By Pete Baxter
Damian Lillard has been perhaps the biggest name floated in trade rumors during the 2021 NBA offseason. Lillard has been a loyal Portland Trailblazer for the entirety of his nine-year career. However, after his team faced yet another early playoff exit last season, he made it clear something needed to change.
“How long should I stay dedicated? How long til opportunity meet preparation?” Lillard posted on Instagram in June, quoting the late rapper Nipsey Hussle.
This was far from a formal trade request. However, it was quite clear that Lillard was telling his franchise it was time to s**t or get off the pot. The Trailblazers needed to bring in new talent to help build a contender around him or look to move him.
Since that time, Lillard has done his best to maintain solidarity with his team. On Wednesday he shared an Instagram post insisting that he was “back for more…#RipCity is my city.”
Lillard’s professionalism and dedication is truly impressive, particularly in an increasingly superstar-driven league that sees players dictating their own transactions and destinations. However, behind closed doors, Lillard can’t be thrilled with the relatively quiet offseason the team has had.
The franchise added Tony Snell, Cody Zeller, and Ben McLemore while re-signing Norman Powell. These are all decent acquisitions. However, they are not nearly impactful enough to increase the team’s championship odds.
Lillard’s frustrations with the team that drafted him are bound to escalate once again. When they do, there is a team that may be perfectly constructed to give him his best chance to finally reach the NBA Finals.
That team is the Toronto Raptors. Let’s take a look at the makeup of this team that makes it the ideal landing spot for Lillard.
The Supporting Cast
This is very much the same supporting cast that won an NBA championship with Kawhi Leonard in 2019. They are just a superstar away from jumping right back into serious championship contention.
Kyle Lowry, Serge Ibaka, Marc Gasol and of course Leonard have all departed since the Raptors’ championship run. That said, the young role players from that squad have developed into stars in their own right.
Fred VanVleet is the perfect heir apparent to Lowry and will fill that role perfectly. Last year’s first-round pick Malachi Flynn is poised to step into VanVleet’s shoes as the primary backup point guard. O.G. Anunoby was injured during Kawhi’s tenure and played no role in the Raptor’s playoff run that season. He has since continued his development into possibly the next Kawhi, an elite defender with a rapidly improving offensive repertoire.
Khem Birch, Chris Boucher, and Precious Achiuwa are poised to greatly improve the Raptors front court depth. Pascal Siakam, the Scottie Pippen to Kawhi’s Michael Jordan in 2019, would likely be the key piece moved to Portland if Lillard became available. Siakam has been inconsistent as a number one option since Kawhi’s departure but is still developing and has room to grow.
If Siakam were to be moved, this year’s first-round pick Scottie Barnes would likely start at the four. Barnes should immediately be another elite defender on this squad with his length and athleticism and brings outstanding playmaking ability and point-forward potential to the frontcourt.
For the Raptors to acquire Damian Lillard, let’s use the following hypothetical deal:
Pascal Siakam, Goran Dragic, 2022 first-round pick, 2024 first-round pick
Damian Lillard, 2022 second-round pick
This deal would leave the Toronto Raptors’ 2021/22 depth chart looking something like this:
PG: Damian Lillard, Malachi Flynn
SG: Fred VanVleet, Gary Trent Jr.
SF: O.G. Anunoby, Freddie Gillespie/Yuta Watanabe
PF: Scottie Barnes, Chris Boucher
C: Khem Birch, Precious Achiuwa
This roster offers a great deal of flexibility. Gary Trent Jr. is a starting caliber guard (and former teammate of Lillard’s) who would provide firepower and shooting either as a starter or as the sixth man. Chris Boucher had a breakout 2020 season and could easily start at the four if the Raptors choose to take their time developing Barnes. Khem Birch and Precious Achiuwa are strong, physical bigs who will provide a solid upgrade over Aron Baynes at the five.
To best exemplify why this roster would work so well with Lillard’s skillset, let’s compare the player and team with another all-time great scoring guard and the team he himself led to the NBA finals two decades ago.
The Iverson Template
Allen Iverson is arguably the pound-for-pound greatest scorer in NBA history. Generously listed at six feet tall, Iverson averaged nearly 27 points for his career while making 11 All Star teams.
Despite his greatness, Iverson only made it to the NBA finals one time in his career. That 2000/01 Philadelphia 76ers team was built perfectly to allow Iverson to maximize his own strengths while filling in the gaps in his game. He was surrounded by unselfish, hard-nosed defenders. He had a backcourt mate in Eric Snow who could provide facilitation while Iverson focused on scoring.
Lillard, who has averaged nearly 25 points for his career up to this point, is a very similar player. Both were hyper-athletic point guards who were also their team’s top scoring options.
