Let's start here: The NBA is a
If history has taught us
anything, it's that an NBA
franchise needs a superstar if they want to have a legitimate
chance to capture a championship.
While the New York Knicks'
2020-21 season was undeniably encouraging, and
their future is
bright, they don't
currently have a player capable of pushing them over the
Which is why, if the opportunity
presents itself, New York should push all their chips into the
middle of the table and go all-out to obtain Damian
As you have undoubtedly heard,
Lillard may be running out of patience in Portland. After being
eliminated by the Denver Nuggets earlier this month, Dame quoted
lyrics from rapper Nipsey Hussle in an Instagram
post: "How long should I
stay dedicated? How long til opportunity meets
Make no mistake, Lillard is a
bonafide superstar —
a rare, precious commodity
in today's NBA. And, despite the fact that he will celebrate his
31st birthday next month, he is still squarely in the heart of his
prime and clearly playing at an elite level.
In this year's first-round
playoff series against Denver, Lillard averaged 34.3 points (on a
66% True Shooting percentage), 10.2 assists and 4.3 rebounds. He
knocked down 35 three-pointers in the six-game series, the most
threes in any playoff series in NBA history.
During the 2019-20 regular
season, Lillard averaged a career-high 30.0 points to go along with
8.0 assists, 4.3 boards and 4.1 made three-pointers. The only other
players in league history to average at least 30/8/4 over an entire
season are Oscar Roberston, James Harden, Russell Westbrook and
During a five-game stretch last
February, Dame averaged 48.4 points, 8.2 rebounds, 9.8 assists, and
8.0 made three-pointers, while shooting 54% from the floor, 56.3%
from downtown and 91% from the free-throw stripe. In the bubble
last August, Portland needed to win its final three games to
qualify for the playoffs; Dame averaged 51.3 points and 9.0 dimes
over those three contests. And, yes, Portland won all
His recent success certainly
isn't a fluke. Lillard has been named either First- or Second-Team
All-NBA in each of the past four seasons (and in six of the past
eight). Lillard is one of only two players in NBA history to record
at least 1,500 points and 400 assists in each of their first nine
seasons; Oscar Robertson is the other.
It's also important to note that
these aren't empty-calorie stats Lillard is compiling. They have
resulted directly in team success. The Blazers have advanced to the
playoffs in each of the past eight seasons. That's the longest
active streak in the NBA.
Lillard has single-handedly
carried his team to victory by knocking down big shot after big
shot throughout his career. And this past season was no different.
Lillard led the NBA in clutch scoring, pouring in 162 points while
shooting 51.1% from the field, 39.1% from deep and 94.7% from the
free-throw line in clutch situations.
Over the course of his career,
Lillard has made 35 go-ahead buckets in the final minute of a game,
including the playoffs. That's the most in the NBA since the start
of the 2012-13 season.
Some pundits knock Lillard for
his inability to carry Portland to a championship. However, as
noted above, his production in the postseason has been top-notch.
His supporting cast, on the other hand, has often failed to carry
their weight. Pinning defeats on Lillard is misguided, at best.
Consider Game 5 vs. Denver earlier this month, which the Blazers
lost despite Lillard scoring 55 points. Dame scored 20 of the
Blazers' final 22 points in that contest. Over the last 10 minutes,
he shot 7-of-9. His teammates combined to score two points on
It's also imperative to point
out that the Blazers have run into some elite teams in the
playoffs. In 2014, Portland lost to the San Antonio Spurs in the
second round, and the Spurs would go on to win the championship.
Portland was eliminated by the dynastic Golden State Warriors in
2016 and 2017 and, most recently, in the 2019 Western Conference
Finals. Last year, Portland lost to the Los Angeles Lakers team
that took home the title.
Surprisingly, many Knicks fans
have voiced strong opposition to pulling the trigger on a trade for
Lillard. Some argue that Lillard is too old. Or that he's not worth
the hefty price New York would have to pay to pry him from
Let's address the age issue
first. As highlighted above, Lillard has shown no signs of wearing
down. In fact, he's only gotten better and more efficient over the
past few years. Furthermore, Lillard has never been overly
dependent on his quickness or athleticism. His skillset is
perfectly suited to excel in today's NBA, which places an
astonishingly high premium on long-range marksmanship. It's not
hyperbole to assert that Lillard is one of the best shooters the
sport has ever seen.
So, this isn't Allen Iverson
breaking down on the wrong side of 30. Dame's game is
more akin to Stephen
Curry. And, if you
noticed, Curry, who celebrated his 33rd birthday this year, is
still able to dominate defenses. In 2020-21, Curry averaged
career-highs in scoring (32.0), rebounds (5.5), three-pointers
(5.3) and free-throws (5.7). Lillard won't turn 33 until the summer
after the 2022-23 season.
In addition, Lillard has proven
to be exceptionally durable. Over the first three-plus seasons of
his career, he played in 275 consecutive contests. Over the past
three seasons, he's played in 213 of a possible 223 games
The reluctance among Knicks fans
to part with precious assets is understandable. Fans fall in love
with homegrown talent and teams that exceed expectations. However,
successful executives don't let emotions get in the way of savvy
business decisions. The Knicks shocked the basketball world with
their success in 2020-21. While the franchise is appropriately
positioned to continue its push toward consistent contention,
there’s no guarantee that New York won't stumble and take a step
back next season.
To enter the league's
upper-echelon, the Knicks need to import a
To acquire a player on Lillard's
level, New York will need to pony up. Ideally, the Knicks could
acquire Lillard without having to give up RJ Barrett. Suppose Dame
demanded a trade and made it clear he wanted to play in New York,
thus limiting the Blazers' leverage. In that case, New York could
conceivably snag Lillard in exchange for a bevy of future
first-round picks and a combination of Immanuel Quickley, Mitchell
Robinson, Kevin Knox and Obi Toppin.
