Damian Lillard is the sort of superstar that very rarely hits the trade market. Aside from his remarkable track record as a player, Lillard stands out because of the three guaranteed years remaining on his contract. Acquiring Lillard wouldn't need to be a rental. A new team would have some time to put the proper roster around him, and according to The Ringer's Kevin O'Connor, that idea has emboldened some very surprising teams to pursue a deal with the Portland Trail Blazers.
O'Connor lists five teams as being the most aggressive in pursuit of Lillard. The New York Knicks, Miami Heat and Philadelphia 76ers are all among the usual suspects, playoff teams that could send Portland hefty trade packages in the hopes that Lillard could lift them into the championship picture. The two other teams O'Connor lists, though, are in a very different position. In addition to the Knicks, 76ers and Heat, he also writes that the Sacramento Kings and Houston Rockets have aggressively pursued Lillard.
On paper, neither team seems to make sense. The Rockets not only had the worst record in the NBA last season, but got there after James Harden requested a trade out of Houston. After factoring in all of the other assets it would take to acquire Lillard (a package that would almost certainly include the No. 2 overall pick), it seems unlikely that the Rockets would be able to put a contending-caliber roster around him immediately. If they couldn't, they'd run the risk of Lillard causing as much of a disruption as Harden did last season.
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The Kings are better than the Rockets at this stage. They have the No. 9 overall pick in the NBA Draft, but they haven't made the playoffs in 15 years. Their best player, De'Aaron Fox, plays Lillard's point guard position. That doesn't necessarily mean that they can't fit together, but if the Kings had to give up everything else to get Lillard, they'd likely be in the same position Portland has been in for the past several years. They'd have a great backcourt and not enough elsewhere to win at the highest levels. They could include Fox in the offer hoping to keep everybody else under the logic that upgrading to Lillard might finally get them back into the playoffs, but it's hard to imagine Lillard being satisfied with that arrangement after so many years out of the championship picture in Portland. Lillard has made it clear that his priority at this stage in his career is winning the championship.
"Right now, I'm not sure what I'm going to do," Lillard said after a recent Team USA practice. "My intention, my heart has always been set on being in a Trail Blazers uniform for my entire career. But I think over time, you want to win it all. I want to win it all in a Trail Blazers uniform. We all have to be making strides toward that."
O'Connor reiterates that executives he has spoken to do not expect a Lillard trade this offseason, but the fact that Houston and Sacramento have actively pursued him says quite a bit about how unusual his circumstances are. Superstars typically use their impending free agency as leverage. Anthony Davis could force the Pelicans to trade him to the Lakers because no suitor would risk paying what it would take to acquire him only to lose him for nothing in free agency. But that risk doesn't exist for Lillard. With three years left on his deal, virtually any team could acquire him, and if it didn't work, flip him a year or two later.
That has apparently convinced teams like the Rockets and Kings to try to get into the mix. Even if their rosters seemingly don't make sense for Lillard right now, opportunities to acquire All-NBA players with so much runway are just so rare and valuable that they might be willing to ignore their own deficiencies just for a chance to get that first star in the building. Doing so opens doors. When you have one star, that star can recruit the second. As Chris Paul has proven in Phoenix and Oklahoma City, he can also enhance the players around him. Lillard, revered as one of the NBA's best teammates, might have a similar impact on a younger team.
But his preference if he gets traded would obviously be to join a readymade contender. There will be no shortage of them eager to deal for him. If the wrong team does try to get Lillard, they're risking adding a player who wouldn't want to be there. Few teams have ever had the stomach to try such a move, but for a player like Lillard, it might be worth the risk.