Sixers’ Challenge Ahead: Damian Lillard’s Arrival in the Eastern Conference

Philadelphia 76ers, Damian Lillard. Credit: Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports
Philadelphia 76ers, Damian Lillard. Credit: Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports /

Dame Time has officially come to a close in Portland, with the Trailblazers sending superstar Damian Lillard to the Milwaukee Bucks in a three-team trade. In return, the Blazers will receive Deandre Ayton, and Jrue Holiday and the Phoenix Suns will receive Jusuf Nurkic, Nassir Little, Keon Johnson, and Grayson Allen.

Lillard leaves the Trailblazers as one of the franchise’s all-time greatest players.

In 719 games over 11 seasons, Lillard averaged 25.2 points per game to go along with 4.8 rebounds, and 7.3 assists per game, while shooting a respectable 46.3% from the field. Lillard ranks first in total points (19,376) and three-pointers made (2,387), second in total assists (5,151), and third in games played in franchise history (719). His departure marks a long summer for the Blazers after Lillard demanded a trade at the start of free agency. Lillard will face his former team for the first time at home on November 26th and will make his return to Portland on January 31st, 2024.

With Damian Lillard exiting the Western Conference, this has major implications for the Eastern Conference as a whole. The Bucks were a powerhouse in the 2022-2023 regular season, finishing with 58 wins and cruising to a first-place finish. The playoffs, however, were a different story, as they lost in the first round against the Miami Heat. This trade on paper makes the Bucks the outright favorite to win the Eastern Conference, and perhaps even the NBA Finals. For Lillard, this gives him the best chance to win a championship in his career. While the Trailblazers had several postseason appearances, including a Western Conference finals trip in 2023, this Bucks team is built to win now and has all the pieces to contend in a considerably weak Eastern Conference.

The Lillard trade has a major effect on the Philadelphia 76ers as well.

On the court, the Sixers open up against the Bucks on the road on October 26th and every game between the two teams will be critical. The Sixers tied the season series with the Bucks last season and with Lillard in the mix it makes Milwaukee a much tougher opponent than they already were a year ago. Off the court, with James Harden on the trade block, the Sixers now have the chance to get a better look at his value and how it compares to Lillard. It appears that up to this point, Harden and the Sixers have both overestimated his value and this blockbuster gives both sides a chance to reevaluate and see what they can get for his talents. It also allows other teams in the mix for Lillard to pivot to taking a look at Harden and discuss a potential trade.

In the end, it is the Milwaukee Bucks that ultimately land the future Hall of Fame guard, outbidding the Miami Heat who were considered the frontrunners to acquire Lillard’s services. The Sixers were reportedly in the mix but a lack of assets and picks made the trade difficult to attain. All around, the trade was well-rounded on paper for all three teams involved. The Trailblazers got a solid return with Ayton entering the fold who will pair very well with Jerami Grant and Scoot Henderson. The Suns became a better team as they acquired Nurkic to start at center and a couple of bench pieces in Johnson and Allen. It makes the Western Conference weaker, but not by much.

The Eastern Conference becomes much more difficult for the Sixers and the rest of the top teams to win as the Bucks loaded up and created a dynamic duo consisting of two superstar talents, Giannis Antetokounmpo, and Damian Lillard.