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Does Damian Lillard make the Bucks the best team in the East?
Jrue Holiday is a big loss, but you have to make this trade.
After what had been an anticlimactic NBA off-season, the Milwaukee Bucks made an seismic trade earlier this afternoon, acquiring Damian Lillard from the Portland Trail Blazers in exchange for Jrue Holiday and Grayson Allen as part of a three-team deal.
The Bucks immediately became Eastern Conference favorites at the major betting sites. Here are the before-and-after numbers on FanDuel, for example.1
Eastern Conference Championship Odds (FanDuel) Before After Bucks +290 +150 Celtics +210 +210 Heat +450 +1200
After hearing the news, I was almost ready to fire off a contrarian, “actually, Jrue Holiday is just as good as Damian Lillard” take. Certainly, Holiday is probably underrated by casual basketball fans, as players who generate a lot of value with their defense often are. And the Bucks are giving up another rotation piece in the deal in Allen.
But the advanced stats do say that Lillard’s offensive brilliance outweighs the defensive downgrade that this trade will represent for the Bucks — and there are other reasons for Milwaukee to make this trade besides. Here are Lillard and Holiday’s ratings, measured in points added or subtracted per 100 possessions, according to RAPTOR and EPM.
Lillard was about 2 points per 100 possession better last year. In the three-year weighted average2, it’s closer, although that includes data from Lillard’s injury-limited 2021-22 season. He’s obviously recovered just fine; in fact, 2022-23 was probably the best season of his career.
Both players will be 33 this season, so there’s no need for any additional type of age adjustment. You could arguably adjust for team context — the Blazers were fairly blatantly tanking for much of 2021-22 and also for parts of last season, and sometimes players’ advanced numbers suffer under those circumstances, especially on defense. If so, that’s another point in Lillard’s favor — although at 6’2” and age 33, he’s clearly going to be a negative defender at this point in his career.
Other analysts have focused on Holiday’s supposed deficiencies in the playoffs. For what it’s worth, I don’t think that case is entirely clear. According to RAPTOR, Lillard has run hot-and-cold in the playoffs with an overall rating of +4.1 points per 100 possessions since 2013-14. Holiday’s rating is a nearly identical +4.0 over the same period, and the Bucks did win a championship with him in 2020-21.
But still, Bucks fans ought to be thrilled with this trade, for three fairly important reasons:
The Bucks’ half-court offense has often looked like it’s out of ideas since their championship season, sometimes resulting in a low-efficiency Giannis Antetokounmpo midrange or 3-point attempt. Lillard solves that problem pretty much by himself, and out to make Giannis an (even) better player.
The Bucks were set to play the season under the cloud of Giannis expressing uncertainty about his long-term future with the team. This deal at the very least ought to buy time with Antetokounmpo.
Finally, the trade keeps Lillard out of the hands of the Miami Heat, the destination Lillard had said he’d preferred. So the Bucks are gaining essentially through addition by subtraction by kneecapping another Eastern Conference contender. At FanDuel, Miami’s odds of winning the conference cratered to +1200 from +450 before.
Look, this isn’t a risk-free trade — not by any means at all. Lillard’s not young, his contract is very expensive, he’s not going to the team that he originally wanted, and the Bucks are very thin in the backcourt. Still, especially as compared to the price that teams usually pay for superstar talent, this is a huge win for the Bucks.
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For those of who who aren’t used to looking at American-style odds, these numbers imply that the Bucks went from having about a 25 percent chance of winning the East to a 40 percent chance instead.
Based on my experience with projection systems, I weighted the seasons 60/30/10 — with the most recent seasons getting more weight — multiplied by the square root of the number of minutes the players played in each season.