However, if push comes to shove,
and refusing to include Barrett would be a deal-breaker, the Knicks
would be wise to pull the trigger. When trading for a future Hall
of Famer in his prime, no player on the current Knicks roster
should be considered off-limits.
Knicks fans on Twitter are quick
to claim a trade for Lillard would gut the roster, leaving New York
incapable of putting a quality, well-balanced team on the floor.
This is not the case.
Remember, New York will enter
this offseason with more cap space than any team in the league. If
the Knicks are forced to trade away Barrett and include Knox in the
deal, New York would be sending out more than $14 million in salary
between just those two players. Thus, even after they take back
Lillard's $39.3 million pact, New York would still have plenty of
Speaking of Lillard's contract,
next season is the first year of the four-year extension he signed
in 2019. That means Dame is under contract through at least
2023-24, with a $48.8 million player option for 2024-25. So, it's
not as if New York would be trading for a stud and hoping they'd be
able to convince him to stay.
The Knicks have rightly received
plenty of praise for protecting their assets, including their
future first-round picks. (New York owns seven first-rounders over
the next five years; the Oklahoma City Thunder and Houston Rockets
are the only teams with more.) However, if we are to believe the
Knicks have turned the corner, the importance of those picks is
diminished. Selections in the late teens and early 20s don't have
nearly the same value as lottery picks.
Regarding Barrett specifically,
I have detailed how
impressive he was as a sophomore in 2021. But the odds of him developing into
one of the 10-best players in the NBA, as Lillard is right now, are
slim. And it could be argued that New York might be selling high on
RJ if they traded him away since he’s coming off his stellar
season. Think back to this past November, when James Harden told
the Rockets that his three preferred destinations were Brooklyn,
Miami and Philly. The Sixers reportedly refused to part with Ben
Simmons in a potential deal, and the Heat were rumored to be
unwilling to include Tyler Herro in a swap. Think about how far the
value of those two players plummeted in the six months that
If they don't trade for Lillard,
how will the Knicks add the franchise-defining superstar they've
coveted since Patrick Ewing left town? Teams carve out cap space in
the hopes of signing a stud in free agency, but that's always a
crapshoot. Knicks fans were hoping LeBron James would relocate to
NYC in 2010; we know how that panned out. Kevin Durant was the
apple of the city's eye in 2019, and he ended up across the
The other avenue to top-tier
status is utilizing hard-earned cap space and draft picks to
facilitate a trade for a disgruntled superstar.
As far as what a post-trade
Knicks lineup might look like, the two cornerstones would be
Lillard and Julius Randle. Both players made the All-NBA Second
Team in 2020-21, which would give the Knicks one of the more
dynamic duos in the league. Over the last decade, the only squads
to boast two First- or Second-Team All-NBA players in the same
season are the Lakers (LeBron James and Anthony Davis, who carried
L.A. to a title in 2020) and the Warriors (Stephen Curry and Kevin
Durant, who won two rings together).
For all his regular-season
success last year, Randle fizzled out in the playoffs. Even at his
peak, Randle is best suited to be the second-banana on a good team.
Randle would be arguably the best teammate Lillard has played with
in his career. If the Knicks could also keep Barrett, a trio of
Dame, Randle and RJ would be a dream scenario for New
Regarding the rest of the
roster, if New York was able to enter free agency with north of $30
million in cap room, and Lillard and Randle as the two foundational
pieces, plenty of talented players would likely be enticed by the
prospect of joining a talented, New York-based team capable of
making a deep playoff run.
Kawhi Leonard is the gem of the
summer's free-agent class. It was rumored that there was mutual
interest between the Knicks and Kawhi when he last hit the open
market in 2019. Even if they weren’t able to land Leonard, there
are plenty of players to pursue.
For instance, DeMar DeRozan is
the second-best wing on the market. At 31 and an assassin in the
mid-range, he'd fit in very nicely alongside Lillard and Randle.
Other free-agent options include Lonzo Ball (restricted), Norman
Powell, Duncan Robinson (restricted), Evan Fournier, Lauri
Markkanen (restricted), Montrezl Harrell, Gary Trent Jr.
(restricted), Otto Porter, Spencer Dinwiddie, Victor Oladipo, Josh
Hart and Justise Winslow, to name a few.
It's also entirely possible
Portland would be willing to include center Jusuf Nurkic in a
potential Dame deal. Earlier this week, Nurk said he would bolt
from the Blazers if Lillard leaves. "If [Lillard] goes, then I
leave Portland as well," Nurkic declared.
Fleshing out the roster with
quality veterans would be far easier with Dame as a drawing card.
Year after year, we've seen vets willing to accept minimum
contracts to play for a contender. It’s safe to assume Carmelo
Anthony would relish a role off the bench in New York to cap off
his career. Players such as Serge Ibaka, JJ Redick, Patty Mills,
Blake Griffin, PJ Tucker, Nicolas Batum, Paul Millsap, and Andre
Iguodala are respected, free-agent vets who would potentially be
willing to prioritize the right situation over the highest
Players who excelled last season
in New York, such as Reggie Bullock, Alec Burks and Nerlens Noel,
would also be welcomed back to the Big Apple at the right price.
And playing behind Lillard would be ideal for Derrick Rose at this
stage of his career.
Ultimately, it all comes down to
Dame. If he doesn't demand a trade, he won't be traded. If he does,
he'll let the Portland front office know which team(s) he wants to
go to. If New York is one of his desired landing spots, the Knicks
should absolutely go all in.