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How Damian Lillard trade is impacting Bucks & 3 other teams 6 months later

Milwaukee's blockbuster addition 6 months ago continues to make ripple effects across the Eastern Conference and the league.

Damian Lillard and the Bucks are finding a consistent rhythm after an up-and-down first 6 months together.

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MILWAUKEE – Time moves along in an NBA regular season about as rapidly or as slowly as you don’t want it to.

For veteran teams and proven stars, the 82-game run-up to the postseason can dawdle along, filled with too many opportunities to get hurt, lose one’s edge, have real life intrude, you name it. For younger players or less-developed teams, it often hurries by, a montage of quick edits and too few moments to process or enjoy things.

The Milwaukee Bucks have experienced 2023-24 at both speeds. It’s been six months since they acquired All-Star guard Damian Lillard on the brink of training camp, a surprise trade that rattled the league. It fired a shot across the bows of the NBA’s other title aspirants, sure, but set in motion for the Bucks enough highlights, lowlights, promises and headaches to fill a calendar or two.

The euphoria that accompanied Lillard to Fiserv Forum and a Media Day session setting up Milwaukee as some sort of presumed favorite to reach the NBA Finals got undercut just four days later. Jrue Holiday, two-way guard and a vital piece of the Bucks’ 2021 NBA title team, got re-routed from Portland to rival Boston, about the worst outcome possible for fans of Giannis Antetokounmpo and crew.

From there, it was one thing after another: Terry Stotts, newly hired as an assistant to rookie coach Adrian Griffin, resigned abruptly after a practice spat between the two men. Antetokounmpo put his name to a contract extension that will keep him under the Bucks’ control at least through 2026-27.

There were signs of Lillard and Antetokounmpo struggling to mesh their alpha-style games and a noticeable decline defensively with Holiday gone. Lillard didn’t get the team he reportedly wanted, Miami, and while going through a divorce admitted he was lonely in his new town. Khris Middleton’s protracted comebacks from knee, wrist, and most recently, ankle injuries went from mini-series to saga. Yet Milwaukee made it deep into January with a 30-13 record, second-best in the league and just 3.5 games behind the Celtics in the East.

That’s when Griffin got fired. Huh? Shedding him at 30-13 seemed almost as odd as a title contender hiring the unproven outsider in the first place. In came Doc Rivers to try to fix whatever ailed the Bucks — their record looked better than the reality of spotty chemistry, fragile confidence and porous D.

So here they sit, 14-11 under Rivers, with only 10 games left after Tuesday’s clash with the Lakers (7:30 p.m. ET, TNT) to firm up as the team they need to be when they made the Finals-or-bust Lillard move.

“It’s the time of year when teams start peaking at the right time,” Milwaukee forward Bobby Portis said. “We’ve been talking about that for a couple months now.”

Meanwhile, the ripples of that blockbuster trade have impacted three other teams in significant ways. Here is a glimpse, six months in:

Portland: License to rebuild

Parting ways with Lillard gave the Blazers explicit freedom to go full rebuild. No more massaging the franchise legend’s feelings, serving his desire to win, while patching together a supporting cast of spare parts and temporary fixes.

Taking a team down to the studs doesn’t assure it of actually finding, well, studs. Coach Chauncey Billups started five rookies Saturday against Denver. Injuries and inadequacy have been Portland’s most distinguishing characteristics this season.

Guard Scoot Henderson, the third overall pick in last June’s draft, has struggled. Re-signing forward Jerami Grant, 30, for five years and $160 million looked even more out of sync once Lillard was gone. Center Deandre Ayton, the biggest piece of the trade coming to the Blazers, has missed 25 games and has looked, at times, as unfocused as he did in his waning days in Phoenix.

The trade deadline came and went and, quizzically, GM Joe Cronin stood pat. Didn’t cash in veterans Grant or Malcolm Brogdon for picks or more prospects. “We don’t want to take any more steps back,” Cronin said then.

For now, headed toward a third consecutive lottery season, Portland has a glut of guards and some hope in the fuzzy futures of youngsters Henderson, Shaedon Sharpe, Anfernee Simons, Duop Reath, Toumani Camara and a few others.

Miami: Deal that got away

In the days after Lillard went to Milwaukee and Holiday subsequently landed in Boston, the Heat took some hits for being unable to land the Blazers’ All-Star guard. Miami was said to be his preferred destination, after all, and he could have slid in alongside Jimmy Butler as their No. 1 or No. 1A player.

The Heat are about what they were last season at this time: 39-32 (one game better than in 2022-23) and on pace for another turn in the SoFi Play-In Tournament. From there, Miami can try to reprise its role as a plucky overachiever and the feisty team none of the higher seeds want to face in the East.

Lillard decorously has declined to talk about any snuffed desires about playing and living in Miami. The Heat added some of the scoring he might have brought by acquiring Terry Rozier from Charlotte in late January. After averaging 23.2 ppg in 30 games for the Hornets, Rozier is down to 15.5 for the Heat, taking four fewer shots nightly and making 41% (30% on 3-pointers).

A couple of silver linings have emerged from the deal not done, however. Miami didn’t sell off its future for the present, keeping young pieces such as Jaime Jaquez Jr. and Nikola Jovic — both of whom would have been shipped to Portland — as rotation players now. Duncan Robinson has been revitalized as a shooter. And Tyler Herro, who was going to anchor the Heat’s package, well, he’s still hurt a lot.

