The Miami Heat are playing a dangerous game. The Damian Lillard sweepstakes is on and, although Lillard still aims to play in Miami, other teams appear to be exploring the possibility of trading for the seven-time All-Star.
The Toronto Raptors and, as of Monday, the Boston Celtics have been rumored as potential landing spots. Portland Trail Blazers GM Joe Cronin hasn’t spoken with the Heat’s top brass since July. He’s had conversations with Toronto and other teams as recent as last week. The Heat are daring the Blazers to try to find a better offer than what they can cobble together. The Blazers are trying.
What happens next? Most league insiders expect the Blazers and Heat to talk about a Lillard deal eventually. But what if Toronto does the unthinkable and hits the eject button on the Scottie Barnes-centric future to go all-in with a Lillard-led crew? What if the Celtics put their oodles of draft picks on the table and pair Lillard with Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown?
Either thing happening would be a disaster for the Heat. Not just because they didn’t get Lillard, but also because Lillard will have ended up with an Eastern Conference rival. (Lillard on the Celtics, in particular, would be especially agonizing).
There’s always the possibility that Lillard could get traded to another team and hold out in hopes of getting dealt to the Heat. The Miami Herald reported last week that Lillard is expected to try to get traded to the Heat even if he’s dealt elsewhere. I remain dubious. The NBA, in that case, would come down hard on Lillard and his agent Aaron Goodwin. Lillard cares too much about his public perception as a “pro” to go full DEFCON Harden.
So let’s play out this hypothetical. What should the Heat do if Lillard is traded to another team?
Option 1: Wait for another star to demand a trade. Giannis Antetokounmpo has put the Bucks on notice and could be available within the next 12 months. James Harden may be available for the right price and his teammate, Joel Embiid, has been the subject of speculation for months. If Donovan Mitchell doesn’t sign his extension with the Cavaliers (which he is reportedly not expected to do), the Heat could circle back to him next summer.
Here’s the problem: If the Heat strike out on Lillard, it will become even more clear that they don’t have the assets to get a superstar trade done. The market has spoken when it comes to Tyler Herro’s trade value — good, but not good enough to be the centerpiece of a star trade. The Heat can presently trade only two first-round picks. Other young players Nikola Jovic and Jaime Jaquez Jr. are unknowns. The Heat don’t have what it takes to make a serious offer for Giannis or Embiid. Even if Mitchell pulls a Lillard and attempts to make his way to Miami to play with Bam Adebayo, well, we’ve potentially seen how that strategy plays out (again, in this hypothetical scenario).
Option 2: Pivot and admit that after two years of trying and failing to trade for a star, it isn’t going to happen. Instead, the Heat can finally dust off their assets and make minor moves to improve the roster around Jimmy Butler and Adebayo. Allow Tyler Herro to grow into a complementary scorer, trade a pick for a long-term answer at power forward and hope that internal development and more Butler postseason heroics can carry them to another Finals appearance.
If the Heat can’t win a championship in the next two years, then at least they can set themselves up for a future built around Bam, Herro, Jovic and Jaquez.
There may be teams willing to undercut the Miami Heat and sell Damian Lillard on their championship vision. One such team could be the Raptors.
Option 3: Blow it up. A dramatic decision that couldn’t happen until at least next summer. The Heat owe it to Butler and this team to see what they can do after last season’s impressive Finals run. But if they fall short again and star help doesn’t arrive, then the Heat would have to explore trading Butler.
Butler, who is under contract for the next two seasons, becomes extension-eligible again next summer. His current deal will pay him $48.8 million for the 2024-25 season and includes a player option for $52.4 million in 2025-26. Butler will be 36 years old at the start of that final season. A new deal could be worth upwards of $300 million and pay Butler $60 million a year.
Rather than pay the extension, the Heat could try to trade Butler to a contender in exchange for assets that help them retool the roster around Adebayo.
Plan A, obviously, is to get Lillard and make a run at a championship. That plan is still very much a possibility. But with the buzz picking up around Lillard and the conversations the Blazers are having with other teams, backup plans are worth considering.