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ANALYSIS: Damian Lillard by the numbers

As the rumors swirl, what’s the upside, downside for the Nets if they go for Damian Lillard?

NBA: Brooklyn Nets at Portland Trail Blazers Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports

Net Income thinks that, yup, “the Lillard thing is real.” For denizens of NetsDaily, that considered opinion inserted in a comment thread (with a tantalizing mention of “new information”) has ratcheted up interest in a potential blockbuster trade that would vault the team back into “the conversation,” if not into championship contention.

When Blazers star Damian Lillard showed up for a playoff game at Barclays Center last month (and partied with Mikal Bridges afterward), speculation about Dame to the Nets began to swirl (except in Portland where it all means Mikal to the Blazers.) Pundits dredged up Lillard having told Stephen A. Smith “I love Mikal Bridges.” With the team he’s led for more than a decade overdue for a rebuild, would Lillard like to finish his career in Brooklyn? If he would, will Sean Marks and Joe Tsai make it happen? Marks says the Nets “won’t be in a rush.” But he also says they “have to be ready for whatever comes our way.”

If what comes your way is a legitimate superstar, maybe you decide the future is now. In his 11-year career Lillard has made seven All-Star teams and (pending this year’s picks) six All-NBA teams. He’s been Rookie of the Year, Teammate of the Year, and a member of the NBA 75th Anniversary Team.

For some fans, that’s more than enough—end of story, get it done.

For others, Lillard’s age, durability, and cost are big red flags. He’ll turn 33 in July, and he’s logged over 30,000 NBA minutes. In 2021-22, he was plagued by injuries and played just 29 games, though he probably could have managed more had the Blazers not been lottery-bound. This season, even with another early shutdown, he played 58 games and over 2,100 minutes. Overall, he’s started 300 of a possible 392 games in the past five seasons and averaged over 36 minutes per game. (For those keeping score at home, that’s 34% more minutes than Kyrie Irving and 43% more minutes than Kevin Durant over the same period—and just 14% less than ironman Bridges.)

If he’s healthy, it’s hard to imagine a better solution to the Nets’ glaring need for a primary offensive option. Lillard is a big-time scorer—fourth in the NBA in points per possession this season. And unlike some other big-time scorers, he makes the entire offense more productive. He spreads the floor (more than half his shots in recent seasons have been from 3-point range), distributes the ball efficiently (17th in the league in assists this season), and doesn’t turn it over a lot. (His turnovers were up this season, but that’s unsurprising given his career-high, 5th-in-the-league usage rate. His 16 turnovers per 100 shot attempts were still well below Durant’s Nets average.)

Lillard’s offensive real plus-minus rating, a statistical estimate of his contribution to the team’s offensive performance per 100 possessions, was a ridiculous +8.1 points this season, best in the league. His defense is nothing special, but then the Nets already have a lot of defensive specialists. His overall real plus-minus rating, taking account of both offense and defense, was sixth-best in the league. Given his minutes, that rating implies that he was responsible for 15.5 wins, 12th-most in the league. It would be unrealistic to expect that sort of production every year; but over the past five seasons he has consistently been a significant plus on the offensive end, and—aside from the one year he played infrequently and hurt—a top 10 or 20 player overall. (The five-season averages shown here are weighted by minutes played, and also weight recent seasons more heavily than earlier ones.)

Lillard’s highly efficient true-shooting percentage is largely a function of shot selection. He is a good, not great, 3-point shooter (career 37.2%), but even merely good 3-point shots add up when you attempt 10 per game, as he has in recent years. He can create for himself; more than half of his career 3-point shots and 80% of his career two-point shots have been unassisted. He is also an excellent free throw shooter (career 89.5%), and this season his two-point efficiency took an impressive jump, producing career-best percentages from near the rim and mid-range. He is also a surprisingly good rebounder for his size—about as good as Bridges or Spencer Dinwiddie.

Lillard is under contract for the next four years, with a gargantuan $63.2 million player option in the fourth year (2026-27), when he will be 36 years old. But that’s a long way off, in a world with a much higher salary cap and much higher league revenue. In the meantime, his salary next season will be a somewhat more reasonable $45.6 million.

The Nets would have to send back at least $36.5 million in a trade, as well as some of the draft capital they acquired in exchange for James Harden, Irving, and Durant. If the Blazers want to take a flier on a tarnished star, that could mean Ben Simmons. More likely they will want Nic Claxton, perhaps Cam Thomas, and expiring salaries (say, Royce O’Neale and Dinwiddie or Joe Harris). They might also want to off-load Jusuf Nurkic, a capable but injury-plagued center who would no longer be on their timeline. For the Nets, the 28-year-old Nurkic would fill another big hole, and they could take him using the big trade exception generated in the Durant trade, though that would obviously further escalate Joe Tsai’s luxury tax bill.

Is Lillard worth it? For fans whose attitude is championship-or-bust, the answer may be no. Lillard would give the Nets only a long shot at a title, while diminishing their stock of future assets. On the other hand, no other conceivable scenario is going to give them even a long shot at a title any time soon. They could wait for a younger superstar like Luka Doncic or Jayson Tatum—but even if and when those guys become available, who’s to say they would choose Brooklyn over every other team in the league? Building through the draft is an even longer and more uncertain process, especially for a team without most of its own draft picks.

Barring worse-than-average luck with injuries, the Nets with Lillard would at least be a very competitive team over the next few seasons. They would also be a very easy team to root for. Judging by reputations around the league, Lillard and Bridges are two of the NBA’s best teammates and most level-headed stars. They are very close and reportedly work out together in the off-season. A revival of “Nets culture” under their leadership could be a magnet for additional talent and, for the organization and fans, a welcome respite from the constant drama of the past four years.

Any move of this magnitude entails big risks. But if Lillard does want to be in Brooklyn—and if the Blazers are willing to accommodate him—I’m in the “get it done” camp. Yes, he’ll be 33, but he just had the best season of his distinguished career. Yes, there are concerns about his durability, but they strike me as overblown. (He’s played over 2,000 minutes in ten of his eleven seasons, and he would have been close to 2,500 again this year if not for a late-season shutdown.) Yes, he’d have the Nets paying luxury tax for years to come, but that’s Joe Tsai’s money, not mine.

When a chance to recruit a superstar comes along, don’t overthink it. But, hey, I said that about the Nets’ last three superstars, too.