Not landing Lillard also has the Heat looking soberly at Butler and his ability at age 34 and beyond to carry the team where it wants to go.

Boston: Happy unforeseen consequence

Veteran Celtics big man Al Horford knew Milwaukee had pulled off something of a coup in landing Lillard. That only made him happier when his team snagged Holiday four days later.

“It definitely got my attention when Dame went over there,” Horford said Saturday in Chicago. “When I found out we got Jrue, it just put us at another level. Going into the year, I felt pretty good about what we had. But bringing a guy like Jrue in – point guard, champion – for me it was unexpected and a really good surprise.”

Boston already had made a major move, adding center Kristaps Porzingis in June as a frontcourt scoring threat and rim protector. It came with the price, though, of veteran guard, vocal leader and defensive ace Marcus Smart.

The continuing maturation of wings Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown figured to plug some of the leadership void. Holiday has in his quieter way, too, while picking up defensive slack.

“Watching him on film, he comes across as a consummate winner – what does the team need for him?” Bulls coach Billy Donovan said. “If he needs to score, score. If it’s defend, defend. He’s taken on every possible matchup on the perimeter against elite players. It was a great addition to their team.

“And we played Milwaukee early in the year when it was trying to get better defensively. You take a guy like that off your team, there’s going to be a drop-off defensively.”

That was the Bucks’ concern from the start. At 32.2 ppg last season, Lillard represented a gain of 14 points over Holiday’s 19.3. But how many more would they give up without the five-time All-Defensive pick’s talent for guarding three or four positions?

The Celtics won 57 games last season and hosted Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Finals. Giving up Robert Williams (just six appearances) and Brogdon (39) hasn’t cost them much, and they’re favored to get back to the East Finals with Holiday on board to chip in whatever, whenever.

“He plays with a level of emotional balance,” Celtics coach Joe Mazzulla said, “plays regardless of the score, plays regardless of whether things are going well for him or not, and just makes an impact on both ends of the floor.

“Naturally as you get into tougher situations, that will show itself even more, whether it’s verbally or by actions. It’s kind of who he is.”

Milwaukee: Now or never?

Damian Lillard, Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Bucks are currently 2nd in the East standings.

The Bucks played Sunday what Rivers called their “most connected game” since he arrived, beating West upstart Oklahoma City 118-93 at Fiserv Forum. Their defense was everything they’ve worked for and needed: clingy, active, physical, committed.

After months of hand-wringing over bad defensive matchups in stopping the ball — with Lillard, Malik Beasley and a gimpy Middleton at the 1, 2 and 3 positions — it’s clear Milwaukee is going to have to make up for personnel shortcomings with connected team defense.

“Dame’s been doing a great job of containing the ball when guys try to go at him, picking pockets, standing his ground,” Middleton said, after the Bucks limited OKC’s Shai Gilgeous-Alexander to 12 points on 5-of-12 shooting. “Malik’s been doing a great job taking the primary wings for the most part. I’m just trying to figure out where I can help on the defensive side, filling gaps, just being in the right spot.”

Offensively, the original plan — 43 minutes of Giannis dominance, then five of Dame Time — hasn’t been without hiccups either. Lillard often appeared to drift in the season’s first half, unaccustomed to playing so much off the ball. Antetokounmpo soldiered on, putting up some of his most impressive numbers yet to stay in the Kia MVP discussions by default. Middleton, assiduously kept out of back-to-back situations, missed 25 games.

The three started together Sunday for the first time since Jan. 31. Antetokounmpo had 30 points on 18 shots with eight of his 19 rebounds coming offensively. Middleton posted only the second triple-double of his career with 11 points, 10 boards and 10 assists. Lillard, meanwhile, had the luxury of going 4-of-12 for 11 points but with six rebounds and five assists. He was a team-best +18.

“We’ve got to be baskeball players. There cannot be times that it’s Dame Time or Khris Time or my time,” Antetokounmpo said. “We are at full strength right now. Hopefully, we can build good habits in the next 20 days and play good basketball when it matters most.”

Is there enough time? The Bucks’ answer, of course, is there’d better be.

“I’ve used the Dallas example,” Rivers said. “They were not playing well when they went to the playoffs [in 2011]. Then they won the first round and all of a sudden, they came together.”

The underdog Mavericks won their NBA championship that spring, beating the star-laden Heat in six games.

“We would love it to be now. But you’re still going to have tests … There’s going to be some kind of adversity that tests you once the playoffs start,” Rivers said. “I think the biggest piece is that you have a group that wants to come together. I did see that — we want to get it right.”

As for Lillard, he said the six months since the Blazers traded him has gone by in a blur, even on video-game nights spent alone during a gray Milwaukee winter.

“I wanted a chance to win and I got a chance to win,” he told Sunday. “I understand people are going to be critical because they expect peaches ‘n’ cream, they expect things to just be perfect.

“A lot of people haven’t seen a lot of me, they just know that I’m ‘a star.’ They didn’t get to watch me a lot being in Portland. But I know who I am. I know what I bring. Even in the harder moments of the season, even in the harder moments for me as an individual, I always knew I was going to come out on top, I was going to get to where I need to get. It just takes time.”

His three children, his family, his personal life are still back in Portland. This is an extended business trip, but business is getting better.

“I never got too much into ‘who’s happy, who’s critical, who’s mad,’ whatever,” Lillard said. “Because I knew me and I knew I’d rise to the occasion and do what I have to do.”

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Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA since 1980. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on X.

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