The early rush of free agency is over. Some interesting dominoes are still falling across the NBA, like the Clippers managing to re-sign backup center Mason Plumlee. As of Monday night, the next big transactions of this offseason — any resolution to the pair of trade requests between Damian Lillard and James Harden — appear not to be rushing against the clock, even stalling several areas of the marketplace.
It is never an uncomplicated task to trade historical talents in the final stages of their careers and at big price levels. There’s another common thread between the Blazers and 76ers’ current challenges, which various league personnel have cited as a critical reason why both Portland and Philadelphia are moving at a deliberate pace. Lillard and his representation have made it clear he wants to play in Miami, and Harden has strongly indicated his desire to play in Los Angeles with the Clippers, so that backs any established team’s front office into a corner. It’s no wonder Blazers general manager Joe Cronin and Sixers president Daryl Morey are mulling other options moving forward, including multi-team trade scenarios.
The dynamic in Philadelphia is a bit simpler. With or without Harden, as long as Joel Embiid is on the roster, the Sixers’ world revolves around Embiid’s orbit and his championship aspirations. The Blazers are deciding where or whether to trade a franchise icon, and what kind of return that type of move requires — especially when you so loudly signal that a new era has begun in a small market that has never been a destination star like Lillard points to in the NBA – the card.
Philadelphia must consider what next steps optimize their MVP in Embiid, with 22-year-old Tyrese Maxey along for the ride. The Sixers have strongly indicated that their combo guard is not available in trade talks, league sources told Yahoo Sports. And so Harden picking up his option forced Philadelphia’s hand, but he’s also now on an expiring deal that — the longer he remains available — some teams might decide is worth acquiring for future savings in an even more tax-conscious NBA.
However, the Clippers are a pragmatic trade partner for the Sixers, far more than the Heat do for Portland’s predicament. Los Angeles has $40.5 million in contracts expiring if Philadelphia wants to make players in free agency next summer, offering a prime landing spot for someone to join Embiid and Maxey, just as Harden wants to join Kawhi Leonard and Paul George. For all the concerns the staff has about the three seasons remaining on Norman Powell’s five-year, $90 million deal — which Portland, remember, once hoped would bolster Lillard’s title chances — perhaps the Sixers ultimately seek Powell as a return from the Clippers and add a trusted veteran to head coach Nick Nurse’s new rotation after winning the 2019 championship together in Toronto.
Lillard’s Miami-or-nothing position makes his exit from Oregon, but under different circumstances. While Harden paced the NBA in assists last season, and his pair of 40-point outbursts against Boston helped Philadelphia take a 3-2 edge in the Eastern Conference semifinals, Lillard had every NBA-caliber performance before his season was shut down. He’s also under contract for four more seasons at over $200 million, a pretty expensive gamble for a team owner and front office if there’s no guarantee Lillard will be happy to join them. If Harden were to be traded anywhere outside of Los Angeles and made a stink about not reporting to training camp, it’s far easier to endure a season of dead money. Then again, Lillard’s stellar reputation for commitment and professionalism also has team executives wondering if he would really balk at an unexpected team acquiring the 32-year-old, as he did when Cleveland landed Donovan Mitchell last season.
If Lillard were more open to destinations other than Miami, there is no question among league personnel that Lillard would have a wider market and Portland would have a much easier process to complete. The Heat’s prominence in this situation makes it unlikely that the Blazers will be able to net a return similar to what Brooklyn just got for Kevin Durant and the incredible sum Utah received for Rudy Gobert. Miami doesn’t have the consensus prospects and excess draft capital to dispatch the Blazers. Tyler Herro is an exciting talent at just 23 years old, but his deficiencies on defense are as glaring as his offensive spark and his four-year, $120 million contract that begins this season; Golden State just had to pay a first-round pick to move Jordan Poole’s nearly identical deal. Brooklyn, which Lillard singled out as a favorable next team in a recent interview, has the draft assets from February’s Durant deal with Phoenix to blow away Miami’s best possible offer by a wide margin.
For any trade with Miami, Portland would have the goal of moving Herro to a third team, league sources told Yahoo Sports. It seems the challenge for the Blazers with Herro is as much about Portland’s surplus of young combo guards, which feature lottery picks Scoot Henderson and Shaedon Sharpe, plus high-scoring Anfernee Simons, as it is about Herro’s long-term money. If the Blazers say 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. But finding an extra partner for a Lillard-to-Miami trade hasn’t stopped the Heat from operating as if they’re in pole position to land the superstar guard. It was clear during exit interviews with Heat players, sources said, that Miami was preparing its books for a roster-altering transaction. The Heat have told free-agent players like Malik Beasley, who agreed to a one-year contract with Milwaukee on Monday, that Miami is in a team pattern before moving forward with its veteran-minimum signings, sources said. Other players such as Josh Christopher, who recently traded from Houston to Memphis, and Dario Šarić, who had a strong suitor in Golden State, could also be involved in Miami depending on those Lillard matters, sources said.
The timing of Lillard’s trade request, one day after the start of free agency and one day after Portland awarded Jerami Grant a five-year, $160 million contract to play alongside Lillard, certainly raised eyebrows around the league. Despite some early speculation around the league, that deal has been agreed upon and the Blazers plan to honor that commitment to Grant, sources said. Don’t expect Portland to shape that deal into a sign-and-trade, either. A big reason Grant waited on a new deal with the Blazers this summer, as opposed to signing an extension during the season, was Grant’s ability to sign for an additional fifth year, sources said. Grant would not be eligible to sign for a fifth season in a sign-and-trade concept.