Damian Lillard Throws Wrench Into Ben Simmons Trade Talks

On Friday, Damian Lillard demonstrated why the Philadelphia 76ers should be in no rush to trade Ben Simmons this offseason.

In an interview with Chris Haynes of Yahoo Sports, Lillard came closer than he ever has to requesting a trade from the Portland Trail Blazers.

“I think that’s the stage we’re at as a team where we all, not just me, not just my teammates, not just our new coaching staff, the front office, everybody in this organization must look in the mirror because we’ve constantly come up short,” Lillard said. “We have to look in the mirror and say I have to be better because whatever it is we’re doing is not working and it’s not giving us the shot to compete on the level that we want to compete on.”

That sound you hear is Blazers team president Neil Olshey getting ready to pack up his office after a tumultuous offseason.

Lillard walked back some of those comments Friday afternoon while speaking with reporters following Team USA practice. However, he sounded more uncertain about his future than ever before.

“Right now I’m not sure what I’m going to do,” Lillard said. “What I can say is my intentions and my heart has always been set on being in a Trail Blazers uniform for my entire career. But I think over time, you want to win it all. And I want to win it all in a Trail Blazers uniform. But we all have to be making strides toward that.”

That leaves the Blazers with two choices: they could trade Lillard now, seeing the writing on the wall, or they could attempt to retool the roster around him and hope it’s enough to satisfy his hunger to compete for a championship. Either way, the Sixers stand to benefit.

According to Shams Charania of The Athletic, the Sixers “have opened up trade conversations surrounding Simmons and have engaged with teams” following their disappointing second-round exit against the Atlanta Hawks. One source told Charania that the Sixers “want an All-Star-caliber player in return.”

The Sixers could attempt to assemble a Simmons-centric package for Lillard—including, say, promising young guard Tyrese Maxey and every draft pick under the sun—on the off-chance that the Blazers are entertaining trade offers for him. If the Blazers rebuff any Lillard inquiries for now, the Sixers could turn their attention to his backcourt counterpart.

CJ McCollum “has been mentioned often as a potential Sixers target in a Simmons deal,” as Marc Stein of Substack noted Tuesday. Since both players are earning north of $30 million next season, a one-for-one swap works for salary-matching purposes.

However, Stein added that Sixers team president Daryl Morey “longs for Damian Lillard if he is targeting any Trail Blazer.” And some sources believe Morey “is as willing as any executive in his position” to wait out a trade “if he can’t get a true headliner back for Simmons” this offseason, per Stein.

Whether McCollum qualifies as a “true headliner” is anyone’s guess. He fits the bill of an All-Star-caliber player—he averaged 23.1 points on 45.8 percent shooting, a career-high 4.7 assists, 3.9 rebounds and 3.6 made triples per game this year — but he’ll turn 30 in September and has missed at least 12 games in each of the past three seasons.

Although McCollum is a cleaner offensive fit alongside Sixers All-Star center Joel Embiid, a Simmons-McCollum swap might give Morey some pause.

Barring other roster shakeups, the Sixers would have to lean on McCollum as their nominal point guard, a role which he has never consistently played in the NBA. He can create off the dribble for himself and does have playmaking chops, but he’s better suited as a secondary ball-handler and creator rather than a team’s primary floor general.

McCollum is also nowhere near the defender that Simmons is. A backcourt featuring McCollum and Seth Curry would get routinely blown by, which would put Embiid on an island to clean up their messes. In a conference featuring the likes of Kyrie Irving and Trae Young, sacrificing any semblance of point-of-attack defense might be a non-starter.

Lillard’s comments from Friday might have helped Morey regain the upper hand in trade talks with Portland, though. If the Blazers refuse to trade him this offseason, they can’t run back the same core and hope for a different outcome.

“Our environment has always been great,” Lillard told Haynes. “We’re not losing a lot, but we were eliminated by a shorthanded Denver team that I felt we should have beat. I just walked away from that really disappointed. I was like, ‘Man, this just isn’t going to work.’”

If Simmons is the best player whom the Blazers can get for McCollum—and therefore their last hope of keeping Lillard satisfied—Morey will have all the leverage in negotiations. He could refuse to budge unless they threw in another win-now veteran such as Robert Covington, young players like Anfernee Simons or Nassir Little and/or draft picks.

Given the potential concerns about a McCollum-centric package, though, Morey might prefer to wait out Portland instead.

If the Blazers can’t find a way to retool their roster into a championship contender this offseason, Lillard’s patience may finally run out. And unless Olshey has an ace up his sleeve, it’s difficult to imagine him getting Portland to that level over the coming months.

Until there’s more clarity regarding Lillard’s future, the Sixers should hold off on a Simmons trade barring an absolute home run for them. Whenever the Blazers do begin entertaining offers for Lillard, a Simmons-centric package could help them feign competitiveness if they aren’t willing to embrace a ground-up rebuild.

Lillard’s waffling might cause another star guard to rethink his future, too. In March, Fred Katz and Jason Quick of The Athletic wrote about the relationship between Lillard and Washington Wizards guard Bradley Beal, who likewise finds himself weighing the balance between loyalty and title contention.

Beal “would rather win in D.C. than win elsewhere,” according to Katz and Quick, “but he also doesn’t want to lose forever.” Sound familiar?

As Morey ponders offers for Simmons this offseason, the uncertainty surrounding Lillard—and perhaps Beal as well—should make him think twice before pulling the trigger.

Unless otherwise noted, all stats via NBA.com, PBPStats, Cleaning the Glass or Basketball Reference. All salary information via Spotrac.

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