The Milwuakee Bucks pulled off a remarkable coup Wednesday when they finessed a three-way trade that will bring Damian Lillard to town and pair him with former MVP and NBA champion Giannis Antetokounmpo.
In landing the coveted point guard, the Bucks did perhaps the most important thing you can actually control in this league: Act boldly. In doing so they gambled they can remodel their team, maintain their championship window, try to make sure the Greek Freak stays happy in Wisconsin, protect themselves in a world where you can go from contender to pretender in a flash, and use this team's real title hopes to stop Lillard from eying a forced exit to Miami.
The move, which came a day after a report suggested the Toronto Raptors were the frontrunners for his services, was certainly a shock. But the reasons behind why Milwaukee emerged as a successful stealth candidate, and the ways in which everyone here can win, should not be.
The deal that makes Lillard a Buck had many moving parts and motives. It sends Jrue Holiday, who may well be moved again, to Portland, along with Deandre Ayton, Toumani Camara, pick swaps with Milwaukee in 2028 and 2030 and an unprotected first-rounder in 2029. The Suns get the depth of Jusuf Nurkic, Grayson Allen, Nassir Little and Keon Johnson.
More on Phoenix's new-found depth and Portland's smart strategy later, but let's start with Milwaukee. It was no secret around the NBA that Giannis, having already brought a championship to town, was viewed a short- or medium-timer. Before Wednesday's blockbuster deal, most believed he would eventually leave for greener, and easier-to-win-in, pastures, when his contract is up in two seasons despite being eligible for a contract extension next summer. This deeply-held worry in Milwaukee became even more troubling after Giannis' own words last month, which made the Lillard acquisition as much about creating institutional stability as it did pure survival within the team's executive ranks.
"I would not be the best version of myself if I don't know that everybody's on the same page, everybody's going for a championship, everybody's going to sacrifice time away from their family like I do," Giannis told The New York Times. "And if I don't feel that, I'm not signing."
He may still go. There are no guarantees with superstars, even when they're paired together. Just ask the Brooklyn Nets. But having Lillard certainly shifts the odds in the Bucks' favor, and it also heads off the looming belief that if things went poorly for Milwaukee this season, it might have put Giannis on the front line exploring his options next summer as Dame did this past one.
It's also an excellent return, even if it makes Milwaukee a bit thin. Giannis, Dame and Khris Middleton are a fine trio, and instantly make Milwaukee, on paper, easily the best team in the Eastern Conference. The offensive firepower alone that Lillard brings to the Bucks will take an extraordinary amount of pressure off of his co-star on offense, particularly if and when Middleton is either injured, as he often was last season, or simply just not able to take over key games.
So give Bucks general manager Jon Horst credit: He acted boldly and below the radar to radically improve and transform his team. It must convince Giannis, at least for now, that he's in a place, as he said, that's "going for a championship," which, in theory, should thwart the odds of his possible departure in the near future.
It's also certainly good for the long-term job security of Horst and those around him. It's the same logic on the other end of the NBA's rebuild-win-maintain spectrum that Joe Cronin, Horst's counterpart in Portland, was operating under: Do what's best for your organization, of course, but also know you'll be blamed -- and out of a job -- if you muff the rebuild or take a misstep during the championship window and end up without the pieces or hardware you were expected to acquire.
And that's why this deal is also so good for the Trail Blazers. They were operating in a player-empowerment era, in a market brutally difficult to recruit talent to, with a star's agent publicly demanding a specific landing spot, and with the pressure to get it done days before the preseason starts. And Cronin, too, should be commended for what he got.
In Ayton, you have a former No. 1 overall pick, who has certainly shown flashes of excellence in Phoenix, whose falling out with the Suns made him an ideal player to be acquired and further developed. And Cronin also sees, ironically, the same truth about the Bucks that made them so eager to get Lillard: If there's no Lillard in a few years, there's very little chance the Bucks will be a good basketball team.
Even if this trade works perfectly for the Bucks, it's hard to see Giannis being in Milwaukee five, six, seven years from now. That likelihood makes those pick swaps and that unprotected first-rounder potentially very, very valuable.
The Suns win this one as well. They move on from a player in Ayton who needed a fresh start, they get an ideal replacement -- and, perhaps, in the context of their team, a better one -- in Nurkic, and the depth they desperately needed after giving so much away in the deals for Kevin Durant and Bradley Beal.
The NBA is an unpredictable place. You don't compete for championships on paper, and rosters are not the same things as locker rooms. But on paper, at least, the Bucks' boldness was brilliant; Portland did very, very well in a tough situation; and Phoenix wisely used the need for a third team in a Lillard deal to improve their own championship-level team.
Well done, everyone. Now let's see if it actually works.