After a months-long build-up, the Milwaukee Bucks have emerged as winners of the Damian Lillard sweepstakes. As the dust settles on this blockbuster deal, where do the Cleveland Cavaliers now stand in the Eastern Conference?
Details of the trade
Desperate to prove to Giannis Antetokounmpo that they are serious about winning, the Bucks pulled the trigger on a three-team swap to land Lillard.
Bucks receive: Damian Lillard
Suns receive: Jusuf Nurkic, Nassir Little, Keon Johnson, Grayson Allen
Trail Blazers receive: Jrue Holiday, Deandre Ayton, Toumani Camara, 2029 first round pick, 2028 and 2030 pick swaps
The pressure has been on Milwaukee since Giannis has become increasingly vocal about his urge to win another championship. This move signals that the front office is willing to do whatever it takes to maximize their championship window while Antetokounmpo is still in town.
Adding Lillard is a clear upgrade over Jrue Holiday. While Milwaukee’s perimeter defense will become more vulnerable in Holiday’s absence, Lillard is a legit offensive superstar whose contributions on offense should outweigh any limitations on the defensive end. Lillard will also become Antetokounmpo's first All-NBA teammate, forming a deadly one-two-punch and making the Bucks firm favorites to win the Eastern Conference.
In the process, Portland says goodbye to arguably the best individual player in franchise history, moving into a new era presumably led by Ayon, Scoot Henderson, Shaedon Sharpe and Anfernee Simons.
Rounding out the trade, Phoenix jumps in with an opportunity to pad their depth in the aftermath of trading the farm for both Kevin Durant and Bradley Beal. The Suns add four rotational players — Jusuf Nurkic, Nassire LIttle, Keon Johnson and Grayson Allen.
How this will impact the Cleveland Cavaliers
Like most other teams in the East, the Cavaliers are now re-evaluating their title hopes. Milwaukee’s blockbuster trade has raised the bar for everyone — and any chance of reaching the NBA Finals will likely go through them.
Prior to this trade, the Eastern Conference felt wide open for the Cavaliers. Even with their collapse in last season’s playoffs, Cleveland’s young talent seemed to be enough to give them a fighter’s chance at making a run. Now? That feels less likely.
There is no doubt the Cavaliers themselves still feel capable of winning the conference. And well, if the core can hits its peak, it could happen.. But this trade is a harsh reminder of how quickly a championship window can open and close in the NBA.
A week ago, any of Boston, Milwaukee, Cleveland or Miami had a strong case to win the conference. This is no longer the case if the Bucks are as dangerous as they appear on paper.
Yet, if Cleveland had hopes of becoming a championship-caliber team in the near future — they would have had to elevate themselves to this level, regardless. With powerhouse squads in the Western Conference already standing between them and a title, this doesn’t change much for the Cavaliers in the grand scheme of things. If they can’t beat the Bucks, they probably can’t beat Denver, Phoenix or whoever else makes it through that gauntlet.
The other interesting aspect of this move is the potential implications it will have on Donovan Mitchell’s future. If the Cavaliers find themselves roadblocked by Milwaukee, will Mitchell feel a sense of urgency to join another contender? On that same note, will other teams be willing to go all-in on a player like Mitchell if the Bucks appear to be unbeatable in the East?
The Bucks have made a potentially ground-shaking move and the true effect it will have across the NBA remains to be seen. One thing’s for sure, the NBA is consistently chaotic.