NBA Trade Intel: Zion Williamson May Be the Trail Blazers’ Final Option to Help Damian Lillard

NBA Trade Intel: Zion Williamson May Be the Trail Blazers’ Final Option to Help Damian Lillard article feature image
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Sean Gardner/Getty Images. Pictured: Zion Williamson #1 of the New Orleans Pelicans during an NBA game against the Portland Trail Blazers.

When the Portland Trail Blazers landed the No. 3 pick in the 2023 NBA Draft, the possibilities seemed endless. Almost immediately, media outlets began reporting that Damian Lillard expected the team to use the pick to upgrade the roster in support of a contending team.

As the days turned into weeks since the lottery, that expectation has intensified, while potential offers have started to peter out.

I broke down the latest Blazers intel on Sunday, and the situation has only calcified. At the time, there were a number of options on the table for Portland. They were in talks with the Raptors for Pascal Siakam, but that deal broke down over Siakam's willingness to commit to re-signing in Portland before such a trade, or whether the Blazers were willing to offer Siakam a max extension/new contract, depending on whom you ask.

Regardless, those talks appear to have stalled. They will likely be re-explored on draft day as Portland continues to do its due diligence. But that takes a major option off the board for the Trail Blazers.

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League sources have suggested that Portland had exploratory talks with teams on several former or current All-Stars, but the slice of players that teams are willing to give up for a package involving the third pick (with Anfernee Simons' contract attached to make the money work) and have a player that Lillard wants to play with, is small. The Nets are uninterested in trading Mikal Bridges, one of Lillard's preferred targets.

Hilariously, Jake Fischer of Yahoo reported Tuesday that the Blazers are preparing an offer for Bam Adebayo. Let me go ahead and spoil this for you: that's not happening. The Heat aren't trading Adebayo unless it's for a top-three player in the NBA, and even then, they would need Adebayo next to that player for his defense.

Here's where the drama kicks in.

The Blazers may effectively be down to one option to upgrade the roster and satisfy Lillard: Zion Williamson.

The Athletic reported Tuesday that while there's tension, Williamson probably won't be traded. That goes against league sentiment echoed by Bill Simmons this week that the expectation is Williamson will be dealt by Thursday.

It's not just the injury, weight and ongoing, um, messy off-court issues (which should not substantially impact matters but is nonetheless a bit embarrassing for all involved) with Williamson. It's that the Pelicans' front office is among a handful of teams that truly feel Scoot Henderson is a star for teams to build around.

The Pelicans have a motive to move Williamson and a partner willing to give up assets with a draft pick New Orleans covets. That's the best fit. This is a one-time opportunity.

It's also not a sure thing.

Momentum has swung back towards the Hornets selecting Brandon Miller with the No. 2 pick in the draft in recent days, but there remains some skepticism in league circles that it's a done deal and may be decided as late as the day of the draft. If the Hornets were to go against the script and take Henderson second, all hell breaks loose.

No team, including the Pelicans, is trading a star player to Portland for Brandon Miller. (There is a small chance they would trade that pick for Amen Thompson who is quietly being talked about as a potential reach candidate for some savvy front offices.)

If that deal is off the table, the Blazers will have a brutal decision in front of them: Draft Miller, the consensus top-three player in the draft, take a lesser offer to move back in the draft while adding depth that could supplement a bigger move later, or draft Thompson (either one of the brothers) or another player high on their board.

Let's say Henderson is still on the board, but no trades materialize. Henderson is a lead guard with superstar intentions. Can he and Lillard mesh? It's one thing to take two ball-dominant stars and ask them to make it work; it's another when one is a veteran trying to contend late in his career, and the other is a rookie looking to establish himself.

If the Blazers enter Friday morning with nothing but the No. 3 pick, regardless of who that is, there's going to be an absolute fury of speculation about the end for Lillard's time in Portland.

Miami is waiting. The Heat's offer for Lillard will be relatively pitiful on the surface. It will be multiple firsts that will likely be in the 20s. It will include Kyle Lowry and Duncan Robinson. If the Heat have all of the leverage, they will try and avoid including Tyler Herro in the deal.

There's a real sense around the league that Miami is aiming for a sweetheart deal (isn't everyone?) given that Lillard openly said the Heat would be his top option on a podcast if he left Portland.

The other true contender for Lillard on the board is Brooklyn. The Nets' draft pick situation is worse than Miami's after the James Harden trade, but at least Phoenix's picks for Kevin Durant helped somewhat. The Blazers have enough expiring contracts to make it work.

Either of these options would represent poor returns for Portland. Ironically, the best situation would be for Portland to trade with a team holding a top-five pick and looking to build a contender around their star … so themselves.

There's always the possibility of another team sneaking in under the radar. Maybe the Celtics quietly put together an offer, including Jaylen Brown, instead of paying Brown his upcoming super-max extension. Maybe the 76ers pull off a stealth deal to add Lillard instead of re-signing Harden.

But as it stands now, the Blazers may be down to one strike to add a major star next to Lillard. The Blazers have been posturing strongly that they feel Lillard won't ask out, even if they swing out on draft night, while consistent leaks have suggested the amount of expectation Lillard holds for them to build a competitive team around him right now.

If Williamson isn't a Trail Blazer by midnight on Thursday night, it could kickstart a staring contest in Portland over the future of the greatest player in franchise history.

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