For the Miami Heat, now the wait on Damian Lillard begins

Mar 27, 2023; Portland, Oregon, USA; Portland Trail Blazers point guard Damian Lillard (0) watches players warm up prior to the game against the New Orleans Pelicans at Moda Center. Mandatory Credit: Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports
Mar 27, 2023; Portland, Oregon, USA; Portland Trail Blazers point guard Damian Lillard (0) watches players warm up prior to the game against the New Orleans Pelicans at Moda Center. Mandatory Credit: Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports /

If the Miami Heat are indeed trying to trade for Damian Lillard, it appears they will have to wait. Despite Lillard’s publicly-known preference for the Trail Blazers to trade the No. 3 pick for veteran help, Portland’s selection of Scoot Henderson came and went without a trade demand from Lillard. Now, reports indicate that Lillard may take his time on making a decision about his future.

Sources told The Athletic’s Shams Charania that Lillard’s timeline to make a decision “likely extends now between tonight and the start of free agency and into free agency.” TNT’s Chris Haynes reported that Lillard had not been in touch with Trail Blazers officials as of late Thursday night.

The Blazers did have conversations about trades with several teams, including the Pelicans, per Charania, but landed on selecting Henderson, the G League Ignite star considered by many to be the second-best prospect in the draft behind only the generational Victor Wembanyama. Lillard delaying his decision presumably allows Portland to explore other options to augment the team with veterans in free agency or via trade.

Trail Blazers general manager Joe Cronin told reporters Thursday night that he had a “long talk” with Lillard on Tuesday morning about scenarios to trade for veteran help, and that the plan is to retool around Lillard, not trade him.

“We’ve added some young players. Now the goal is to add more veteran players,” Cronin told reporters. “I have already said my goal is for Damian Lillard to retire a Trail Blazer. I have zero desire to trade him. I hope it works out here.”

Lillard said after the season that he wasn’t interested in a youth movement and that his preference is to play with veterans who can help him contend for a championship. Though he has yet to ask for a trade, teams around the league, including the Heat, are monitoring the situation and preparing offers in advance of a potential trade request.

It appears that Lillard is in control of his future and that Portland would consider moving Lillard if he asks for a trade. The belief is that if Lillard were to make such a request that the organization would be accommodating and work with him and is agent Aaron Goodwin to send him to an organization where he could compete for a championship.

Cronin said he doesn’t believe Lillard is closer to leaving because of the team’s draft-night decisions.

“No, I don’t,” Cronin said when asked if he feels the team is in danger of losing Lillard after 11 seasons. “He’s probably being more vocal than ever, but I don’t look at that as a negative. He wants it to work here, and he’s challenging us to get it done, which is more than fair. He’s earned that.”

The Heat continued with business on Thursday night and drafted UCLA forward Jaime Jaquez Jr. with the 18th pick. At 6-foot-6 with a 6-foot-10 wingspan, Jaquez rose up Miami’s draft board because of his feel for the game, competitiveness and versatility. The Ringer’s Kevin O’Connor wrote that Jaquez is, “Equipped to bully mismatches in the post because of his size, strength, and array of moves” and is an “excellent off-ball defender who doesn’t miss rotations. He has a great feel for reading plays and strong fundamentals for executing what he’s seeing.”

Jaquez grew up in Southern California watching Lakers star Kobe Bryant, and said that Jimmy Butler is one of his favorite players.

“I think just his ultimate toughness. He’s a competitor,” Jaquez said during a media call Thursday. “That’s who he is, and that’s what I try to be every single day. He elevates his team and he just knows how to play. He always tries to make the right play and I try to emulate that in my game.”

Among the players the Heat passed on at 18 include Villanova forward Cam Whitmore, Alabama forward Noah Clowney, Arkansas guard Nick Smith Jr., Iowa forward Kris Murray and Marquette forward Olivier-Maxence Prosper. The Heat landed on Jaquez because of, “His competitiveness, attention to detail, just hard working, shooting, a great character kid.” Heat assistant general manager Adam Simon said. “He checks a lot of boxes.”

As the Heat await Lillard’s decision, they have some of their own to attend to when free agent negotiations begin on June 30 (signings a permitted to start July 6). Gabe Vincent and Max Strus will be unrestricted free agents, as will Kevin Love and Cody Zeller. Omer Yurtseven is a restricted free agent and Miami must decide if it wants to tender a qualifying offer or let him test the market.

Including Jaquez, the Heat have committed about $177 million in salary to 10 players. They are well above the $136 million cap and luxury tax line of $165 million, and are very close to crossing the second tax apron of $182.5 million. Crossing the second apron, as Miami is expected to do, would restrict them from using the $5 million taxpayer midlevel exception.

This means the Heat won’t be able to sign outside free agents to anything more than the veteran minimum. The Heat can use Bird rights to bring back Vincent and Strus at any salary up to the maximum, and are permitted to offer Love up to $3.8 million for next season.

It would take a trade for the Heat to make substantial changes to the roster, and the expectation is that they will explore those avenues. Their No. 1 target is Lillard but, like on draft night, they can only be so patient until forced to make other decisions.

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