Grading Damian Lillard trade for Bucks, Trail Blazers, and Suns after 3-team stunner

Damian Lillard has been traded to the Milwaukee Bucks in a blockbuster three-team deal that sends shockwaves around the NBA just days before teams report to training camp.

Lillard requested a trade from the Portland Trail Blazers on July 1, and hoped to land with the Miami Heat. The Blazers and Heat reportedly had little dialogue throughout the process, which opened the door to other teams. Milwaukee swooped in with a big package of assets headlined by Jrue Holiday and a 2029 unprotected first round pick. Portland was able to pull the Phoenix Suns into the deal to land a young center in Deandre Ayton who is under contract through 2025-2026.

Lillard is going to Milwaukee to pair with Giannis Antetokounmpo for arguably the NBA’s greatest 1-2 punch. The Blazers are getting Holiday, Ayton, Toumani Camara, a 2029 unprotected first round pick from the Bucks, and unprotected first round pick swap rights from Milwaukee in 2028 and 2030. The Suns land Jusuf Nurkic, Grayson Allen, Nassir Little, and Keon Johnson in the deal.

Let’s grade this trade from every side.

Milwaukee Bucks grade: A

Lillard might be the best pick-and-roll guard in the league at 33 years old. He forms a dream pairing with Giannis Antetokounmpo that gives Milwaukee a dimension they’ve never had before. The Bucks are mortgaging their future to try to maximize their title odds in the present. Antetokounmpo’s very public offseason threats this summer have worked, and delivered him a superstar point guard.

The Bucks are still riding high from their 2021 championship, but they know it isn’t enough to keep Giannis satisfied forever. Milwaukee was on the wrong end of a stunning upset in the first round of the playoffs last season, losing to the No. 8 seed Miami Heat. The Bucks fired head coach Mike Budenholzer as a result, but failed to improve the roster much in the offseason outside of signing veteran shooter Malik Beasley.

This is the type of bold move Milwaukee needed to make. Lillard is an incredible pull-up shooter, a dynamic downhill threat attacking the rim, and a capable playmaker. The Bucks finished No. 12 in offensive efficiency and No. 4 in defensive efficiency last year. Those rankings may flip this year, but improving their scoring punch is a better bet for playoff basketball. New head coach Adrian Griffin suddenly faces a ton of pressure to figure out the rotation and keep co-stars Brook Lopez and Khris Middleton healthy late into the season.

Milwaukee is probably now the favorites in the East. The Bucks are in full-on championship-or-bust mode with so many future picks and pick swaps out the door. Milwaukee’s commitment to Giannis deserves to be applauded. Now they have to win another championship, otherwise, Antetokounmpo could still soon be out the door and their future could be ruined.

Portland Trail Blazers grade: B

The Trail Blazers are in full-on rebuild mode after this trade.

Lillard asked out after Portland selected point guard Scoot Henderson with the No. 3 overall pick in the 2023 NBA Draft in June. Henderson will pair with last year’s lottery pick, shooting guard Shaedon Sharpe, to form the foundation of the next winning Blazers team. While Portland didn’t land the huge bundle of draft picks that defined last summer’s biggest trades for Rudy Gobert, Donovan Mitchell, and Dejounte Murray, those types of offers weren’t on the table for a 33-year-old guard still owed $216 million over the next four years.

Getting back Milwaukee’s 2029 unprotected first rounder is an extremely valuable asset for Portland. Those unprotected pick swaps in 2028 and 2030 could be fantastic, too. Portland has to hope Giannis eventually leaves Milwaukee, and if that happens, the Blazers could be set up super well for the future. They will have to be lucky and patient for that plan to pay off.

The Blazers also did well getting off Jusuf Nurkic in this trade. Nurkic was only one year into a four-year, $70 million deal that immediately felt like a big overpay. Nurkic can’t stay healthy and doesn’t play with as much force as someone that big should. Deandre Ayton gives the Blazers a new look as a young center oozing with talent. Ayton was the No. 1 pick in the 2018 NBA Draft over Luka Doncic, but lost his place with the Suns after a promising run in the 2021 playoffs, when the team made the NBA Finals but lost to the Bucks. Ayton is a frustrating player in a lot of regards while owning a big salary cap number, but a scenery change and coaching change could help him a lot.

The Blazers will now try to flip Holiday in another trade, and they should be able to get at least one more first round pick for him. Portland is playing the long game, and it’s possible we won’t see the best version of this team until the 2030s. Still, the Blazers have two foundational pieces in the backcourt and a new 7-foot center under contract for the prime years of his career. Portland chose to fade Milwaukee’s future over Miami’s, and that’s probably a good bet.

Phoenix Suns grade: D

The Suns are also all-in on a championship this season after trading for Kevin Durant midway through last season and adding Bradley Beal over the summer. Phoenix clearly didn’t think Ayton would be a focal point of the offense with so much firepower around him, and sought to improve their depth in place of their starting center.

Phoenix had the right idea, but it feels like they didn’t add the right pieces in this trade.

Nurkic faces similar problems to Ayton on offense: he doesn’t play with as much force as he should. Defensively, Nurkic is a big downgrade in the middle, and he’s also a much greater injury risk. Grayson Allen is a solid shooter on the wing, but Phoenix already had so many off-guards around his size. Nassir Little is a nice flier on a three-and-D wing, and Keon Johnson is an elite athlete who hasn’t been able to find his footing in the NBA yet.

The Suns still have a major problem at center. They need a big man who can hit the glass, protect the rim, and share the ball offensively as a passing hub. I’m skeptical Nurkic can still be that. Phoenix’s inclusion in this deal is odd to me, but we know the Suns will always make another move if they don’t like their mix at the trade deadline.