Bucks, newest star Damian Lillard open against 76ers

The buzz surrounding the Milwaukee Bucks circles around the player they added in the offseason, while the noise coming out of Philadelphia centers on the player who remains away from the 76ers.

Seven-time All-Star Damian Lillard will make his debut on Thursday when the Bucks open the season against the visiting 76ers, who likely will be without disgruntled 10-time All-Star James Harden.

Milwaukee acquired Lillard from the Portland Trail Blazers on Sept. 27 as part of a three-team trade.

Lillard, 33, averaged a franchise-record 32.2 points per game in 2022-23, the third-highest clip in the league.

Named one of the NBA’s 75 greatest players of all-time in 2021, Lillard won Rookie of the Year honors in 2012-13 and is Portland’s career leader in points (19,376) and 3-point field goals (2,387).

“I looked it up and I saw what team I was coming to be a part of, and that’s when the excitement kicked in,” Lillard said recently. “Just recognizing the opportunity that it is and just knowing how much I want to win. Going into every season being optimistic and thinking we have a chance to get it done, and then coming into this situation and knowing that you’ve got an opportunity to do it, the excitement definitely kicked in when I sat with it for a little bit.”

That excitement likely is due in large part to the pairing of Lillard with two-time NBA MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo, who on Monday agreed to a three-year, $186 million max contract extension, per his agent. That deal, which reportedly includes a player option for the 2027-28 season, commits Antetokounmpo to the franchise through the duration of Lillard’s contract.

“I don’t go into any situation expecting things to be about me,” Lillard said. “I know the player that (Antetokounmpo) is, I know the player that I am, and I know how to make my presence felt regardless of the role. But (Antetokounmpo) also needs me to be who I am for us to be our full selves and our best selves as a team.”

Last season, the Bucks finished with the NBA’s best regular-season record (58-24) before unceremoniously being eliminated after five games by the Miami Heat in the first round of the playoffs.

The early dismissal led to Milwaukee firing Mike Budenholzer and replacing him with first-time head coach Adrian Griffin.

The 76ers, in turn, were bounced in the Eastern Conference semifinals for the third straight year, with the all-too-familiar refrain ultimately resulting in a head coaching change as well.

Philadelphia parted ways with Doc Rivers in May and welcomed aboard Nick Nurse, who guided the Toronto Raptors to the 2019 NBA title during his first season at the helm of the club.

Nurse’s first order of business has been to deal with the absence of Harden, who remains away from the club with what the team is calling a personal matter.

“I did reach out to him the other day … just to text like I would with anybody,” Nurse said following Monday’s practice. “See how he’s doing. See if he’s all right. He did text me back.”

When asked if he got a sense if Harden wanted to return to the 76ers, Nurse quickly squashed that talk: “Didn’t get into any of that.”

Tyrese Maxey, 22, is expected to slide into the lead guard role in the absence of Harden. Maxey averaged 20.3 points per game last season and will look to distribute the ball to reigning NBA MVP Joel Embiid.

Embiid led the league in scoring for the second straight year in 2022-23, posting a career-high 33.1 points per game to go with 10.2 rebounds, 4.2 assists and 1.7 blocks.