What a Damian Lillard to the Knicks trade could look like

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·6 min read
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Damian Lillard treated image in Oregon Blazers jersey
Damian Lillard treated image in Oregon Blazers jersey

The Knicks' resurgence this season was a great story. Despite ending on a sour note and being outclassed in the first round of the playoffs by Trae Young and the Atlanta Hawks in five games, it’s hard to erase the impact the season had on the future of the franchise.

It brought competence back to Madison Square Garden. And the Knicks now have a much more appealing vision to sell to players and agents around the league.

Though he struggled in the postseason, Julius Randle showcased that he can be an important building block for the future. Youngsters RJ Barrett, Mitchell Robinson, Immanuel Quickley, and Obi Toppin also showed various degrees of growth this season as well.

Knicks head coach Tom Thibodeau and the front office braintrust led by Leon Rose have established a positive culture that focuses on player development and has seemingly provided stability to the often downtrodden organization.

That one year has put the Knicks in a much better position to be a superstar destination -- much like the Brooklyn Nets, who pulled off the ultimate star building plan by acquiring Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving, and James Harden.

It was only natural that when Portland Trail Blazers point guard Damian Lillard suffered another playoff series loss Thursday night against the Denver Nuggets that the questions about his long-term future with the Blazers would become a conversation.

Lillard added to the chatter with an ominous quote after the series loss. He posted a photo on Instagram of himself with a quote from rapper Nipsey Hussle’s song “Dedication:”

“How long should I stay dedicated? How long til opportunity meet preparation.”

That quote could mean many things, but it sure got everyone in a stir about what it means for Lillard’s future.

Trade rumors for Lillard have always generally been quiet because he’s made it known that he would like to stay in Portland and the Blazers have never looked to move on from arguably their best player in franchise history.

But it might be time now.

Per SNY's Ian Begley, the Knicks have been monitoring the situation with Lillard. And on Thursday, Stephen A. Smith of ESPN reported that the Knicks are among the teams interested in trading for Lillard.

Jan 24, 2021; Portland, Oregon, USA; Portland Trail Blazers guard Damian Lillard (0) shoots over New York Knicks guard Elfrid Payton (6) and guard Alec Burks (18) during the first quarter at the Moda Center. Mandatory Credit: Craig Mitchelldyer-USA TODAY Sports
Jan 24, 2021; Portland, Oregon, USA; Portland Trail Blazers guard Damian Lillard (0) shoots over New York Knicks guard Elfrid Payton (6) and guard Alec Burks (18) during the first quarter at the Moda Center. Mandatory Credit: Craig Mitchelldyer-USA TODAY Sports

The Blazers have made the postseason every year since Lillard’s second season. They plateaued in 2019, getting all the way to the Western Conference Finals before being swept by the Golden State Warriors in four games.

Offense has never been an issue for the club, but they’ve finished 28th and 29th in defensive efficiency the last two seasons. And it’s hard to envision what the Blazers can do to retool with Lillard and C.J. McCollum’s sizable deals on the books. They could rebuild around Lillard and trade McCollum, but the franchise could also decide it’s time for a change and restart.

The Impact of Lillard

The Knicks are in need of deep threats. Though they shot well from the three-point line in the regular season (third in the NBA), they had the seventh-lowest attempt rate in the league. Lillard would be a major addition on that front, but he also would open up the floor for the entire team. The six-time All-Star causes opponents to double-team or sell out to prevent him from getting hot.

As the Knicks struggled on the perimeter in the playoffs against the Hawks, Lillard’s mere presence would have altered the geometry on the floor for the Knicks. New York shot just 52-for-152 (34.2 percent) on threes against the Hawks. Lillard alone shot 35-for-78 (44.9 percent) from three in his first round series.

Lillard's presence would also open up things for Randle, who struggled mightily against the Hawks. Atlanta overloaded on Randle, taking away all drives and forcing the Most Improved Player of the Year to settle for awkward and tough shots.

Jun 2, 2021; New York, New York, USA; New York Knicks forward Julius Randle (30) drives to the basket in the first quarter against the Atlanta Hawks during game five in the first round of the 2021 NBA Playoffs. at Madison Square Garden.
Jun 2, 2021; New York, New York, USA; New York Knicks forward Julius Randle (30) drives to the basket in the first quarter against the Atlanta Hawks during game five in the first round of the 2021 NBA Playoffs. at Madison Square Garden.

Lillard wouldn’t have solved the Knicks’ defensive issues containing Young, but it would’ve been a much closer series with Lillard’s shot creating ability and how much attention the guard draws from deep.

What would a potential Lillard trade look like?

With Lillard making $39.3 million for the 2021-22 season, and having three additional years on his contract, Portland will expect the world for the guard in a trade. The Knicks will have roughly $60 million in cap space this offseason, so they would likely not have to find contracts that match Lillard’s salary if a trade was negotiated right away before free agency.

Looking at recent trades for stars, the Nets had to trade Caris LeVert, three future first-round picks, and four pick swaps to acquire Harden from Houston. They also had to deal prized center Jarrett Allen to the Cleveland Cavaliers to add a pick in the Rockets deal. The Milwaukee Bucks dealt Eric Bledsoe, George Hill, three future first-round picks, and two pick swaps to acquire Jrue Holiday and keep Giannis Antetokounmpo content.

The Knicks have been in asset accumulation mode since they committed to a rebuild by dealing Kristaps Porzingis to the Dallas Mavericks. New York acquired two future first-round picks in the deal. The Knicks currently own all of their own first round draft picks and also own the two picks from Dallas. In total, they have nine first-round picks in the next seven years and several extra second round picks.

The decision will come down to how the Knicks value their prospects on the roster. The Blazers would certainly look at Barrett as a potential centerpiece of a trade, but if the Knicks want to hold on to the former 2019 lottery pick, they will have to add some additional future draft compensation.

Realistically, the Knicks would likely have to send at least three first round picks, multiple pick swaps, and Barrett or some combination of Robinson, Toppin and Quickley to make a trade happen. For the Knicks, that would leave the cupboard empty.

A Randle and Lillard team is good, but not enough to make any real noise past a first round series win in the East. Plus, Lillard’s contract escalates quickly. By the end of his deal, he will be making $48.78 million at the age of 34.

But if they could add a third star (Kawhi Leonard is a hot name right now) to combine with Randle and Lillard, a trade would make some sense for the Knicks. It would leave them without several assets, but it would give them a real, credible shot of entering the NBA title contender conversation.