We have a potential plot twist in the Damian Lillard saga.
While the Miami Heat have long been reported as Lillard's preferred trade destination, the Toronto Raptors have emerged as the "front-runners" to acquire the Portland Trail Blazers guard, Andscape's Marc J. Spears reported Monday, citing "two high-ranking NBA team executives."
The executives also told Spears they expect Lillard to be traded before NBA Media Day, which is next Monday, Oct. 2.
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Lillard coming to the Eastern Conference obviously affects the Boston Celtics, who have reached the East Finals in back-to-back seasons and are betting favorites to come out of the East again this season. The Celtics reportedly inquired about trading for Lillard this offseason -- with star forward Jayson Tatum even calling his former USA Basketball teammate -- but Dame-to-Boston seems very, very unlikely considering the C's are already over the luxury tax and can't trade arguably their top asset, Jaylen Brown, until next summer at the earliest.
So, if the All-Star point guard isn't joining the Celtics, what's the best-case Lillard scenario for Boston?
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At first blush, Toronto edging Miami to land Lillard would seem like good news for the Celtics. The Heat just dispatched the C's in the 2023 East Finals, and adding a player of Lillard's caliber would make Miami an even more legitimate title threat. ESPN recently floated a hypothetical trade involving Tyler Herro, Kyle Lowry, Jaime Jaquez Jr., Nikola Jovic and draft picks for Lillard, which would allow Miami to roll out a formidable "Big Three" of Lillard, Jimmy Butler and Bam Adebayo.
Don't sleep on the Raptors, though.
ESPN's hypothetical Toronto-Portland trade features the Raptors giving up O.G. Anunoby, Chris Boucher, Thad Young, rookie Gradey Dick and two first-round picks. That still would leave Toronto with a core of Lillard, Scottie Barnes, Pascal Siakam and center Jakob Poeltl in addition to promising young big man Precious Achiuwa.
The Raptors likely wouldn't vault to East favorites if they acquire Lillard. First-year head coach Darko Rajaković faces a tall task replacing former Coach of the Year Nick Nurse, and Toronto finished an underwhelming 41-41 last season. But adding Lillard at the very least would make them playoff contenders and give the Celtics another challenger to contend with in a loaded conference. (Boston also has four games against Toronto this season as an Atlantic Division opponent, as opposed to three games vs. Miami.)
The Heat are likely to be in the playoff mix even if they don't add Lillard -- they reached the NBA Finals as a No. 7 seed last season -- so there's some logic to the argument that Lillard in Toronto would make the East more difficult for the Celtics overall by introducing a new contender.
All that said -- Celtics fans shouldn't concern themselves too much with Lillard's final destination. This C's roster is fully capable of winning a championship after acquiring big man Kristaps Porzingis this offseason, and if Boston's key contributors are healthy entering the 2024 postseason, Joe Mazzulla's club should have the edge over whatever team lands Lillard.