Chris Forsberg

How the Damian Lillard-to-Bucks blockbuster impacts Celtics in East

The Celtics now have a certifiable roadblock in their quest for Banner 18.

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It seemed inevitable that Damian Lillard would soon join the Eastern Conference and bolster the title hopes of one of the Boston Celtics’ primary rivals.

But Wednesday’s surprise twist that saw Lillard delivered to the Milwaukee Bucks -- and not the Miami Heat -- will have a far greater impact on the state of the East.

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In pairing Lillard with All-NBA forward Giannis Antetokounmpo, the Bucks have maybe the most skilled duo in the NBA. You can certainly make the case that Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown are in that conversation (Kevin Durant and Devin Booker, too) but Lillard’s scoring ability combined with Antetokounmpo’s all-around impact is certain to rocket the Bucks to championship favorites.

The jaw-dropping swap also likely eliminates some of the drama about Antetokounmpo’s future and gives him an elite running mate that increases Milwaukee’s title hopes for the short-term future.

Lillard landing in Miami would have improved the Heat, but it wouldn’t have changed the outlook of a conference in which the Celtics appeared the early favorite.

Now, with Lillard in Milwaukee, the Celtics have a certifiable road block in their quest to get back to the title stage.

Four regular-season meetings with Milwaukee, including a Thanksgiving Eve showdown in Boston, take on extra heft. Three meetings in calendar year 2024 could factor heavily into who emerges as the top seed in the conference.

The Celtics still should feel confident in their talent. Boston has fared better than most against Antetokounmpo and Lillard with much of this core. But the two sides certainly feel on a collision course, at least while Philadelphia figures out its James Harden conundrum.

In the aftermath, Celtics fans will be left wondering:

Is there any pathway to acquiring Jrue Holiday from Portland?

The Celtics would need to include either Al Horford or Robert Williams III in a package involving Malcolm Brogdon to make a deal work. A third team would almost certainly be necessary to re-route Brogdon in any trade scenario.

It’s hard to see Boston being able to make the money work given Holiday’s salary ($36.8 million), particularly when there’s no clear pathway to retaining Holiday beyond this season. 

What can Boston do to counter the Bucks' big splash?

The Celtics do not need to be reactionary. The team needs to evaluate itself with the addition of Porzingis and it can better judge areas of need. Maybe Derrick White thrives in the point guard role. Health could dictate Boston’s desires during the season.

Boston still has potential for a big splash at some point this season, potentially utilizing Brogdon’s contract and its bevy of future first-round picks. But there doesn’t seem an obvious move as an offshoot to the Lillard deal.

The Celtics must monitor how dominoes fall across the league but must also be diligent in utilizing their resources in hopes of improving the team now, and deep into the future.

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