For years, the NBA Republic imagined a union of Steph Curry and Giannis Antetokounmpo. However, the partnership of basketball’s greatest gravitational forces would only happen unless Antetekounmpo initiated a desire to play in Golden State before he signed a supermax contract in 2020. Six months later, he won his first and only NBA Finals. Once again, Antetokounmpo openly contemplating his future outside Milwaukee spurred Bucks management into action. In the absence of the hypothetical Steph Curry and Giannis Antetkounmpo ticket that captivated the league in Golden State’s post-KD days, Damian Lillard is the Greek Freak’s ideal running mate.
On Wednesday, the Bucks dropped a bombshell on The Association by flipping Jrue Holiday, two pick swaps in 2028 and 2030, plus a 2029 Bucks first-rounder to Portland as part of a three-team trade that also involved Grayson Allen being jettisoned to Phoenix after he dribbled away their season in Game 5. In doing so, Milwaukee ensured they would have the last laugh against the Miami Heat and recharged a static roster that was in dire need of a shakeup.
Lillard serves almost exactly the same function as Curry would have under those aforementioned hypotheticals as the only active player who can match His Majest-3’s marksmanship from deep or in creating triples off the dribble. Imagine Lillard spreading out a defense beyond the logo from the point on the court where Earth’s atmosphere ends and space begins. Now imagine Antetokounmpo being able to dart through a defense stretched out between there and 10,000 leagues below sea level.
Contrary to popular perception, the NBA’s efficiency era is not just designed around perimeter airbenders jacking up 3-pointers. The threat of long-distance shooters is supposed to jar open driving lanes or open space for cutters to manufacture points from layups and threes, the other two most efficient shots in basketball. Threes, free throws, and layups. Lillard and Antetokounmpo are masters of basketball’s holy offensive trinity.
As long as the chemistry is right, an Antetokounmpo and Lillard duo rivals Jokić and Murray or Harden and Embiid (RIP) as 1-2 punch combos. Blending Lillard’s gravity and Giannis’ heliocentrism from the paint gives Milwaukee the strongest covalent bond in basketball on the east side of the bracket
Phoenix accumulated pure, unrefined talent this summer. Lillard and Antetokounmpo are a double-stranded helix. Both of them have been marching to the beat of their own drum throughout the player empowerment era while their peers coordinated in free agency to chase rings, but this could be a basketball symphony. Most importantly, the addition of Lillard will create gaps for Giannis to generate points more easily and expend less energy in the process.
For the fifth consecutive season, Antetokounmpo was among the top three finishers in dunks, a category typically topped by rim-rolling centers. After the calendar flipped to 2023, Lillard split more nylon than any scorer in the NBA, averaging a league-high 35.1 points per game. As great as Jrue Holiday was, he had limitations as a playmaker. When Lillard gets going, he’s a hydrogen bomb. The air pressure changes, winds change direction, and momentum shifts.
Milwaukee had to do something to prevent Antetokounmpo from following through on his threats to decamp from Cream City when his contract expires. Antetokounmpo reached his acme in the 2021 NBA Finals, but in the two years since then, the Bucks have sputtered out of the postseason in brutal fashion leading to the ouster of Mike Budenholzer.
Milwaukee was quietly biding its time this offseason trying to hoard its assets as if they were determined to strike a balance between maxing out the present and not leaving a crater behind once Khris Middleton and Holiday aged dramatically during the twilight of Antetokounmpo’s contract. Antetokounmpo hinted at his impending free agency all summer long while general manager Jon Horst sat on his hands and mostly maintained the status quo aside from signing sharpshooter Malik Beasley and hiring first-time head coach Adrian Griffin. It turns out Horst’s deer-in-headlights look was the best poker face in the league. Nobody saw this coming. According to Shams Charania’s inside account, Lillard became open to playing next season in Brooklyn or Milwaukee weeks ago. Lillard had already expressed his affinity for Brooklyn was an open secret, but his timeline to contend didn’t match up with Brooklyn’s long game. Somehow, Milwaukee never leaked.
Basketball-wise, upgrading from Holiday to Lillard raises the ceiling for the Giannis-era Bucks. Middleton, 32, has been Antetokounmpo’s No. 2 and Milwaukee’s big shot maker for a decade now, but has always been a makeshift sidekick.
Antetokounmpo’s rim-rattling and iso magnetism lit their offensive fuse. When he drove the lane, the perimeter opened up and Milwaukee was typically among the league leaders in open threes per game. However, with Middleton out for much of the regular season, Milwaukee’s offense plummeted to 15th in offensive rating, while Budenholzer struggled to adjust.
The Bucks’ defense was their calling card throughout Mike Budenholzer’s tenure. Milwaukee allowed the fourth-fewest points per 100 possessions last season and ranked second in the difference between the normal percentage teams shoot throughout the campaign compared to when they played the Bucks. Holiday’s point-of-attack defense was the head of a kinetic chain that echoed down to Brook Lopez.
What Milwaukee loses in Holiday’s perimeter defense, they make up for tenfold in how Lillard opens up the floor for them offensively. Antetkounmpo’s help defense can account for liabilities better than almost anyone in the league. He’s a former Defensive Player of the Year and one of the NBA’s best weak-side defenders. Lopez is embarking on his sixth season as the last line of defense for five seasons, and he was the second-leading vote-getter for Defensive Player of the Year, but he’s also pushing 36. His regular season minutes almost certainly have to be slashed to keep him fresh for the postseason.
As long as Milwaukee maintains some semblance of defensive cohesiveness and Bobby Portis’ eyes remain in their sockets, they should be able to withstand the dropoff from Holiday to Lillard’s lackluster defense. 2022 first-round pick MarJon Beauchamp will be relied upon to showcase his 3&D capabilities in the void left behind by Holiday. But when Lillard takes off, for the first time in his career, Antetokounmpo might be occasionally riding another superstar’s contrails.