBA Finals three straight years (winning two titles).

But the Harden standoff was more recent. The former MVP was dealt by the Houston Rockets to the Brooklyn Nets in January after demanding out, despite being under contract until the end of the 2021-22 season plus a player option worth $47.4 million in 2022-23.

Several teams made overtures but ultimately backed away when Harden indicated he wasn't interested in playing for their franchise. He had enough juice to not only push Houston into a deal, but also to one of his desired teams.

"Harden has a very different situation contractually," a second player agent argued. "I assume Portland can/will trade Lillard wherever they want."

If that's accurate, then Portland won't trade Lillard. His remaining deal is just one year longer than Harden's when Harden was traded. Injuries aside, the Nets will get nearly two full years of Harden while a team that trades for Lillard will have him under contract for at least three.

How does Lillard lack a similar power? 

Are the Blazers willing to hold firm if Lillard is willing to play the villain? That was a lost battle with Harden and Davis, albeit both on shorter contracts at the time.

We could see a similar game of chicken between Lillard and the Blazers. The Blazers can hold firm, waiting until the trade deadline or a future season. Given the size of Lillard's salary ($39.3 million), an in-season deal would be complicated but not prohibitive. Teams have more flexibility with cap and roster space over the summer.

If Portland is going to rebuild, shouldn't it start now instead of pulling the plug halfway through next season? Or is there a Lillard trade that can keep the team competitive?


LeBron, AD and...Dame?

A Lakers package would hinge on the Blazers' evaluation of second-year guard Talen Horton-Tucker.

At 20, he's only a year or two older than some of the top prospects—Cade Cunningham, Jalen Green,  Evan Mobley, and Jalen Suggs—in July's NBA draft. "I'd max him out," an Eastern Conference executive said.

Talen Horton-Tucker, 20, could be the key swing piece in a Damian Lillard trade offering.
Talen Horton-Tucker, 20, could be the key swing piece in a Damian Lillard trade offering.Ashley Landis/Associated Press

Horton-Tucker can earn up to roughly $83 million over the next four years, but only if a team has the cap room to give him an Arenas rule offer sheet as a restricted free agent. (The cited executive does not have the necessary cap space to make that max offer.)

Others aren't as sold.

"He's a role player," said one of the player agents.

If the Blazers are a believer, the Lakers could have some traction. Horton-Tucker can earn up to about $33-$46 million over three or four years via sign-and-trade. Portland would have a team salary limit at roughly $143 million for the 2021-22 season, which should not be an issue.

The Lakers would need to include additional salary, starting with Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Kyle Kuzma. Others, like Montrezl Harrell (if he opts into his final year at $9.7 million) and Alfonzo McKinnie ($1.9 million, some of which would need to be guaranteed) could round out a deal, especially if the Blazers were willing to include center Jusuf Nurkic, who notably told a Bosnian media outlet if Lillard is out, he's out.

The Lakers also have the No. 22 pick, which can be dealt in August when Horton-Tucker is eligible for a sign-and-trade (legally, Los Angeles would not be able to select a player at Portland's direction). The Lakers can also send one of their 2027 or 2028 first-rounders and five of their next seven second-rounders (through 2028).

If the Pelicans were willing to remove their right to delay the Lakers' 2024 first-round obligation to 2025, perhaps in return for a second-round pick, L.A. may be able to send the Blazers both its 2026 and 2028 firsts.

James, Davis and even Lillard could all be long gone by 2026 and 2028. Those picks may not look like much in 2021, but they could be gold down the road.

The Lakers could also attempt to include Dennis Schroder in a sign-and-trade to Portland, but that's a bigger leap. Schroder will be an unrestricted free agent and will decide his destiny this offseason. It may be more reasonable to project Horton-Tucker in a sign-and-trade to Portland because he's restricted and represented by Rich Paul of Klutch Sports (also the agent for James, Davis and Caldwell-Pope).

The Blazers would get three to four proven rotation players, No. 22, one or two future firsts and several seconds for Lillard (and possibly Nurkic, in his final year at $12 million). Kuzma is almost 26 years old with three years, $39 million left on his contract (last season a player option). Caldwell-Pope is 28 with only $17.9 million of his $27 million guaranteed over the next two years.

Is it a great deal for the Blazers? Not really, not unless Horton-Tucker explodes in Portland.


Who Else Wants Dame?

What team wouldn't want Lillard? But what do the Blazers value in return? Do they want All-Star talent, prospects, draft considerations or all of the above?