To truly maximize Lillard’s potential, a very similar team makeup to Iverson’s 2000/01 Sixers squad would be ideal. Not only does this Raptors team have the same strengths as that Sixers squad, but they are better at nearly every position. Let’s compare the talent at each position for some additional perspective:
Point Guard – Allen Iverson vs. Damian Lillard
Technically, Allen Iverson was considered the shooting guard that season and Eric Snow the point guard. However, Iverson still did the majority of the ball handling that season. For these purposes we will call him the starting point guard.
Iverson and Lillard are arguably the two greatest scoring guards of their eras. Lillard may be a slightly better facilitator and Iverson may have been a slightly better defender, but we will consider it a wash here. Both are the unquestioned best players on their teams and are arguably top-5 players in the league.
Shooting Guard – Eric Snow vs. Fred VanVleet
No contest. Fred VanVleet could have easily been an All-Star last season. He averaged 19.6 points, 6.3 assists and 1.7 steals per game. VanVleet shot just under 37% from three on nearly 10 attempts per game.
In the 2000/01 season, Snow averaged 9.8 points, 7.4 assists and 1.5 steals per game while attempting just .5 three pointers per game at 26% accuracy.
Both are very good defenders. Snow did make an All-Defensive Second Team during his career, and VanVleet is already known to lock down opposing point guards. However, VanVleet’s offensive skillset is so exponentially better, that he gets the clear advantage here.
Small Forward – George Lynch vs. O.G. Anunoby
Again, no contest.
George Lynch was a tough, strong defender and a very good rebounder for his size but was limited on offense. In 2000/01, Lynch averaged 8.4 points, 7.2 rebounds, and 1.2 steals per game. He shot 26% on just 0.7 three-point attempts per game.
O.G. Anunoby is one of the best wing defenders in the game. He also had a massively improved offensive output last season. Anunoby averaged 15.9 points, 5.5 rebounds, 2.2 assists, and 1.5 steals per game in 2020/21. He could very well approach All Star status next season.
While Lynch was a good player who fit his role perfectly in 2000/01, Anunoby is a much more talented player.
Power Forward – Scottie Barnes vs. Tyrone Hill
Like Lynch, Tyrone Hill was a very tough player, a strong defender, and a very good rebounder. Also like Lynch, Hill had a very limited offensive game. In 2000/01, Hill averaged 9.6 points, 9.0 rebounds and .4 blocks per game. Hill attempted zero three pointers.
Rookie Scottie Barnes, meanwhile, is a much more complete player. He has been labelled a more athletic Draymond Green. He has potential to be an elite defender as well as a facilitator, having played point guard in college. While we have no real NBA game tape on Barnes, he averaged 15.5 points, 6.8 rebounds, 3.3 assists, 2.0 blocks and a steal a game in this year’s Summer League.
If the Raptors do take their time developing Barnes, Chris Boucher is a more than capable starter at the four. He averaged 13.6 points, 6.7 rebounds and 1.9 blocks while shooting over 38% from three-point range last season. This was in just 24 minutes per game.
While Hill filled his role perfectly as a rebounder and big body for the 2000/01 Sixers, the playmaking and athleticism of Barnes along with the shooting and shot blocking of Boucher push the Raptors over the edge.
Center – Dikembe Mutombo vs. Khem Birch
Finally, we can give one to the 76ers. Khem Birch played very well towards the end of last season, and Precious Achiuwa has a great deal of potential. However, neither is ready to take down the great Dikembe Mutombo.
Mutombo was an All-Star in 2000/01 while averaging 11.7 points, 12.4 boards, and 2.5 blocks per game. Khem Birch is already a more versatile scorer and is developing a decent three-point stroke. Birch is also an aggressive defender. However, Mutombo was one of the most dominant defensive bigs in league history.
The Raptors are a far more complete team than Iverson’s Eastern Conference Champion squad. While Iverson’s team could defend with the best of them, on offense their primary job was to get the hell out of Iverson’s way. This solo show ultimately fell short of a title, falling to the Shaq and Kobe Lakers.
The 2021/22 Raptors with Lillard, on the other hand, would have potential to be an equally dominant defensive squad. VanVleet, Anunoby and Barnes should all be elite defenders at their positions.
This team would also having three capable point guards in their starting lineup in Lillard, VanVleet and Barnes. The flexibility and creativity this lineup could create on offense is mind-boggling. The Raptors also have a much bigger stable of shooters. If Boucher and Birch start underneath, they could bring on a starting lineup with shooters at all positions.
If Allen Iverson could carry George Lynch and Tyrone Hill to the NBA Finals, there is no reason Damian Lillard couldn’t do the same with this Raptors squad. Kawhi Leonard led nearly the same group to a NBA title just two years ago.
So, in conclusion, it is time for Damian Lillard to step up and formally request a trade. His ideal destination should be the Toronto Raptors.
Get on the phones, Masai Ujiri.