The immediate buzz following the trade was that the Bucks – who finished as the No. 1 seed in the East last season before being eliminated in the first round of the playoffs – enter the 2023-24 season as the favorites to come out of the East as Lillard pairs with two-time Kia MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo to form a lethal combination.
While the ultimate goal behind this deal of winning the NBA title won’t be decided until June, the NBA’s inaugural In-Season Tournament gives this new-look Bucks team a new competition and championship to chase. Let’s take a look at how this trade impacts the In-Season Tournament outlook for the three teams involved.
Milwaukee (East Group B)
The Bucks were already favored to emerge from East Group B prior to the trade based largely on their success from last season (league-best 58-24) and their roster continuity. They made a coaching change and re-signed free agents Khris Middleton and Brook Lopez to keep the core of their team intact.
The trade for Lillard disrupts that continuity as Milwaukee loses two starters in Jrue Holiday and Grayson Allen. Is the upgrade to Lillard – an NBA 75th anniversary team member, the NBA’s third-leading scorer last season at 32.2 ppg – enough to offset that loss?
With Group Play happening in the season’s first six weeks, the Bucks will need to integrate Lillard into their system quickly in order to emerge out of the group.
While offense should not be a problem, this trade does impact the Bucks’ defense, which ranked fourth last season with a rating of 110.9. Milwaukee’s perimeter defense takes a hit with the loss of Holiday – an All-Defensive Team selection in each of his three seasons with the Bucks – but they are still anchored by Antetokounmpo, the 2020 Kia Defensive Player of the Year, and last season’s runner-up in Lopez.
The trade adds fuel to an East Group B game that was already considered a must-watch – Milwaukee visiting Miami on Nov. 28.
Lillard made it known that Miami was his preferred destination after deciding to leave Portland after 11 seasons. But the Blazers and Heat were unable to come to a deal before Portland accepted Milwaukee’s offer.
This game was already a rematch of last year’s No. 8 over No. 1 upset as Miami eliminated Milwaukee in five games. Add in the Lillard acquisition and this rivalry gets even spicier.
Phoenix (West Group A)
For the Suns, this trade was the latest in a string of moves that have overhauled this roster over the past eight months. Only five players remain from the roster that started the 2023 calendar year with the Suns: Devin Booker, Damion Lee, Saben Lee, Josh Okogie and Ish Wainright.
It began with the acquisition of Kevin Durant at the 2023 trade deadline. The makeover continued in the offseason with a three-team deal to add Bradley Beal and culminates with Ayton headed to Portland while four players come to Phoenix: Grayson Allen from the Bucks and Keon Johnson, Nassir Little and Jusuf Nurkic from the Blazers.
With All-Stars Booker, Durant and Beal commanding All-Star level salaries, the Suns have had to fill much of their roster with players on smaller salaries. The exception to that was Ayton, who had signed a multi-year deal last offseason.
By turning Ayton’s contract into four players, the Suns have added quality depth to their roster to complement their big three. Now it’s up to new coach Frank Vogel to mix all these pieces together. How quickly that happens will determine Phoenix’s fate in Group Play.
Portland (West Group A)
With the departures of Lillard and Nurkic, 24-year-old Anfernee Simons enters the season as the longest-tenured player on the Blazers’ roster.
Portland is looking toward its future, fitting Ayton into the timeline alongside young players like Simons, Shaedon Sharpe and rookie Scoot Henderson.
A player that doesn’t fit that timeline is Holiday, who the Blazers acquired from Milwaukee and will likely be moved for additional draft assets.
As part of a group headlined by the Lakers and Suns as well as the Grizzlies and Jazz, this young Blazers squad will face some tough competition early in the schedule, giving us a chance to gauge how ready this roster is to compete post-Dame Time.