So much for an offseason with no surprises. With the regular season less than a month away, the Milwaukee Bucks, Portland Trail Blazers, and Phoenix Suns teamed up to deliver the biggest plot twist of the summer.
In the wake of Damian Lillard’s trade to the Bucks to join forces with Giannis Antetokounmpo, The Ringer assembled a panel of NBA writers to answer some burning questions about the deal. (Not mentioned: What does this mean for Thanasis?)
Who is the title favorite after the Dame trade?
Logan Murdock: The Nuggets’ combination of star power and depth still gives them the edge, but man, it’s close. Assuming the Bucks stay healthy, Milwaukee’s path to the Finals should be a golden cakewalk. When you’re competing for titles, you typically need a player who can single-handedly win a game for you during the postseason months. The Bucks now have two such players, as Lillard can score in bunches with the season in the balance. That’s why this trade is so crucial for Milwaukee’s pitch to keep Giannis long term. Now, as long as Lillard is healthy, Giannis won’t have to feel like the weight of this team is only on his shoulders.
Seerat Sohi: The Bucks are well-positioned to reign over the uncertain East, but as far as the revamped Larry O’Brien race goes, I’m still putting my money on the team that just won the title. Call me old-fashioned, but Denver’s top five leaders in minutes are all still in their primes.
Upgrading from Jrue Holiday to Lillard makes this the best collection of offensive talent Giannis has played with, but Holiday leaves a hole in their perimeter defense that 32-year-old Khris Middleton can’t fill alone.
Maybe Jae Crowder will teleport back two years and Pat Connaughton will go full T.J. McConnell for an entire season. Maybe the Bucks will get lucky and the stodgy 6-foot-6 Andre Jackson Jr. will be NBA-ready out of the gate. If not, Adrian Griffin—Toronto’s former defensive architect—will have some questions to answer.
Rob Mahoney: The team with Nikola Jokic. I know there’s more sophisticated analysis to be done, but give me the guy who just embarrassed every defender who tried to guard him in the playoffs—including Deandre Ayton, who was so badly exposed that the Suns just banished him to Portland. The perfectly complementary lineup Denver has around Jokic is honestly just gravy.
Zach Kram: I understand that the Nuggets had a quiet summer other than losing Bruce Brown and Jeff Green, but they also went 16-4 in the playoffs and still have the league’s best player and best starting five. Denver’s the favorite to repeat as long as its top players remain healthy.
Matt Dollinger: The Nuggets are fresh off a championship parade and significantly younger than the Bucks, but Milwaukee’s path to the Finals this season could be enviable compared to Denver’s. I’m agreeing with the sportsbooks and taking a rejuvenated and motivated Bucks squad as the team most likely to be celebrating next June.
Are Dame and Giannis the NBA’s best duo? If not, who?
Murdock: I’m still searching. Kevin Durant and Devin Booker have the attributes, star power, and scoring ability to compete with Dame and Giannis, but Giannis’s standing as the best all-around player tips the scale toward Milwaukee.
Mahoney: Without question. Not only is Giannis the best player in the league when he has an elite running mate, but he and Dame amplify each other in ways no other combination of stars can. It’s a perfect fit: the most unstoppable downhill attacker in the league and one of the sport’s preeminent deep threats. I suppose you could make an argument for other great players who happen to be teammates (à la Kawhi Leonard and Paul George), but I wouldn’t—not when Giannis and Dame have skill sets that directly intersect, building off each other in ways that feel impossible to counter.
Kram: See my previous answer: It’s Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray until they’re definitively dethroned. But the Dame-Giannis duo joins Booker-Durant and LeBron-AD as the top contenders for this theoretical title.
Dollinger: As great as Jokic and Murray were during their title run, the pairing of Giannis and Dame feels even more historic. They could become the highest-scoring duo in NBA history. Dame will free up Giannis in ways Giannis has never experienced outside of the All-Star Game. The Nuggets built a perfectly crafted roster around their MVP, but the Bucks just landed one of the 15 best players in the league to complement arguably the NBA’s best player.
