How should the Sixers react to Damian Lillard blockbuster?
Chaos is bred from the unexpected.
It's a derivative of unpreparedness.
And as much as the NBA has evolved into a player's league, as much as the entertainers that command the oohs and the aahs have control like never before, there is always room for chaos.
Even if we all thought the Damian Lillard trade was coming, we didn't know what form it would take. How many teams would be involved. Who those teams would be. Which players would be rushed to move their lives to new cities.
And so, when Lillard was sent to the Milwaukee Bucks in a three-team deal involving the Phoenix Suns on Wednesday afternoon, chaos ensued.
The Bucks?! I thought he only wanted to go to Miami? Everyone kept saying Miami or Toronto? What?!
The second stage of the chaos is an overwhelming sense of doom for about seven teams that actually have reason to care.
For the Bucks and their fans, it looks like:
LOL BWEFKELWBFJKEFBDKFDSBJKL WE'RE WINNING THE TITLE.
For the four teams in the Western Conference that have genuine interest in this season's championship race and their fans, it looks like:
Eh, I'm not moved. We'll see them in the Finals.
For the three other teams in the Eastern Conference that have that same interest and their fans, it looks like:
Oh my god, our season is over before it begins. We can't compete with that.
Well, if you're the Heat and their fans, it looks more like:
Bartender, can I get another?
We will never know just how much of a run the Sixers made at Lillard, but the rumor mill linked Philadelphia to Portland from the outset of the Blazers guard's trade request. It was inevitable; the Sixers rostered a disgruntled guard of their own. Lillard to Philadelphia would've been the quick pivot to maintaining the Sixers' promising chances of coming out of the East. The Sixers could send James Harden to the Los Angeles Clippers, the return from that leg of the deal joining whatever else Philadelphia sent out in Portland.
Everyone presumed that prized guard Tyrese Maxey would have to be the expense of doing business with Portland. The Sixers ran an airtight operation throughout all of it. Philadelphia told anyone who would listen - anyone - that Maxey was not available in trade conversations. They maintained that they think his ceiling knows no limits.
We can call their bluff if we so choose. One of the flashing indicators that they would've been interested if Lillard said the word was that they chose not to extend Maxey off of his rookie deal this offseason. But, Maxey remains a Sixer whether you want to call a bluff or not.
It's not so much that the Sixers didn't pounce on a superstar player being available at a time when their own star wanted out that is the problem now. The problem, in late September, is that a rival at the top of the Eastern Conference did pounce. One of the teams the Sixers will fight with for position at the front of the conference did get Lillard.
Now, that the overreactions have passed and the chaos fades to a tranquil acceptance of one of the new heads of the monster, the Sixers can control one thing: their reaction.
The first reaction is to attempt to acquire Jrue Holiday, who was dealt to the Blazers in the blockbuster. Sources confirmed PHLY's Kyle Neubeck and the Inquirer's Keith Pompey this afternoon: the Sixers are interested in bringing Holiday back to Philadelphia.
You might think of Holiday as simply the best player available as the season approaches rapidly. No need to deal with the Harden drama. Just orchestrate a deal to get Holiday. Sure, he's not as talented as Harden is. His ceiling on a night-to-night basis isn't as powerful as Harden's is. But, his floor on a night-to-night basis isn't as damning as Harden's is, either. There's less volatility there even if the production isn't as robust on an average night.
That simple math figures into the calculus. But, the new-and-improved Bucks also factor into the calculus.
Lillard has long been a high pick-and-roll player. The Lillard-Antetokounmpo pick-and-roll will ostensibly be a main feature of Milwaukee's attack. The Bucks probably figure that defenses can't go under the ball screen because Lillard can knock down back-breaking jumpers from 30 feet out. They know you can't switch on those screens because that leaves Antetokounmpo with a laughable mismatch.
So, amongst more complex schemes, that leaves fighting through those balling screens. And if you go through the list of lead guards in the NBA who are capable of fighting through rugged screens, Holiday ranks amongst the top handful.
Not only is Holiday a rather seamless fit in virtually any offense, but he's also an appropriate defensive response to the Bucks adding one of the highest-octane guards in the league. And he just so happens to know Milwaukee's personnel pretty well, too.
Of course, pursuing Holiday becomes a bit more difficult now that the Bucks, Blazers, and Suns have finalized the deal. Holiday cannot be aggregated with other salaries in another trade for two months. That rule includes the involvement of salaries from third-party teams in a deal. What once seemed like an opportunity to jump in on an already-pending deal has quickly became more restrictive in ways it could be executed.
That shouldn't necessarily be mischaracterized as a passed opportunity. Portland is looking for wings, a league source told 97.3 ESPN. Before the deal was finalized, looping Harden in would've just been a convenient way to replace band aids. Now, perhaps a Holiday deal amounts to the return on a Harden trade and Tobias Harris.
While everyone is focused on getting Holiday back in a Sixers jersey, there is an alternative. With Lillard effectively fetching Deandre Ayton, the rights to future first-round picks, and the return on a separate Holiday deal, the Sixers could turn around and gauge the price of a Zach LaVine trade.
The argument for a LaVine deal is two-fold. First, any mention of including Maxey in a LaVine trade should be met with a laugh and an aggressive hang-up. Although, the same could be said of Portland asking for Maxey in a Holiday trade. Second, LaVine's skill set is more conducive to giving Maxey a genuine shot at lead ball-handling duties.
LaVine is capable of playing on the ball and creating his own shot. But, he's also a sniper off the catch. While I would maintain that there are few true point guards in the NBA right now, Holiday is far closer to that mold than LaVine is.
At best, a team with Holiday and Maxey is splitting ball-handling freedom between them. At worst, Nick Nurse is likely to lean more towards the experienced ball-handler, keeping Maxey closer to the role he played next to Harden.
It might work on offense because we've seen a similar model work before. It's a significant upgrade on defense because switching Harden out for Holiday simply doesn't compare. But, you're not smoothing that aging curve or getting faster.
The same defensive issues would exist with a LaVine and Maxey backcourt as with a Harden and Maxey backcourt. But, at least the Sixers are getting younger and more athletic while exploring Maxey's development as a decision-maker with the ball in his hands.
Which ever route the Sixers go, it's not about winning games in the regular season. They and the Bucks are perhaps the two teams in the NBA most aware that the regular season does not matter. If you have talent and health, you'll be a wins machine over the course of 82.
This is about making chess moves that matter to a best-of-seven series. The Bucks made theirs. Now, instead of succumbing to the chaos, the Sixers have to react.