It all started back in June when Damian Lillard was asked about prospective destinations should he leave Portland. In an interview with Showtime’s Brian Custer, he mentioned both the Miami Heat and Brooklyn Nets, citing his relationships with Bam Adebayo and Mikal Bridges who he referred to as “my dawg.” The two teams, he said, were “capable, have capable rosters.”
But while social media was filled with potential trades, Sean Marks and Joe Cronin didn’t reach out to each other at the time. NetsDaily was told that. in fact, the two sides hadn’t talked to each other since July and that conversation was the ONLY time the two sides had ANY discussions, They were “never involved.” according to someone with visibility into the relationship. (That also suggests that there weren’t talks between the two sides around the June Draft regarding a speculative trade that would sent Bridges to Portland for the No. 3 pick, Scoot Henderson, and Anfernee Simons.)
The front office couldn’t be upset with the rumors. It showed that despite the ugly departures of the “Big Three” — and the exit shade thrown by Kyrie Irving — the Nets were still seen as “capable,” an attractive landing spot for top notch talent. Indeed, the Nets front office had no doubt of that — based on their own intelligence — but it was good to hear a superstar go on the record to endorse it.
Why wouldn’t Brooklyn be interested in Lillard, one of the NBA’s top 75 players ever, a player who had just come off his best season statistically, including a 71-point game. Not to mention one of the league’s preeminent good guys. In the simplest terms, Lillard didn’t fit their plans, their guiding principles in what is either a rebuild, reset or reestablishment.
Maybe it was because they were burned in the “Big Three” era and wanted to build organically at least until they were ready to make a big move again. Maybe Joe Tsai had become frugal after doling out $323 million in luxury taxes since buying into the team ... with little to show for it.
In any event, Lillard at 33 was seen as a player closer to the end of his career and more prone to injury, someone who was owed an enormous amount of money — $215 million over the next four years, topped by a $62 million payout at age 37 — and in the most simple terms did not fit their timeline which emphasized building a young, athletic and defensive roster.
Finances did matter. In almost any trade for Lillard would have put the Nets in repeater tax hell through at least 2025-26 and even with increased NBA revenues and higher salary caps, Lillard’s contract would eat up a large percentage of their payroll, making a semi-organic rebuild of the sort they wanted more difficult.
And not only would trading for Lillard be expensive in terms of what Tsai would have to pay out in salary and luxury taxes. It would also be expensive in terms of what assets Brooklyn would have to give up in securing Lillard. One league source not associated with the Nets told NetsDaily that any deal for Lillard would almost certainly have started with Nic Claxton and might have required Cam Johnson as well, along with several of the first rounders they received for KD and Kyrie, a treasure trove they haven’t touched. (It is difficult, particularly at that point, to believe Portland would have interest in Ben Simmons.)
The bottom line for them was this: After they paid out all that money and expended all those assets, did Nets believe Lillard would make them a contender? The answer inside the offices of HSS Training Center was no. The trade rumors moved on to other venues, first the Heat, then the Raptors. Nothing was happening.
Finally, in the last 10 days, Lillard’s representation realized that the Blazers simply weren’t interested in the Heat offer — the two sides weren’t even talking, as several pundits noted. Still hoping to get his client to a place where he felt comfortable, Lillard’s agent, Aaron Goodwin, reportedly tried a more aggressive strategy. He approached the Bucks and the Nets about making the Blazers an offer, per Marc J. Spears of ESPN’s Andscape, Shams Charania and Sam Amick of The Athletic and Chris Haynes of Bleacher Report. All reported the approach after news of the three-team deal sending Lillard to Milwaukee broke Wednesday .
Spears tweeted out his intelligence Wednesday ...
Sources to @andscape: With Miami talks going nowhere, agent Aaron Goodwin privately told the Bucks and Nets 10 days ago that Dame would be interested in a deal there. The Raptors were a real contender to land the ex-Blazers star, but ultimately Bucks got it done per Woj report.— Marc J. Spears (@MarcJSpears) September 27, 2023
While Shams offered this on Thursday morning...
[O]nce Lillard was convinced that the Heat possibility was virtually impossible, sources briefed on discussions say he became open to the prospect of playing for the Bucks and the Brooklyn Nets. The backchannel blessings commenced. Goodwin, sources briefed on the talks say, communicated Lillard’s interest to those teams as a way of paving the way for a possible deal. League sources say the Suns, with their sights set on Nurkić and other roster depth, were planning to be a part of trades with the Bucks, Nets or Heat.
Later Thursday, Chris Haynes of Bleacher Report added his confirmation:
With the situation getting uglier, Goodwin began orchestrating a contingency plan. He met with his client on Sept. 17 and went over other viable options that fit the team criteria they sought. Milwaukee and Brooklyn were the alternative targets.
None of three report specifically on Goodwin’s discussion with the Nets.
Around that time, there were also reports that the Nets could wind up as facilitators in a larger deal, something that had circulated early in the summer. The Nets denied that. (In an earlier scenario, the Nets would help the Heat meet the Blazers demand for more first rounders in return for taking on Tyler Herro who is about to begin a four-year, $120 million contract, something that scared off more than one team.)
Goodwin’s approach didn’t change any minds in Brooklyn. There were no conversations between Marks and Cronin, not about acquiring Lillard, not about being a facilitator. Goodwin got a better reception in Milwaukee.
Fans and pundits can debate whether the Nets should have gone after another superstar in his mid-30’s, put fannies in the seats at Barclays Center, abandon their timeline, hope for a better return than they got for KD, Kyrie and James. We won’t know the answer to that question for a while, probably years. But again, the whole scenario from Lillard’s early comments about the Nets being capable to his agent’s last minute entreaty showed, as Joe Johnson once famously said, it ain’t that bad here.
- How the unexpected blockbuster Damian Lillard trade to the Bucks came together - Shams Charania & Sam Amick - The Athletic
- Inside the Messy Divorce Between Damian Lillard and Portland Trail Blazers - Chris Haynes - Bleacher Report