The NBA has a new Big Three.
No, Damian Lillard isn’t joining forces with Jimmy Butler and Bam Adebayo on the Heat, but he’s been traded to the Bucks in a stunning deal that will team the All-Star guard up with Giannis Antetokounmpo and Khris Middleton.
The trade gives Lillard his best chance yet of winning a championship. The Bucks sacrificed some of their depth to acquire him, but Lillard brings a different dynamic to a team only two years removed from winning it all that could help them reach new heights.
Does that make them the favorite? Let’s take a closer look at Lillard’s fit on the Bucks.
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How much better does Damian Lillard make the Bucks?
Lillard, Antetokounmpo and Middleton are going to be a nightmare to defend.
The Bucks will miss Jrue Holiday’s defense — more on that later — but Lillard is a massive upgrade offensively. Even at the age of 33, Lillard is one of the best players in the NBA. He’s coming off of a season in which he earned his seventh All-Star and All-NBA selections with averages of 32.2 points and 7.3 assists per game, numbers that helped him look like the best offensive player in the league by some all-in-one metrics.
Lillard is still the most feared off-the-dribble and long-range shooter not named Stephen Curry in the NBA today. Putting him in pick-and-rolls with Antetokounmpo is going to put a tremendous amount of strain on a team’s defense because of how easily Lillard’s shooting complements Antetokounmpo’s rim runs.
If Lillard is given even a slither of space, he will cook. Nobody made more pull-up 3s than he did last season and he’s developed into a crafty finisher around the basket.
If he draws multiple defenders, it will free Antetokounmpo to get downhill.
Switching those pick-and-rolls won’t be a solution for most teams. Lillard is still one of the most dominant isolation scorers in the league and there might not be anyone who can stop Antetokounmpo one-on-one anymore. Most bigs are too slow to keep up with Lillard on an island and guards have absolutely no shot keeping Antetokounmpo out of the paint.
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Bucks head coach Adrian Griffin will be able to run actions that involve all three of Lillard, Antetokounmpo and Middleton. The Spain pick-and-roll that has grown in popularity over the years plays to each of their strengths, as does this play former Bucks head coach Mike Budenholzer sometimes went to down the stretch of games:
More on the options that can come from that simple but effective set here.
Lillard will make life easier for Antetokounmpo when he doesn’t have the ball in his hands, too. Not that Holiday was a bad 3-point shooter — he connected on an impressive 39.5 percent of his long-range attempts in a Bucks uniform — but Lillard strikes a different level of fear in opponents. Teams can’t risk giving him any space off-ball.
The same goes for Middleton, who handles the ball a decent amount himself. Lillard will open up the floor for him when he’s running the show and give him more opportunities to pick and choose his spots, which will take some of the pressure off of him to be Antetokounmpo’s No. 2 following a couple of injury-plagued seasons.
Lillard was assisted on a total of 126 3-pointers last season, the second-most of his career. Not only can he spot-up, but he’s comfortable running off of screens.
Building a wall against Antetokounmpo is going to be even harder with Lillard as his teammate. Middleton and Brook Lopez are both two of the best shooters at their respective positions, and Pat Connaughton, Malik Beasley and Jae Crowder each have to be respected from 3-point range. Antetokounmpo should have more than enough space to work with almost every minute he’s on the court.
There’s no question Milwaukee’s defense took a hit with this trade — Holiday still is a lockdown defender and Lillard has always been limited on that end of the court — but the Bucks still have two All-NBA defenders in Antetokounmpo and Lopez who can cover for Lillard. The bet is that a step back defensively will be worth it if Lillard can lift the offense, which ranked 15th in efficiency last season, to new heights.
The addition of Lillard will likely be felt the most in the playoffs. While the Bucks were a very good and sometimes elite offensive team in the regular season under Budenholzer, they ran into issues in the postseason. Their offense shouldn’t be nearly as stagnant and predictable with Lillard now in the mix.
Lillard, of course, is also one of the best clutch performers in NBA history. He led the league in clutch scoring two seasons ago and has hit plenty of big shots in his career, both in the regular season and playoffs. It might take them some time to figure out the right balance, but the Bucks should have at least one favorable matchup at the end of games between Lillard, Antetokounmpo and Middleton.
If Lillard does check those expected boxes, we might be looking at the scariest team in the NBA this season.