It finally happened. After spending years on the brink of asking for a trade, Damian Lillard finally told the Trail Blazers’ front office that he wants out and they have said that they will look to move him. Teams are already lining up to secure the services of the All-NBA guard.
Should the Spurs be one of them, considering Lillard might not be against landing in San Antonio? The answer is complicated. The Silver and Black have the assets to beat the offers most contenders could make but do they want to break up their young core for a 33-year-old guard? Let’s take a look at the positives and the negatives.
The case for trading for Lillard
Superstars don’t become available often, and Lillard is definitely a superstar. He’s dealt with some injuries and some strategic resting in Portland over the past two years, but when he was on the court, he was one of the best scorers in the league. We are not talking about Fred VanVleet here. Lillard is legitimately capable of being the engine of an offense by creating both for himself and others. His deadly pull-up jumper forces defenses to gameplan for him which often results in others being open. Space the floor well, give Lillard a good screener who can also pass out of the short roll, and he’ll take care of the rest. San Antonio simply doesn’t have anyone who can do that, which is why it was often so hard for them to score in the half-court last season. Dame would fix that.
Even with Lillard around providing a big offensive boost, the Spurs would probably be a play-in team, but he could help others improve. He’s under contract for four more years, so he could be the centerpiece of the offense until Victor Wembaynama grows into the role, and then Dame could become a second or third option. The Spurs have a capable backup in Tre Jones, so they could monitor his minutes to try to prevent a huge decline and would have both point guards coming off the books before Wembanyama signs an extension, so they could move on if they feel Wemby needs a different orchestrator to shine. There would be an immediate loss of cap flexibility and at least one piece of the young core would likely have to go back to Portland along with several draft picks, but it’s not hard to map out the future of the team.
If the idea is to make a leap next season and be competitive early in Wembanyama’s career, Lillard is arguably the best available player who can make that happen. The rebuild would be over, and while the ceiling of the team wouldn’t be championship contention, there’s nothing wrong with just having a fun squad that competes for the playoffs in the short term.
The case against trading for Lillard
Lillard is better than DeMar DeRozan but a move for him feels like a step backwards. The Spurs already tried adding a veteran scorer to a young core, and it didn’t really work. They have Wembanyama now, which changes things, but unless they think he’s going to be a star in the first couple of seasons of his NBA career (and he might), San Antonio would be a play-in team or at best first-round fodder for a couple of years before being forced into the decision of doubling down and keeping Lillard (provided he wanted to stay) or going back to the drawing board. The immediate on court-fit seems great on paper, and there is a chance a couple of the young guys develop quicker with Lillard around, but everything else, from his contract and age limits ceiling the team would have should give the Spurs pause before pulling the trigger.
Then there’s the question of price. Lillard is reportedly not against landing in San Antonio, but it’s hard to tell if that’s the truth or just a negotiation tactic from the Blazers’ front office. In order for General Manager Joe Cronin to avoid looking petty when he accepts an offer from a non-contender for arguably the most beloved member of that franchise, the Spurs would have to come up with the type of deal that would look foolish to pass up. A package like that would likely include two of the top young players and a couple of first-round picks, at a minimum. There would still be enough talent to be competitive, and there’s always the chance to make another addition, but Lillard has shown that he’s not enough to entice other stars to want to join him, and San Antonio is not a free agent destination. Trading for Dame would be an all-in move that would severely limit the team’s future options.
It would make more sense for the Spurs to be the team that facilitates a Lillard trade than the one actually getting him. If the 76ers are willing to lose Tyrese Maxey to get Dame, why not take him on and send out someone else to Portland, for example? San Antonio shouldn’t be totally passive and fearful to trade one or more of their young guys, but doing so for players that fit Wembanyama’s timeline simply seems smarter than going for Lillard.
There’s no right answer, just preferred directions
If the Spurs get Lillard, next season would be a lot more fun to watch. With some extra moves and a bit of internal development, they could be a playoff team in Wembanyama’s rookie season and just forget about tanking. The ceiling of the roster would be on the lower end unless the front office somehow gets another star, but there’s nothing wrong with just being competitive and fun. Only one team wins a title every year, after all.
The problem is the Spurs are in a prime position to be that team in the not-so-distant future if they are patient and play their cards right. Keep the core together to see what combinations work, pick high again in the next draft, preserve cap flexibility, continue to build the war chest of draft assets and eventually pounce when the timing is right. That seems like a better plan for the long term than going after an aging star.
If the goal is to become a playoff team as soon as possible, trading for Lillard is a good idea. If the plan is to eventually become a perennial contender, resisting the temptation to land a star now is simply smarter. It’s all a matter of perspective.