Damian Lillard is one of the NBA’s best scorers and shooters. Since being selected 6th in the 2012 draft, he’s led the Portland Trailblazers to the playoffs six times, made the All-Star team five times and earned four All-NBA selections. The 29-year-old point guard has two series-winning buzzer-beaters and has given as much as he could to the franchise that believed in him from the start.
For as great of an individual player as he is and as good of a relationship he seems to have with the Blazers, Lillard said recently that if he were to be dealt he’d prefer to go to either the Lakers or the Knicks. Los Angeles would give him the best chance at a title, but New York has many more assets to offer to Portland.
Even if Lillard preferred to be a Lakers, here are two realistic trades the Knicks could offer Portland that’d be too good to pass on. While they may seem steep for a 6-foot-2 scoring point guard who hasn’t won anything, these trades are fair and could help both franchises in the future.
Trade Package 1: Knicks’ 2020 and 2021 first-round picks, Julius Randle, Elfrid Payton, Kevin Knox II
Trade Package 2: R.J. Barrett, Julius Randle, Elfrid Payton
These are both pretty steep asking prices for a player like Lillard who will likely be out of his prime by the time his current contract ends in 2025. Still, it’d be worth it for both teams. Neither organization is in a position currently to compete for a championship in the foreseeable future. So why not blow up your current roster and build toward a contender?
That’s easier said than done, and New York hasn’t shown this millennium that it can build anything resembling a competitive basketball team, but what the Knicks haven’t had in decades is a star guard capable of leading the franchise out of the gutter. They’ve tried countless times with washed-up stars like Derrick Rose, Stephon Marbury, Tracy McGrady, Chauncy Billups, Jason Kidd, Mike Bibby, Baron Davis, and the painful list goes on. Lillard, however, is still in his prime and is signed for five more seasons, so he should break the trend if this trade goes through.
The first trade option not only gets the Knicks the star they’ve been yearning for but also allows them to retain rookie R.J. Barrett. Portland might want him to make the deal work, which is why it’d likely take two first-round picks to make the deal worth doing. Luckily for New York, it has an extra first-round pick from the Clippers in 2020 and the Mavericks in 2021, so giving up its own picks isn’t as gutting a decision as it would be normally. The Clippers and Mavericks picks are unlikely to be lottery picks, but because the 2020 prospects aren’t particularly strong and the 2021 class might be more difficult to evaluate with the uncertainty of COVID-19’s impact on sports around the country, not having a pick in the lottery may not be that big of a deal.
With Lillard mentoring Barrett and Frank Ntilikina, and Mitchell Robinson continuing to improve, New York could finally have a team worth being excited about. Bobby Portis is a decent power forward and Taj Gibson is another veteran locker room presence, and with less congestion in the frontcourt, they both could shine in their roles. The Knicks won’t be in title contention next year, but they’ll at least have a direction and create optimism within fans for the first time in years. Dennis Smith Jr. will have to figure something out, though. Maybe Portland would take him as a throw-in.
The second trade option is less beneficial for the Knicks since they’d be giving up their best young prospect in Barrett. If they feel like they have a better chance to build a contender with four first-round picks in the next two drafts, however, giving away Barrett could be the right move. They could also use those picks to trade for another player to pair with Lillard, which would probably make Lillard happier and show him that the organization is committed to winning.
For Portland, the first trade gives them plenty of assets. Randle didn’t seem overly motivated this season in New York and could find new life playing for a respected organization committed to winning. Payton has developed into a solid starting point guard in the league and is capable of helping his teammates get good looks, which C.J. McCollum should benefit from. Knox II, for as putrid as he’s been this year, is still an extremely young and talented player who could blossom away from the bright lights of New York and on a team with other productive players.
The second trade option gives the Blazers fewer assets in return with Barrett being the key acquisition. If they believe Barrett will develop into a star then the trade should be a no-brainer. If they want to keep McCollum at shooting guard for the foreseeable future and instead acquire as many assets as possible to re-tool a contender in the future, then the first option would be more beneficial.
Whichever deal it picks, Portland would receive two starting-caliber players at positions of need and a 20-year-old prospect who would help the team stay competitive during the rebuild. It could trade McCollum and other assets to go into tank mode, but it shouldn’t need to do so since it would also have two extra picks from the Knicks. By choosing option one, the Blazers could build a playoff team by next year with a starting five of Payton, McCollum, Trevor Ariza, Randle, and Jusuf Nurkic, with younger players Zach Collins, Rodney Hood, Nassir Little, Knox II, Anfernee Simons and Mario Hezonja coming off the bench. They’d also have two first-round picks to add to that roster. Choosing option two would likely mean Portland would trade McCollum since he and Barrett play the same position, a move that would keep them out of the playoffs for the first season or two but could be the best move in the long run.
Both the Knicks and Blazers haven’t had a real path to a title in a long time. Making a blockbuster trade like this would put both franchises in control of their futures without completely tanking. They’d each still sell tickets and win games while having a better opportunity to either trade for or recruit new players in the future. That’s all teams in NBA limbo can ask for.