National Basketball Association
Damian Lillard to Bucks: Grading and debating the massive three-team trade
National Basketball Association

Damian Lillard to Bucks: Grading and debating the massive three-team trade

Updated Sep. 27, 2023 4:22 p.m. ET

A months-long saga that began with a superstar trade demand to one team and one team only – the Miami Heat – reportedly ended Wednesday with future Hall of Famer Damian Lillard headed to the Milwaukee Bucks. Not quite the same destination, but still a seismic move for the NBA, as it pairs up two players on the league's ultra-exclusive 75th anniversary team: Lillard and Giannis Antetokounmpo.

Meanwhile, the Portland Trail Blazers finally moved on from their legendary (and legendarily loyal) guard while the Phoenix Suns swapped starting centers. 

The reported three-team deal sends Jrue Holiday from the Bucks to Portland, Deandre Ayton from Phoenix to Portland and Jusuf Nurkic from the Blazers to the Suns, according to the person who spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity because none of the involved teams had announced the agreement.

[Bucks reportedly acquire Damian Lillard from Trail Blazers]


ESPN reported that Portland also gets an unprotected 2029 first-round draft pick and two unprotected first-round pick swaps in 2028 and 2030.

So who won and lost in the deal? Our panel of NBA experts grades the trade and debates what it all means.

What grade would you give the Bucks for this trade? Does this move make them contenders? 

Melissa Rohlin: The Bucks get an A+. After Giannis Antetokounmpo recently raised questions about whether he'd sign a contract extension with the Milwaukee Bucks, it was clear they needed to do something drastic to keep their franchise superstar happy. This was a brilliant move. It instantly transforms a Bucks team that stunningly collapsed last season in the first round of last year's playoffs back into a title contender. Antetokounmpo, Khris Middleton and Lillard? That's one heck of a Big Three. Lillard has never won a championship and who better to help guide him there than a two-time MVP and one-time champion who put a small-town team on the map? Antetokounmpo and Lillard on the same court is the stuff of nightmares for defenses. Nowhere on that court will be safe. Every square-inch must be guarded. This should be fun. And although the Bucks lost an incredible defender in Holiday, they still have elite defenders in Antetokounmpo and Brook Lopez, so they should be able to compensate for that hit.  

Yaron Weitzman: A+. For one, the Bucks are better today than they were yesterday. Yeah, they're saying goodbye to one of the best perimeter defenders in the NBA, but Lillard gives them something they've never had in the Giannis era: a dominant and dynamic creator who can take over playoff games. And if there's any frontline that can cover for Lillard's defensive limitations, it's one featuring Giannis and Lopez. 

The other part of all this is that Giannis, who can become a free agent in two years, had made it VERY clear this offseason that he wasn't happy with the state of the Bucks roster. The Bucks' primary goal is to win a title, but more than that, it's keeping Giannis happy so he re-signs. This should get the Bucks closer to that place. 

[Damian Lillard trade to Milwaukee Bucks causes huge shift in NBA title odds]

Ric Bucher: C. I'd feel a lot better about it if they'd moved Middleton. Holiday was their second-best two-way player. I'd also feel better about it if Lillard weren't 33. The issue the Bucks face hasn't changed — their core is old, outside of Giannis. Who is it, two years from now, that convinces Giannis he should stay in Milwaukee to keep as a teammate? And if Middleton can't stay healthy, their perimeter defense goes from formidable to questionable.

Bucks acquire Damian Lillard in three-team deal with Suns & Blazers, per report | The Herd

What grade would you give the Blazers? Did they get enough in return?

Bucher: A+. Kudos to GM Joe Cronin. Since Lillard went public with his trade demand, it looked as if he would have to be satisfied taking young unproven talent and with the cap flexibility getting off Lillard's massive contract. Lillard didn't get his wish but it's hard to feel sorry for him going to play with Giannis. I don't know of any offers that were A) better and B) would make Lillard happy. Flipping Nurk for Ayton is also a plus. Moving Jrue for another potential first-rounder would make it A++.

Weitzman: A-. It's hard to answer this question now, because I assume the Blazers plan on re-routing Jrue Holiday to a different team and so we have to see what they get in return. But a future pick — and swap — from the Bucks, given the questions about Giannis' future in Milwaukee, is a better bet than anything they would have gotten from the Heat. Add in Deandre Ayton, who could be a good frontcourt complement to the impressive young backcourt the Blazers have collected (Scoot Henderson and Anfernee Simons), and you have an intriguing collection of young talent to build around. It's hard to imagine, especially after another Holiday deal, the Blazers ending up with less than what they would have received from the Heat. 

Rohlin: B-. Damian Lillard is one of the league's top players. Sure, Jrue Holiday is an elite defender and Deandre Ayton has All-Star potential, but after this deal, I'm not sure the Trail Blazers will even make the playoffs. It remains to be seen what the Trail Blazers plan to do with their newly acquired pieces, so this could just be the beginning of a larger domino effect. But the Trail Blazers were in a tough position with Lillard asking out, and the Heat – his team of choice – not offering anything appealing enough. They got a first-round pick and a swap from the Bucks and two great players, which appears to be a better package than they were able to get anywhere else – but don't expect to see the Trail Blazers come mid-April. But perhaps this move is more for the long term. More on that below.

What grade would you give the Suns? Why are they making this move?

Bucher: A. Woooo, talk about formidable. Nurkic is a better floor-spacer than Ayton because he has 3-point range and he's a better matchup with Denver's Nikola Jokic, with whom he has a long history/rivalry.  

