Could the Sixers be the ‘mystery team’ interested in Damian Lillard

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Almost through September, there are still two major trades that have yet to take place. At the forefront of the Philadelphia 76ers‘ mind is James Harden’s trade request, which has been outstanding since he opted into his player option back at the end of June. In addition to Harden’s request, there is the small matter of Damian Lillard’s long-awaited demand out of Portland. Both of which may impact the future of the Sixers.

The latest series of events has a mystery team out of the Eastern Conference pursuing the seven-time All-Star, according to ESPN’s Marc Spears. Who could this mystery team be?

The Milwaukee Bucks, who are searching to extend the window of Giannis Antetokounmpo? Or perhaps the Brooklyn Nets—Spears was recently working closely with Nets player Ben Simmons, for what that’s worth—could be looking to reload their roster with a true superstar? Or could it be the Sixers themselves who have registered interest in Lillard at various points in recent history?

Who’s on the shortlist?

Milwaukee Bucks forward Giannis Antetokounmpo, front, looks to pass the ball as Denver Nuggets forward Jeff Green defends in the first half of an NBA basketball game Saturday, March 25, 2023, in Denver. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)

To put it plain, it could be any of the 15 teams in the Eastern Conference—minus the openly involved Miami Heat. However, there may have been a hint to at least narrow down the potential teams. The term “mystery,” considering how ESPN chose to describe the situation, does not necessarily mean the team is a surprise candidate, as the Orlando Magic would be, for instance. In this case, it is used to protect the interest of the team involved. Teams like the Atlanta Hawks, the Toronto Raptors, and the Brooklyn Nets, who are searching for ways to reach contender status, could certainly be interested.

The Boston Celtics, a team that has often been connected to Lillard as well, maybe hard-pressed to offer a deal that interests Portland unless a third team is involved. There also remains the small matter that Lillard has made it known he does not wish to play for Boston.

Then there are the Bucks and Sixers, both of whom are attempting to not only capitalize on their current title window but also face the constant battle of retaining a superstar in the NBA. While the Bucks haven’t been the loudest teams in Lillard rumors, the Sixers have traveled down that road before.

The Sixers have had interest in Lillard before

LOS ANGELES, CA – DECEMBER 03: Portland Trail Blazers Guard Damian Lillard (0) points to a teammate during a NBA game between the Portland Trail Blazers and the Los Angeles Clippers on December 3, 2019 at STAPLES Center in Los Angeles, CA. (Photo by Brian Rothmuller/Icon Sportswire)

Since before James Harden arrived in Philadelphia, the Sixers have been interested in Damian Lillard. Who hasn’t? Over the course of recent years, multiple reports and rumors stated that the Sixers have looked into acquiring the superstar guard, and while that may have tempered for a time once Harden arrived, the notion seems to have caught fire once again as the team realized the very real chance that they might not have a future with their current star guard.

Is that past interest—which dates back even to this current offseason—enough to suggest that Philadelphia is the mystery team in question? It’s a reasonable enough leap, though not enough to confirm. It is enough it is enough to look for more clues.

No, the Kelly Oubre signing is not a precursor

Philadelphia 76ers’ Joel Embiid, left, dunks past Charlotte Hornets’ Kelly Oubre Jr. during the first half of an NBA basketball game, Sunday, Dec. 11, 2022, in Philadelphia. (AP Photo/Matt Slocum)

For fans of conspiracy theories out there, there was a report last week by Marc Stein that the Miami Heat were the favorites to land Oubre should they trade for Lillard. Today, Lillard is still a Blazer, and Oubre is a 76er. Many have connected what stray dots appear from the report of Miami acquiring Oubre to the supposed mystery team to the Sixers’ acquisition of Oubre. Is this enough to suggest that Philadelphia was the team mentioned? Not quite, especially considering the context.

It is important to note that a major part of the allure for following Lillard to the Heat is that Oubre would be joining a contender that could offer him a sizable role, given the talent they would ship out. In Philadelphia, he finds himself in a similar situation, with the addition of the word “hopeful” gently placed in front of “contender.”

The not-so-mysterious Eastern Conference team

Philadelphia 76ers’ Daryl Morey listens to a question during a news conference at the NBA basketball team’s training facility, Wednesday, May 17, 2023, in Camden, N.J. (AP Photo/Matt Slocum)

Sixers president of basketball operations Daryl Morey is known for his tough negotiation tactics; let’s call it craftiness. Reporting surrounding Philadelphia’s trade negotiations regarding James Harden has been consistent in the idea that Morey will not accept a deal unless it adds a star-caliber player or the assets to acquire a star player; you can bet he’s not lying about that.

It is that fact, above all others, that signals the Sixers are not just possibly but likely interested in Lillard. If the Sixers are, in fact, the “mystery team” mentioned by ESPN, it would not only be unsurprising, it might just be the worst-kept secret in the rumor mill.