Report: Rockets among most aggressive trade suitors for Damian Lillard

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The Houston Rockets are among five NBA teams who have recently shown interest in a trade for Portland Trail Blazers superstar Damian Lillard, according to Kevin O’Connor of The Ringer. Lillard averaged 28.8 points (39.1% on 3-pointers) and 7.5 assists per game last season.

Now 31 years old, rumors have swirled in recent weeks that Lillard intends to request a trade. In a press conference with USA Basketball last Friday, the 6-foot-2 guard denied that he had made a request as of that time, but he was noncommittal beyond that. “I haven’t made any firm decision on what my future will be,” the six-time All-Star said.

In a story posted early Tuesday, O’Connor followed up with some intel on Lillard’s potential trade market. He writes:

Few team executives expect a Dame deal to happen this offseason. But multiple front-office sources say the Heat, Kings, Knicks, Rockets, and Sixers have recently been the most aggressive suitors.

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Even with Lillard at 31 and the Rockets in an apparent rebuilding cycle after finishing 2020-21 with the NBA’s worst record, the appeal is obvious. He’s consistently among the league’s most dominant playmakers and clutch scorers. And thanks in large part to the blockbuster James Harden trade, Houston general manager Rafael Stone does have a significant amount of future draft capital to help facilitate a deal.

It’s worth remembering that despite Harden also being 31, Houston did not want to trade him. The Rockets preferred to continue building around Harden, since they know how difficult it is to acquire a player among the league’s elite. That could explain their interest in Lillard, who is signed through 2023-24 and has a player option for 2024-25.

Then again, the Harden saga was a clear reminder that contracts in the modern NBA aren’t particularly significant. Even though Harden was signed for at least two more seasons at the time, his clear discontent and the ramifications of keeping a star player against his will forced the Rockets into a trade. For the Rockets to give up the type of draft assets that Portland is likely to require, they would presumably need to have confidence that Lillard truly wants to be in Houston and is unlikely to change his mind after a few months. In other words, a deal isn’t worth it to the Rockets if Lillard is likely to then do what Harden did.

So, the question becomes: Can Houston offer Lillard a better path to a championship than the current supporting cast in Portland? The answer depends on Lillard’s preferences, as well as the potential terms of a trade. For example, if the Rockets could keep the likes of Christian Wood, Jae’Sean Tate, Kelly Olynyk, Kevin Porter Jr., Eric Gordon, and the No. 2 overall pick (Jalen Green?) in the 2021 draft, an argument can be made for that group having more upside than the current supporting cast in Portland led by CJ McCollum, Jusuf Nurkic, and Robert Covington. (With Lillard making nearly $44 million next season, John Wall would likely have to leave Houston in any hypothetical trade for salary matching purposes.)

There’s also a hypothetical world in which the No. 2 choice could be dealt as the centerpiece of a separate trade, which would potentially put a second veteran star around Lillard with the Rockets.

But, even if that group is superior to the one in Portland, is it enough to satisfy Lillard’s desire to make a title run? It’s also unclear if the Rockets could meet Portland’s asking price in a trade without involving one of those aforementioned assets. For example, if the Trail Blazers were to demand this year’s No. 2 pick as part of a Houston proposal, that could limit the appeal of the Rockets to Lillard — since it diminishes the potential supporting cast around him. It’s a delicate balancing act.

In short, all the dominoes would have to line up perfectly for a Lillard trade to Houston to make sense. It’s not likely to happen. But given his dominance as a player, there’s a case for Stone to at least explore it.

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