Just in case there was any thought whatsoever superstar guard Damian Lillard had assurances of how his trade scenario would play out, the newest Milwaukee Buck put that notion to rest during Monday’s media day.
Lillard, in an interview with NBA analyst Chris Haynes, explained that he and Haynes had been talking on the phone sometime last week when Lillard’s phone started buzzing with a text. “I was on the phone, and I just got a random text from OG [Anunoby], like, “Welcome to Toronto.”
Flustered, Lillard immediately ended the call with Haynes in an effort to get in touch with Anunoby. “He’s always messing around and stuff. We train together in the summer a little bit. So I was like, ‘Lemme call this dude and see,’” Lillard said. “Then he called me back and was laughing, and I’m like, oh, O.K. It caught me off guard, but now I know it didn't happen like that.”
The lack of clarity—which was the case as Lillard-to-Toronto rumors were flying—speaks to how fluid the trade conversations were at one point, with even Lillard being in the dark to some extent, about what was true and what was not. But it also reinforced how seismic the actual news was: That Lillard, who hadn’t had a perennial All-Star teammate since LaMarcus Aldridge in the early to mid-2010s, would now be teaming up with two-time MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo in Milwaukee.
Undoubtedly the Bucks will lose something in having dealt away stopper Jrue Holiday, one of the league’s best point-of-attack defenders and someone who can play up a position or two. His willingness to guard opponents for 94 feet has been a game changer, particularly in the playoffs. Take the 2021 NBA Finals, for example. With the Finals tied at two games apiece, Holiday stripped Suns star Devin Booker in the closing seconds of Game 5 before throwing a jaw-dropping alley-oop pass to Antetokounmpo to seal a Milwaukee victory. The Bucks went on to win the following game, which gave them the NBA crown.
Lillard isn’t Holiday on defense. Far from it, in fact. But for Milwaukee—a team that excels defensively with backstop Brook Lopez and Antetokounmpo being one of the most feared help defenders in the sport—the downgrade on one end should be more than worth the upgrade on the other side. The Bucks sputter at times with their halfcourt offense, even with Antetokounmpo’s generational gifts as a scorer. Lacking a consistent jumper, Antetokounmpo faces stubborn walls in the paint. And things tended to get a bit more dire for the Milwaukee offense when Khris Middleton, a frequent closer for the club, was out of the mix due to injury. That was the case during the 2022 playoffs, which left Holiday in a spot where he was counted upon to be the team’s second option; a role that didn’t fit him and left him with less juice on the defensive end. He shot just 36.4% from the field on 22 shots per game against Boston in that 2022 second-round series.
With Lillard, the shape of the floor will almost certainly change for Antetokounmpo and his teammates. Similar to a sharpshooter like Stephen Curry, the ex-Blazer forces big men to step up far further defensively when he brings the ball up to start each possession because of his long-range ability. That stretching of the defense will create more lanes in pick-and-roll looks for Milwaukee and give a paint beast like Antetokounmpo much better sight lines for scoring chances.
“I can’t imagine them wanting him to have the ball, coming downhill with an advantage, with Khris on the wing, and Brook. You’ve got really good players out there. I’ve definitely thought about it and I just don’t know how you handle that [attack defensively],” said Lillard, who along with Antetokounmpo was one of six NBA players to average 30 points per game last season.
According to Synergy Sports, the Bucks last season averaged just 93 points per 100 possessions during their pick-and-roll ball handler possessions. When it was Holiday orchestrating those looks, the number ticked up some, to 100 points per 100 possessions. In contrast, Lillard averaged 113 points per 100 possessions in such looks. None of this even gets into the self-created metrics, where Lillard is easily one of the most efficient 1-on-1 players in the sport, averaging 117 points for every 100 isolation looks he gets, per Synergy.
It might have been difficult to fully picture Lillard anywhere but Portland or Miami a week ago. But now that the image is coming into focus, and Antetokounmpo is part of that picture as well, don’t be surprised if we witness plenty of effortless scoring in Milwaukee—even with a new coach in Adrian Griffin, and even with certain players needing to learn how to play off of one another.