Timberwolves

One Creative Way the Wolves Could Make A Competitive Offer For Lillard

Photo Credit: Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports

The Damian Lillard trade talks have come to an unceremonious halt. While the rumors have stopped, I’m sure NBA front offices are still debating whether they should try and put together a package for him. Now is the time for the Minnesota Timberwolves to swoop in and see if they can add Dame to their roster.

First, it’s essential to understand who Lillard is as a player. Namely, how good is he? It’s been a turbulent few seasons in Portland. Injury, coaching, and front-office changes have created an environment that has not bred much success since the Portland Trail Blazers’ miraculous run to the Western Conference Finals in 2019.

We all remember this:

How close is the 32-year-old Lillard to the one who made that shot? He averaged some career numbers this year on a 33-win team, but will any of that translate to winning at the highest level in the NBA?

It’s hard to know exactly how much Dame can drive winning at this point in his career, because the current iteration of the Trail Blazers is incredibly underwhelming. Using Cleaningtheglass.com and its garbage time filter, Portland outscored its opponents by only 1.5 points per 100 possessions last season when Lillard was on the court. That scoring margin would have put the Blazers at an expected 44 wins, were they able to compete at or near that level without Lillard on the floor. But without Dame on the court, Portland’s opponents outscored them by 10.5 points per 100 possessions.

That means the Blazers were a +12 when Lillard was on the court, which ranks sixth in the league among players who played at least 2,000 minutes. The players above him are Nikola Jokic, Aaron Gordon, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Draymond Green, and Jrue Holiday. The Denver Nuggets had the best starting unit in the league, and the Milwaukee Bucks held the best record. Although the Golden State Warriors struggled, there’s no doubt that Green is a winning player.

There is evidence that Lillard can lift any team from the doldrums to being somewhat respectable. He played 58 games last season and the Blazers went 27-31 in those games. If you’re doing the math with me that means that Portland was just 6-18 without Lillard.

To further illustrate the chasm of talent between Lillard and his teammates, a simple look around the league at box plus/minus does the trick. While catch-all metrics aren’t the end-all-be-all of basketball analysis, I think BPM does a decent job at capturing where the league is at in broad strokes.

Below is a chart showing the largest disparity in BPM between the best and second-best players league-wide:

Damian Lillard is really good at basketball, so the Wolves should go out and try to trade for him. Argument made. Well, except Lillard has reportedly made it clear that he wants the Blazers to trade him to the Miami Heat. The Heat’s offer is centered around Tyler Herro and future draft picks. The delay in the trade is that Portland doesn’t seem to be interested in Herro.

According to Yahoo’s Jake Fischer

It seems the challenge for the Blazers with Herro is as much about Portland’s surplus of young combo guards, featuring lottery picks Scoot Henderson and Shaedon Sharpe, plus the high-scoring Anfernee Simons, as it is about Herro’s long-term money. If the Blazers are saying goodbye to the Lillard era in Portland, restarting with another crowded backcourt of small guards with questionable defensive chops isn’t the most optimal launching pad.

There is also reporting that the Brooklyn Nets have also engaged as a third team willing to take on Herro. However, the deal is once again held up because Brooklyn wants to include Ben Simmons in the deal to help clear their books.

Things have been at a standstill for over a month now. Could Minnesota take advantage of the complications in the trade talks to swoop in and trade for Dame? Obviously, Karl-Anthony Towns’ name has been swirling in trade speculation and his large, impending salary seems a like-for-like swap for the Blazers. However, I’m not so sure that Portland would be interested in off-loading one large long-term salary for another.

Given they just re-signed Jerami Grant to a five-year, $160 million deal, I imagine they are going to be in the business of cutting costs until they have a team that is ready to compete again. Although I’m confident in Henderson and Sharpe as high-level prospects, the Trail Blazers would be fooling themselves if they thought this team, even with Towns, was ready to push for the playoffs.

However, Towns would possibly be more intriguing to a third team looking to trade for a star without cashing in all their chips. The Wolves have already fielded trade offers for Towns, without any of them being close to good enough for them to consider. Could Minnesota combine their own assets with another team to reach a level that could be more enticing to the Blazers than any offer Miami could put together? Unfortunately, the Wolves are short on assets without much to send Portland’s way.

Okay, here’s the part where I try to write carefully. I fear that if I’m not cautious with my words, I’ll get a brick through my window. Or at least a few nasty DMs on Twitter. But, please, hear me out.

What if Minnesota offered Jaden McDaniels as a part of the deal?

Wolves faithful likely turn their noses at any deal that includes McDaniels as a part of the package. He and Anthony Edwards are the beacons of hope for Minnesota’s basketball future. His development, I’m sure, is a key piece of the Timberwolves’ five-year plan.

Truly, it is hard to imagine why exactly the Wolves would give up on a 22-year-old defensive ace with a developing offensive game to bring in a soon-to-be 33-year-old point guard who probably doesn’t even want to play in Minnesota. Surely the Wolves should be focusing on Edwards’ timeline instead of bringing in more players in the back nine of their playing careers?

The idea of maximizing Ant’s timeline is all well and good, but the Timberwolves already chose a different path by trading for Rudy Gobert last summer. By going all in on Rudy, the Wolves sacrificed all of the practical avenues for improving around Edwards. The Wolves are short on draft picks and young talent that can grow along with him or be used in trades to improve the roster. The fact of the matter is, this isn’t Ant’s timeline — it’s Rudy’s.

Dame and Ant would instantly be one of the best backcourts in the league. Both players have shown an aptitude to perform in big moments and their talents together could lift the Wolves to heights that seem unlikely to be reached by this team as currently constructed. Winning cures all ills, and if these two guards can put it together on the court, what’s to stop Lillard from finding a new home here in Minnesota? If it doesn’t work out, are the Wolves truly in that much worse a position in terms of assets trading Lillard to Miami a year from now? It seems like a risk worth taking.

It’s an odds game. What are the odds that McDaniels will give the Wolves All-NBA caliber contributions over the next four seasons? Will Lillard maintain his level of play as he enters his mid-thirties? Can Josh Minott or Leonard Miller give the Wolves 75% of what McDaniels has given them? Perhaps one of them will break out and look like a burgeoning All-Star. These are all calculations that Connelly has to make while he debates pushing more chips in for Lillard.

The reigning champion Denver Nuggets just lost Bruce Brown and Jeff Green in free agency, leaving an already thin team severely lacking in depth. The Phoenix Suns’ star-laden roster doesn’t strike me as the most stable group. There’s a window of opportunity here in the West before Victor Wembanyama becomes a herculean opponent or the young and spunky Oklahoma City Thunder becomes the well-seasoned and immensely-talented Oklahoma City Thunder. Adding Lillard to this Wolves roster could put the team in title contention for the next two to three seasons while Anthony Edwards morphs into the superstar he appears destined to be. This could be the Minnesota’s best shot to put themselves in the conversation for best in the west. Ultimately, it would be malpractice for Tim Connelly and the Wolves’ brass to not inquire about Portland’s interest in McDaniels.

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