Why Damian Lillard makes so much sense for the Miami Heat

It might not sound right, given how incredible Nikola Jokić was, how lethal Jamal Murray looked, and how frequently their two-man game seemed unstoppable … but the Denver Nuggets actually didn’t score all that well in the 2023 NBA Finals.

After scorching opponents to the tune of 121.7 points per non-garbage-time possessions through the first three rounds of the playoffs, Denver’s offensive efficiency dipped by more than six points per 100 in the championship round, down to a level that would’ve ranked right around league-average during the regular season. In the Game 5 win that brought the franchise’s first NBA championship, in fact, it got downright gross — just 98.9 points per 100, Denver’s fifth-worst outing of the entire season.

“I don’t know how long it would take me to go through the autopsy of this final game, but I would say that it will probably rank as our hardest, competitive, most active defensive game of the season,” Heat head coach Erik Spoelstra said after the defeat. “And it still fell short.”

That’s because Miami’s biggest problem in the Finals — well, outside of the 6-foot-11, 284-pound Serbian equestrian aficionado, that is — was that it just couldn’t score.

The Heat scored just 106.2 points per 100 non-garbage-time possessions in the Finals, according to Cleaning the Glass — a rate of offensive efficiency that would’ve ranked dead last in the league during the regular season. The frustrating futility reached its nadir in that decisive Game 5: Miami managed just 89 points on 34.4% shooting, mustering its lowest offensive rating of the entire season.

So: What do you do when you’re devoid of the firepower necessary to go toe-to-toe with the best offensive player in the NBA? Well, “go get maybe the second-best offensive player in the NBA” seems like an elegant solution.

Damian Lillard is the offensive engine Miami needs. (AP photo/Craig Mitchelldyer)

Make no mistake: That’s what you’re looking at in Damian Lillard, who decided a few days ago that, after 11 seasons, he no longer wants to ply his trade for the Portland Trail Blazers. Because — at the risk of repeating my structure — it might not sound right, given the Blazers’ stumbles to a 33-49 record … but take a look under the hood, and you see that Lillard had an awfully strong case as arguably the league’s most potent point-producing force.

It’s been that way for a while. Lillard’s been the leading light in a Portland offense that has ranked seventh or better in points scored per possession in six of the last 10 seasons, including four top-four finishes, and that has scored like the best offense in the NBA with Lillard on the court in four of the past five campaigns. That includes last season, when a Blazers squad that was mediocre on the offensive end overall produced a whopping 120.3 points per 100 during Dame Time.

After struggling with his shot during a 2021-22 campaign in which he was plagued by an abdominal injury, Dame returned to health and form last season, finishing third in the NBA in scoring at 32.2 points per game and 10th in table-setting with 7.3 assists a night. He shot a career-best 63.3% in the restricted area and 57.4% inside the arc overall, while working his way to 9.6 free-throw attempts and 11.3 3-point hoists per night — both also career highs.

Lillard remains one of the league’s premier operators in the two-man game, producing 1.13 points per possession finished as the ball-handler in the pick-and-roll, according to Synergy’s game charting — tied with Kyrie Irving and Donovan Mitchell for fourth in the NBA out of 138 players to log at least 100 such plays. (Right beneath Dame on that list, as luck would have it? Jimmy Butler.) Lillard is eminently capable of cooking without a screen, too, averaging 1.17 points per play finished in isolation — fifth out of 101 players to go solo at least 50 times.

Dame’s got the burst off the bounce to beat defenders to the paint and the strength and touch to finish once he gets there, finishing seventh in the NBA last season in points scored per game off drives to the basket, according to Second Spectrum tracking. Even so, you very obviously can’t play a step off him, or duck under screens to try to cut off his driving lanes: Lillard led the NBA in pull-up 3-pointers made last season, drilling them at a 37.2% clip despite the ludicrous volume, degree of difficulty and smothering coverage that tend to come attached to his launches. (Though he’s primarily an on-the-ball creator, Lillard has also proven perfectly equipped to threaten defenses when spotting up on the weak side opposite an initial action, knocking down 39.4% of his catch-and-shoot 3-pointers since 2013-14 — a healthy sample of nearly 2,000 attempts.)

While shouldering a greater offensive burden than ever, establishing new career highs in both usage rate and front-court touches per game, Lillard also managed to set new high-water marks in true shooting percentage and assist rate. Only two other players have ever combined the level of shooting efficiency and assist generation that Dame did last season on as heavy of a workload: Jokić, in 2021-22, and LeBron James, in 2012-13 — a pair of MVP seasons.