Sohi: Has the champagne Jokic solemnly spilled in Denver’s locker room even dried yet? Giannis and Dame make intuitive sense together. You can already envision Dame’s spacing yin and Giannis’s explosive yang unfolding like a multilayered pick-and-roll, with Middleton flaring to the wing and Brook Lopez cutting in from the corner. Imagine a fiery hot Lillard getting trapped smack-dab in the middle of Dame Time, giving Giannis an open runway to play four-on-three in space. I can’t wait to see it, but we’ve been watching Jokic and Murray for a good seven years. You can’t discount the value of that learned history.
Prediction: In 2025, Giannis Antetokounmpo will be on the …
Kram: Fiserv Forum court, accepting his second Finals MVP trophy.
Murdock: Bucks. If Giannis’s sole goal is to compete for titles for years to come, as he stated over the summer, Lillard’s presence gives him a multiyear window to rule the East and get a few chips along the way.
Mahoney: Parade trail. Milwaukee has a good shot to contend this season despite its shallow roster, but things could really come together for the Bucks next season—after making a few choice additions to round out the bench.
Dollinger: Bucks. Injuries are the only thing that can derail the Bucks from contending over the next two years. Sorry, Pat.
Sohi: Unless something disastrous happens, I think this trade earns Milwaukee the right to employ Antetokounmpo for the rest of his contract, including the player option he has for the 2025-26 season. Lillard may be entering his 12th season, but he’s coming off statistical highs in scoring and free throw attempts, and I see his game aging like that of Steph Curry, who has three more seasons and two more years on him.
Which NBA star will be traded next?
Mahoney: If we’re talking superstars? Joel Embiid. Don’t blame me—I’m just reading the literal years of tea leaves.
Sohi: All eyes turn now to James Harden, who doubled down on his anti–Daryl Morey stance this week, bottle-service style:
James Harden had a party and had the club holding up Daryl Morey is a liar signs pic.twitter.com/DvtK1BJ5ZY— Ahmed/The Ears/IG: BigBizTheGod (@big_business_) September 27, 2023
Murdock: Harden seems intent on burning every bridge, valley, and road between himself and Sixers president of basketball operations Daryl Morey. While Harden’s actions are hilarious, his discontent is an unwelcome distraction for a team that has legitimate title chances with or without Harden on the roster. All while new coach Nick Nurse tries to implement a new culture in Philadelphia. Morey, the subject of Harden’s wrath, has always been a notoriously patient negotiator, but the pressure to move on from Harden is building.
Kram: I assume we’re not counting Holiday, who will be rerouted to a non-Portland destination shortly, and Harden is too obvious. So I’ll go out on a limb and pick Chris Paul, because Holiday fits perfectly in Golden State, and Paul plus Jonathan Kuminga are a perfect swap for Holiday, salary-wise.
Dollinger: If it’s not Harden, I want my summer back.
Who will have a better record in five years: Milwaukee or Portland?
Sohi: Portland, by design. The Bucks, who were already dead last in our Young Core Rankings last year, went full Eckhart Tolle and doubled down on being in the present moment with this trade. Their fortunes, at best, will go as far as Giannis’s prime. Who knows what his jumper-less game will look like at 33? Scoot Henderson, on the other hand, will be just getting started.
Kram: Research shows that there’s almost no way to predict how good any given team will be five years into the future. So I’ll shrug and pick Milwaukee, just because the West has historically provided stiffer competition than the East—but even if the answer is Portland, the Bucks will have another title by then, so their fans won’t care.
Murdock: Milwaukee. If all goes to plan, the Bucks should be regulars in the Finals for the next few years. And while Henderson has all the attributes to be a star, it takes time to build a contender in the vaunted Western Conference.
Dollinger: Portland. In five years, Middleton will be 37, Dame will be 38, and Lopez will be 40. Henderson will still have to pay the “young renter fee” when he uses Enterprise.
Mahoney: For as much as I’d love to give Portland (and Henderson, in particular) the benefit of the doubt, the last five years have taught us that having a prime Giannis on the roster is a pretty good shortcut to winning about 70 percent of your games. Antetokounmpo will be a different player at 33 years old, but not so different that I could count him out.