The challenge in finding a match is the teams with the best picks in the draft are typically the furthest from contention. If Lillard is willing to throw his weight around, does that knock out franchises like the Rockets, Oklahoma City Thunder and Pelicans? They can offer significant draft considerations to the Blazers, along with the necessary contracts for salary matching.

The Pelicans can at least argue a trio with Zion Williamson, Brandon Ingram and Lillard would win immediately, but would Lillard agree with that logic?

Again, the Blazers may not care where Lillard wants to go. But Harden had a similar option and, per a former Western Conference executive, made it clear to the Pelicans that he wanted to be elsewhere.

Of the lottery teams, the Golden State Warriors stand out. Steph Curry and Lillard together...plus a healthy Klay Thompson? A deal centered around the contract of Andrew Wiggins, second-year center James Wiseman, Nos. 7 and 14 in the draft, and just about anyone else on the roster not named Draymond Green, Curry or Thompson is tough to beat.

But that would depend on the Blazers' opinion of Wiseman and the 2021 draft. From canvassing NBA personnel, the drop-off in the draft starts after the top four. Would Portland place a high enough value on Nos. 7 and 14?

The Toronto Raptors can get the Trail Blazers into that sweet spot with No. 4. Would Lillard be open to playing in Toronto, which doesn't have the same veteran core that won the title in 2019?

Pivoting to All-Star talent in return, Ben Simmons might be the best individual player the Blazers can get back in return for Lillard. Simmons' shooting woes are well documented, but a change of scenery may do a world of good for the nearly 25-year-old point forward. Philadelphia can offer a first-round pick(s) or young players like Tyrese Maxey, Shake Milton or Matisse Thybulle.

If Portland isn't interested in Simmons, expect Philadelphia executive Daryl Morey to pursue every avenue to acquire assets for Simmons that would appeal to the Blazers.

The Boston Celtics could offer Jaylen Brown, Robert Williams and other players, along with several of their first-round picks. The Dallas Mavericks can build a package around Kristaps Porzingis and Jalen Brunson but have limited draft considerations.

Would a Julius Randle/Lillard pairing immediately scream contention for the New York Knicks? They have several young players like RJ Barrett, Immanuel Quickley, Obi Toppin, and Mitchell Robinson, and two first-round draft picks: Nos. 19 and 20. The Knicks do benefit from sizable cap room this summer to try and add a third star.

The Denver Nuggets can offer Michael Porter Jr. with Aaron Gordon and Monte Morris, but no first-round picks of note (outside of No. 28).

The Miami Heat have Tyler Herro and Precious Achiuwa but little else, assuming Bam Adebayo and Jimmy Butler are off limits. Maybe add a 2028 first-rounder? Does that move the needle for Portland?

It's Damian Lillard. Every team can and should construct a package, but some are more viable than others, and it's all relative to what the Blazers value most, which, for now, is unknown.


Lakers Still in This?

The Sixers can beat the Lakers, but only if the Blazers want Simmons (or if Morey can pull off something complex with a third or fourth team). Would the Celtics offer Brown? And if so, would Lillard view the Celtics as a contender?

A Warriors offer may be the best. Even if the Blazers don't love Wiseman or the draft picks, teams are allowed more than one transaction in an offseason. They can look to move those assets on if they are looking for something specific.

Is Golden State ready to add another player making over $40 million a season when Curry (who is due an extension), Thompson and Green are all highly paid? Subtracting Wiggins' deal would help.

"The Warriors are the only team that can make a trade and still contend, although the fit is questionable," one of the agents said.

"The Warriors would have to do that. They'd be unstoppable," the former executive said.

The Lakers' package is middle of the road. It's better if the Blazers believe Horton-Tucker and Kuzma can each score 20 points a night, freed from their supporting roles to James and Davis.

Given the playoff rivalry between the Lakers and Blazers, Portland likely prefers to send Lillard elsewhere, perhaps to the Eastern Conference.

Lillard could strong-arm the Blazers to force a deal to the Lakers. If he's willing to play the heel and push for what he wants, the Lakers package is more competitive, assuming viable suitors are scared off.

The appeal to Lillard would be a tremendous chance to win a title immediately with James and Davis. That's not much of a reason for Portland unless it's a true Horton-Tucker believer.


Email Eric Pincus at eric.pincus@gmail.com and follow him on Twitter, @EricPincus.