Going to the advanced numbers only fortifies the case. Lillard led the NBA in the offensive components of estimated plus-minus, real plus-minus, The BBall Index’s LEBRON metric and Kostya Medvedovsky’s DARKO projections. He ranked second in the offensive side of FiveThirtyEight’s RAPTOR and box plus-minus, fifth in offensive regularized adjusted plus-minus and sixth in offensive win shares.

Even while being a very bad defender on a terrible team, Lillard still profiled as a top-10 player last season by a slew of metrics. That’s how incredible of an offensive engine he is — still, just a couple of weeks shy of age 33. That’s why the Heat — and a number of other teams who have reportedly checked in with the Blazers, although Lillard has made it very clear, according to Yahoo Sports senior NBA reporter Vincent Goodwill, that he wants to be in Miami — have him at the top of their wish list as they look to bolster their roster in hopes of finally getting over the hump after a pair of Finals runs.

Butler would be the best two-way player Lillard’s ever played with. Bam Adebayo would be the kind of short-roll release valve and complementary frontcourt playmaker he’s never had. Flank him with some floor-spacing spot-up threats, and the Heat offense that ranked 25th in the NBA during the regular season and ran aground against Denver would suddenly look not just a hell of a lot more potent but potentially championship-caliber.

As compelling as that argument for going all-in for Dame might be, though, there are reasons not to. Like, say, $216.2 million of them, capped by an eye-popping $63.2 million player option for 2026-27. Committing that kind of coin to a small point guard through his age-36 season has to give even the most win-now-focused front-office executives the beginnings of a migraine — particularly in a financial environment now governed by a new collective bargaining agreement specifically constructed to be most punitive to teams that spend deep into the luxury tax to stockpile top talent.

Even if you’re willing to pay that premium down the line, though, you’ve got to pony up with a deal that the Blazers deem worth their while now … and, so far, Portland general manager Joe Cronin hasn’t found one to his liking.

The Heat, who eschewed a pursuit of Bradley Beal to stay ready for the possibility of Dame jumping ship, are “prepared to offer a package centered around Tyler Herro, with possibly Duncan Robinson and picks,” but “would prefer to keep Caleb Martin out of any trade scenarios,” according to Chris Haynes of Bleacher Report. That package doesn’t seem to have motivated Portland very much, though — perhaps because, as Chris Mannix of Sports Illustrated reported last week, the Blazers are “lukewarm” on Herro.

Yahoo Sports senior NBA reporter Jake Fischer reported Monday that, to pursue that kind of deal construction, “Portland would have the goal of moving Herro to a third team,” preferring to devote playing time, touches and playmaking opportunities in the backcourt to the young trio of $100 million man Anfernee Simons, 2022 lottery pick Shaedon Sharpe and 2023 No. 3 overall selection Scoot Henderson. That search for a third team led to Brooklyn. According to Ian Begley of SNY, the teams had discussed a framework in which Herro would land with the Nets, joining Mikal Bridges, the just-extended Cam Johnson and center Nic Claxton — though he’s just one year from unrestricted free agency himself — as the young core of a roster that general manager Sean Marks is rebuilding from the ashes of his never-quite-realized superteam.

With Herro just about to start a new four-year, $120 million contract extension, though, there are rumblings that Brooklyn would ask for at least some kind of token draft compensation to absorb his nine-figure deal — perhaps along the lines of the top-20-protected 2030 first-round pick the Golden State Warriors sent the Washington Wizards before the 2023 NBA Draft to get off Jordan Poole’s contract. That could complicate a structure in which you’d imagine the Blazers would insist on every future asset on the board — and it’s not the only prospective complication.

The Blazers would reportedly like to use the Lillard deal to move the remaining three years and $54.4 million on Jusuf Nurkić’s contract off their books, according to Michael Scotto of HoopsHype, eyeing a position where the only significant non-rookie-scale deals on their balance sheet belong to Simons and the just-re-upped Jerami Grant. Combine that with the possibility that the Nets could look to ship out the final two years and $78.2 million owed to Ben Simmons — a deal for which there don’t appear to be any takers, according to Greg Sylvander of Five Reasons Sports — and the process becomes very convoluted, very quickly.

Where there’s a will, though, there’s a way; when a team wants a player badly enough to do whatever’s necessary to get him, what’s convoluted can become extremely simple. Compiling a trade package compelling enough to get Lillard won’t be easy for Pat Riley, Andy Elisburg and the rest of that Miami front office. But when have the Heat ever been afraid of a little hard work?

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