The two superstars residing on the NBA’s bustling trade block have their bags packed. Damian Lillard has been hinting at Miami as his preference for weeks while the mutual interest between Harden and the Los Angeles Clippers is hard not to notice. Check back in a year and Harden may change his mind again, but for now the Clippers seem content to stuff Harden between Paul George, and Kawhi Leonard in their underachieving lineup.
On Saturday Lillard finally expressed his truth after weeks of passive aggressiveness, handicapping Portland’s trading partners along the way. Miami should be a bigger free agent hotspot. Instead, Pat Riley’s strong presence has been a deterrence in the player empowerment age. Maybe it was the disgust he allowed to seep through exit interviews when LeBron James returned to Cleveland or the boot camps, but the Heat have rarely been a desired destination in the post-Heatles decade. However, for the first time since James took his talents to South Beach, a transcendent player is calling their number instead of the other way around.
Miami has dumped Victor Oladipo’s $9.4 million salary in a trade with Oklahoma City and allowed Gabe Vincent to walk in free agency all so they could accommodate Lillard’s contract.
Most teams would have been crippled by missing out on Russell Westbrook, Chris Paul, Bradley Beal, Kevin Durant, and Donovan Mitchell in recent trade discussions. On two separate occasions between the 2022 offseason and the trade deadline, Miami made serious inquiries into Kevin Durant’s availability that came up empty. The Heat did their due diligence into signing Westbrook after he was waived by the Utah Jazz in February, but couldn’t compete with his preference to remain in L.A.
There’s a limit to the power players hold, however. Portland noticed Lillard flashing his ankles at Miami and felt compelled to release a statement unequivocally stating their commitment to doing what’s best for the Blazers organization. Ordinarily, that sort of thing can be assumed, but this felt like their way of expressing their opposition to a trade with the Heat, and their assets. The Blazers seem unusually resistant to complying. The downside of player empowerment is that most players aren’t great at separating their personal feelings from their professional bearings.
In theory, Harden fits better in Miami while Lillard is the ideal Clipper for 2023. The two superstars residing on the NBA’s bustling trade block have their signals crossed. Two years ago, the Heat scoffed at a trade for Harden that would have cost them Tyler Herro, Duncan Robinson, and a slew of picks. Today, the price on Harden is considerably lower than it was in January of 2021,. Harden can be difficult. Lillard trade scenarios are easy to game out because he’s so malleable and has such a cooperative personality..
Harden needs the rigorous structure Spoelstra and Riley will set in place. Defensively, he’ll never be a liability, but he’s a bigger guard than the 6-foot-3 Lillard. Meanwhile, the Sixers would be more than happy to absorb Tyler Herro, and his infusion of shooting, plus the picks. Lillard nearly led the league in scoring in 2023, but does nothing to alleviate Miami’s undersized roster.
Harden has already tried doing things his way or the highway and each time, he’s wound up as playoff roadkill. He needs to eat his veggies, metaphorically speaking. Spoelstra wearing out Harden so he’s too tired for the wings and thighs after dark at King of Diamonds. Brainwashing him to fit into a more democratic offensive system would be the Heat Cult’s greatest challenge yet, but they’ve demonstrated an incredible capacity to integrate talent into their lineup. Having Harden in midseason shape by October and keeping him there is paramount.
Harden gives them a bigger small-ball lineup than the one they deployed against the Nuggets and his barrel-chested physicality comes in handy when defending bigger players in the paint. Swiping at the ball has made Harden a defensive pariah and he’s demonstrated an allergy to hustle but thrived in Houston when PJ Tucker was tasked with all the janitorial work. Conveniently, Miami is teeming with Tucker facsimiles.
Harden can be difficult, but he’s bent to the whims of coaching instruction before. During Chris Paul’s first year in Houston, he willingly surrendered a share of his heliocentric ball-handling duties to Chris Paul, and that unselfishness resulted in the Rockets coming one game away from an NBA Finals berth.
Meanwhile, the Clippers would benefit from Lillard’s gravity-altering range and floor spacing at the lead guard position. He’s spent his entire life on the West Coast aside from four seasons at Weber State, just north of Salt Lake City. The Clippers need Dame to embody the underdog spirit beneath their bloated payroll. Their two stars are L.A. natives who rose from the same obscurity of Pacific mid-majors while the Clippers are the insurgent team in its own arena. Ballmer even goes back decades with late Blazers owner Paul Allen. The Microsoft visionary who helped guide Microsoft from its infancy during the early 80s was a mentor to Allen.
Lillard and Harden are two ships equally yoked, passing in the night, but they’re going the wrong way.
Follow DJ Dunson on Twitter: @cerebralsportex
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