Rohlin: A-. It has been clear for a while that Ayton's partnership with the Suns was fractured. Ayton never felt that he got the respect he deserved after helping them make the Finals in 2021. And the Suns were tired of his maturity issues. This was as much of a chemistry move as it was a basketball move. Now the Suns have a clean slate after dealing both Ayton and Chris Paul, paving the way for Kevin Durant, Devin Booker and Bradley Beal to try to transform the Suns into a championship team. Meanwhile, the Suns added an agile big in Nurkic to complement them. 

Weitzman: B+. I think? The loss of Ayton means they have no size now, but the organization has clearly been out on Ayton for a while now. Nurkic might not be as spry as Ayton, but he should be more reliable as a backline defender. More importantly, what this trade does give the Suns is more depth, something which they desperately needed after dealing for two stars over the past year, both of whom have extensive injury histories.   

Where do the Blazers go from here, and what are your expectations for this season and beyond?

Bucher: I have no expectations for this season and I don't think the Blazers do, either. It's a launching pad for Scoot, nothing more. Long-term, best-case scenario, they're a homegrown team that feeds off its homecourt advantage, has a gaudy regular-season record and gets bounced in the first or second round. Same as it ever was. Absolutely no reason to think differently.

Rohlin: Don't expect much for this season. This deal was made with the future in mind. And the future could be very interesting. The Trail Blazers have exciting young stars in Henderson and Simons and they now have the capital to add more talent. The Trail Blazers could be an up-and-coming team with a high ceiling in the near future. What they really need is some leadership. It's uncertain if they're going to keep Holiday. And if they get rid of him, they're going to need to plug that hole with a talented veteran. Ayton has been plagued with questions surrounding his maturity his entire career. And the team's young stars are going to need guidance. That should be the No. 1 priority  for this team. 

Weitzman: First, they need to flip Holiday. And then they can go about finishing up their rebuild. They can give their young players lots of minutes and lots of shots, get another lottery pick and then, next offseason go about plugging the holes in their roster. Blazers fans should be thrilled. This team is now in a fantastic position. 

What did we learn from the Damian Lillard saga? What does it say about loyalty in the modern NBA?

Bucher: Lillard didn't get to pick his destination but he gave that certainty up in exchange for a two-year, $120 million extension. Keeping him never made sense and going to Milwaukee is not a bad consolation prize. Let's put it this way: he got his $$, and now he has a better chance than he's ever had of going to the Finals. I'm not about to shed a tear for Dame Dolla.

Rohlin: Loyalty? I loved the way Kevin Durant dealt with that question during the All-Star break when he forced the Brooklyn Nets to deal him to the Phoenix Suns. The drama? It's good for the game, he argued, saying, "It's bringing more eyes to the league." 

This specific case is interesting just because Lillard was supremely loyal to the Trail Blazers for, let's face it, much longer than he should've been. That being said, the Blazers didn't deal him to his destination of choice in Miami. You can't blame the Blazers, who obviously needed to do what was best for them to position for future success. (They were at least loyal enough to deal him to a contender, though.) The big takeaway here is if superstars demand to be traded, something the league has long been wary of, they typically will be dealt – but not always to their city of choice. Proceed with caution, boys.  

Weitzman: The Blazers deserve credit. Despite Lillard trying to force his way to Miami, the Blazers held strong and ended up getting what I think will eventually be a better return. The easiest thing would have been just sending Lillard to Miami early in the summer. But that was before Giannis started putting pressure on the Bucks in the media. Patience allowed the Blazers to take advantage of that. There's a lesson there for sure. 

Damian Lillard traded to Bucks in three-team deal with Suns & Blazers, per report | The Herd

Who will be the next A-lister to request a trade? (James Harden doesn't count – he already did.) 

Rohlin: Joel Embiid. The 76ers can't seem to get it right. Embiid finally won an MVP – but he still has a glaring hole on his resume: He has never even reached the NBA Finals, nonetheless won a title. Sure, he has often struggled with his health during the postseason, but the 76ers have never had enough pieces around him to compensate for his bumps and bruises. If things continue to go awry, I expect Embiid to want to bring his talents elsewhere. 

Weitzman: There have been two names discussed by people around the NBA all summer: Giannis and Embiid. It's fair to assume that, at least for the time being, this deal will keep Giannis in Milwaukee for at least one more year, if not longer. Embiid is now the superstar whose future is most in question. 

Bucher: Kyrie Irving is always a candidate although I'm not sure he's an A-lister these days. Karl-Anthony Towns seems ripe to get out of Minnesota with Anthony Edwards ascending and Rudy Gobert clogging the lane. Does Zach LaVine qualify? Feels as if something needs to change in Chicago. And then there's Embiid, who has already dangled the idea of being elsewhere. He's not my first choice simply because I can't take anything he says seriously. 

Damian Lillard traded to Milwaukee Bucks in 3-team deal | First Things First

Ric Bucher is an NBA writer for FOX Sports. He previously wrote for Bleacher Report, ESPN The Magazine and The Washington Post and has written two books, "Rebound," on NBA forward Brian Grant's battle with young onset Parkinson's, and "Yao: A Life In Two Worlds." He also has a daily podcast, "On The Ball with Ric Bucher." Follow him on Twitter @RicBucher.

Melissa Rohlin is an NBA writer for FOX Sports. She previously covered the league for Sports Illustrated, the Los Angeles Times, the Bay Area News Group and the San Antonio Express-News. Follow her on Twitter @melissarohlin.

Yaron Weitzman is an NBA writer for FOX Sports. He is the author of "Tanking to the Top: The Philadelphia 76ers and the Most Audacious Process in the History of Professional Sports." Follow him on Twitter @YaronWeitzman.

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