While the NBA season doesn’t officially tip off until Oct. 24, basketball stepped squarely into football season and made its presence felt with Wednesday’s blockbuster three-team deal involving the Milwaukee Bucks, Phoenix Suns and Portland Trail Blazers.
Bucks receive: Damian Lillard
Trail Blazers receive: Jrue Holiday, Deandre Ayton, Toumani Camara, draft considerations
Suns receive: Jusuf Nurkic, Grayson Allen, Nassir Little and Keon Johnson
Perfect fit in Milwaukee
If there were two players in the NBA that seem born to play together, it is Giannis Antetokounmpo and Damian Lillard.
The most dominant interior presence in the league and one of the best long-range shooters the league has ever seen.
Both with the type of throwback, David vs. Goliath, us-against-the-world attitude that is rare in today’s NBA.
Both having spent the last decade putting their smaller market teams on the NBA map.
Instead of either/both going to large markets, both will now work together to try to get the Bucks their second championship in the last 50-plus years. Super exciting stuff.
But it doesn’t stop with the Bucks.
Phoenix and Portland both address big needs
The Suns, already having made two huge splashes in 2023 to bring Kevin Durant and Bradley Beal to town to play with budding MVP candidate Devin Booker, just filled their main weakness by adding quality, starting-caliber young players to their otherwise older, extremely thin lineup.
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And the Trail Blazers accomplished their goals in trading Lillard, bringing back an proven young big man talent in Ayton to join their young core of perimeter players while also adding one of the better veteran leaders in the league to help mentor their franchise point guard in waiting, Scoot Henderson.
There is a lot to unpack here, and the NBA nerd in me is buzzing right now. But let’s take a look at this from a fantasy and betting perspective.
The Bucks are the new betting and fantasy juggernaut of the East
I’ve had the Bucks as my preseason betting favorite in each of the last three seasons, which has resulted in one championship (2021) but two early playoffs exits as they have dealt with injuries, particularly to All-Star second option Khris Middleton.
The team has been built around the dominance of Giannis attacking the rim on offense, with Middleton and Holiday as the two secondary scorers and a strong defense built around Giannis, Holiday and Brook Lopez. The biggest weakness on the team has been lack of consistent volume shooting outside of Middleton, so his injury absences have hit the team particularly hard.
Enter Lillard, whose shooting/scoring has been enough to almost single-handedly keep the Trail Blazers relevant in the Western Conference playoff race for the last decade.
Holiday and Allen were the Bucks’ starting backcourt last season and averaged a combined 23.0 FGA per game. Lillard has averaged 19.8 FGA for the past eight seasons, and likely takes up much of that shooting volume himself. Presumably he and Giannis should both be able to shoot at high enough volume to approximate just under their previous scoring volumes, perhaps with both in the upper 20s instead of low 30s.
Middleton will need his shots too, but he was already shooting less after his knee issues, and now becomes firmly a third option. The other Bucks are all role players, 3-and-D types that should be able to knock down open looks even at low volumes.
Lillard likely has an additive impact on the Bucks’ team assists, in particular from Giannis. Lillard has averaged 7.6 APG in the last four seasons, roughly similar to the 7.4 APG Holiday produced for the Bucks last season. Lillard has some upside to improve, with Giannis as both a finisher and a defense-warper that gets teammates open looks when opponents build their wall to stop him.
Lillard also helps increase Giannis assist numbers, because when they run their pick-and-roll/pop two-man game or when Giannis drives and kicks, he’ll be passing to one of the best shooters of all time to make his passes more efficiently into assists. In addition, Lillard’s presence warps defenses as well, so the opposing defensive wall will have cracks that either Giannis can exploit or leaves their teammates even more wide open.
On the fantasy hoops front, Giannis remains a top-2 prospect. Lillard’s fit with the Bucks moves him back up into the early second/late first round fantasy draft range. Middleton’s value is down from what it was two seasons ago, but higher than his injury plagued last season to settle into the 50-75 range. Lopez and Bobby Portis don’t have their fantasy values impacted all that much by the deal.
The Suns’ new pieces make the team work better
As I wrote in my trade response piece from earlier this summer, when the Suns traded for Beal, the team clearly still had moves to make because they had become extremely imbalanced. Each of Booker, Durant and Beal are incredible volume-scoring perimeter talents but there is only one ball and they lacked any sort of size or depth around them.
What’s more, incumbent fourth-best-player Ayton was a big man that needed to score to be effective. Last season, Ayton averaged 13.2 FGA and 1.4 combined steals and blocks per game. Nurkic doesn’t require as many shots and is more active on defense, averaging 9.9 FGA and 1.8 combined steals and blocks per game over the last three seasons. This is a much better fit for the new-look Suns, and allows more space for their best players to all get as close to individual maximization as possible.
On the fantasy hoops front, the prospects for Booker, Durant and Beal don’t change all that much with this deal. Nurkic’s doesn’t change significantly either, but if he’s able to concentrate more on defense and rebounding it could give him a slight boost. He remains on the fringe of my top-100.
The Trail Blazers just fast-forwarded the rebuild
Portland could get the biggest fantasy basketball mover in the deal in Ayton. He averaged 18.0 PPG on 58.9 FG% and 76.0 FT% with 10.RPG last season and has clear, achievable 20-10 upside as soon as this season. But, he was never going to get the shots in Phoenix to come close to 20 PPG with Durant and Beal in town.
After averaging 18.7 PPG on 13.8 FGA in the 53 games before Durant made his Suns debut, Ayton averaged only 12.5 PPG on 9.9 FGA in the eight games Durant played in the regular season and 13.4 PPG on 11.1 FGA during the playoffs. Add Beal to the mix, and I had Ayton projected for by-far the lowest scoring average of his career this season in the very low double-digits.
The Trail Blazers are building for the future, and Ayton fits perfectly with their 25-and-under brigade including 19-year-old incoming franchise point guard Scoot Henderson, 24-year-old Anfernee Simons and 20-year-old Shaedon Sharpe. While Ayton and incumbent power forward Jerami Grant are both score-first bigs, there should be more shots available with Lillard’s departure. And Grant is a poor rebounder, meaning Ayton should be able to vacuum the boards. And he should be motivated to hustle more on defense than when he was in Phoenix, because he should be a much bigger part of the offense on a consistent basis. Win-win.
The biggest fantasy hoops question mark for the Trail Blazers is whether they decide to keep Holiday, and if so how he fits in with what they want to do. In recent years we’ve seen star veteran point guards fit well on rebuilding teams, teaching them to win through their professionalism and experience. Chris Paul with the Oklahoma City Thunder comes to mind.
If the Trail Blazers go that route, Holiday could eat into what was presumed to be a full load of minutes for rookie Henderson. Holiday’s numbers would also probably go down, because his minutes and load would be lesser in splitting the guard minutes with Henderson and Simons. If, on the other hand, the Trail Blazers stick with a youth movement and trade Holiday again, their young players would go back to maximum minutes expectations and Holiday’s output would depend on where he ultimately lands.
It is rare in today’s NBA to see a trade where every team involved gets what they are looking for, but on every level this deal appears to be that case. Each team improved in the area that they wanted, the two contending teams improved their odds to win, and the fantasy prospects for all involved largely hold constant or improve. Win-win-win.