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Damian Lillard has been the face of the Portland Trail Blazers since the team took him with the No. 6 overall pick in the 2012 NBA Draft. He was immediately the NBA’s 2013 Rookie of the Year, has since been named an NBA All-Star seven times, and is coming off his most prolific scoring campaign yet with 32.2 points per game average on a career-best matching 46.3-percent mark from the field. But he and the Blazers have played in only one Western Conference Finals together and just finished their second-straight season below-.500.
This juxtaposition might not sound sustainable. That’s because it isn’t.
The situation appears to be approaching some sort of head, with rumors swirling of a Lillard exit to the Miami Heat. Lillard and Jusuf Nurkić are the only two members of the rotation from the 2018-19 team that reached the Conference Finals still left in Portland – that team is no longer in town, which the 33-49 record last season should make abundantly clear. This would be the natural point of divergence from the old guard to the new in most cases in North American sports, accepting a stint spent in the basement to acquire prime talent through the draft to get you back to where you were and beyond, at least ideally.
But there comes a crux in what would be conventionally considered the right time for a franchise like Portland to move on from its decade-long deity: loyalty.
It’s what Lillard has preached consistently throughout his NBA career and what the Trail Blazers have come to expect and love about their superstar. It’s an admirable thing that is a rarity in modern sports from every direction, and it has allowed the Pacific Northwest to build a special relationship with one of the best players in the world for the last decade and experience a run of eight-straight playoff trips. How Lillard has handled his career up to this point, standing by the team that took a chance on him in 2012 and giving the Blazers everything for much longer than he had to is unique and wonderful.
Death, taxes, and change.
Lillard will be 33 when the 2023-24 NBA season tips off. It will be his 12th campaign in the league. He is not the future of the Association; he is the present. But Portland is not the present, it is the past, and it has to act now to become the future. This is an incompatibility that leads to nothing but misery in sports.
Sometimes, letting go is the best thing you can do for something you love. Lillard can go on to join a team constructed to contend now, which feels deserved for a player of his caliber and longevity. The Trail Blazers can receive draft picks and prospects in return to start a foundation for the future, then translate their woes on the court into more Scoot Hendersons. This is the only way forward.
It’s unclear whether or not this is the way the team will move, though. The pull of loyalty seems to have Lillard unsure of what he should do, and Portland doesn’t appear too eager to force his hand, either. Before the draft, there were talks of the team shipping out the No. 3 overall pick for more well-established NBA talent to appease Lillard and his urgency to win a ring while he’s still in his prime. This did not happen – the Trail Blazers added Henderson with the selection instead – but that it was even entertained is a statement of its own.
Still, what Portland did is in defiance to what Lillard had publicly asked the Trail Blazers to do.
“I want a chance to go for it,” he told The Athletic in April. “And if the route is to (draft youth), then that’s not my route.”
This is a rational stance for Lillard to take. He’s not getting any younger, and his best shot at leading a team to an NBA championship is right now. He can’t afford to wait around for a rebuild that is necessary but might not work.
But there is no more blood to scrape from this stone. The Blazers are dry; their short-term outlook involves plenty of ping pong balls. To pretend otherwise would ensure even more ping pong balls for longer than mandatory.
To cast Lillard as a villain would be unfair. It’s clear that his priority is not just to win, but to win in Portland. That means more to him than winning itself.
The road to hell is paved with intentions like these.
Things will only go poorly for all parties if this relationship is allowed to go on for too long, which you could argue is already the case. It would take quite the turnaround for the Trail Blazers to become one of the main figures in the West next season, though it would be the only conceivable way to keep Lillard happy enough to not request a trade before the deadline or next summer. The most realistic best-case scenario for Portland in 2023-24 is playing some exciting basketball, getting into the SportsCenter Top 10 sometimes, earning one of the last playoff spots, and bowing out quickly. This would not be enough to quench Lillard’s thirst, and it’s the best-case scenario.
And then what? You go through all this again? Lillard is one year older and that much less valuable, the Trail Blazers let another season go without mattering, and the rebuild is postponed that much longer.
Don’t forget the resentment. Lillard has built incredible goodwill with Portland and NBA fans alike during his career, but a drawing out of this process will not be positive for his image, even if he never meant any malice. This is just how things go – individuals are easier targets than organizations, and fans of losing teams always want targets.
Would this make Lillard the villain of this story? No, that’s too simplistic of an attitude to take. There are no bad actors here, only confused ones holding onto something that has already gone. But when the outcome looks the same, the lines can blur enough for people to point fingers.
Let’s clear the air, though: even if this charade continues into the season, it will not permanently make Lillard a bad word in Portland, nor does it have to end his association with the team and city forever. I know from experience.
When I was a kid, Rick Nash wasn’t just a Columbus Blue Jacket, he was the Columbus Blue Jackets. The team was awful, but he was outstanding as soon as he was drafted. After 15 years of the franchise spinning its wheels in reverse, he was finally allowed to leave the sunken ship in 2012, and it got him an opportunity to play in the Stanley Cup Finals, something that never would have happened with the Jackets. Some fans held anger toward Nash for leaving and booed him whenever he came back to Columbus, but that was short-lived. After retiring from the NHL in 2018, he returned in a front office role three years later as the Director of Player Development for the Jackets. Nobody boos him now.
Lillard can go elsewhere, allow the Trail Blazers to get valuable assets in return that could help them build a brighter future, have his shot at championship immortality, and still be a hero to the city he’s spent more than a decade representing on the biggest stage in basketball. There might be an initial kick to the gut that Blazers fans feel, but so long as Lillard doesn’t set bridges ablaze on his way out, time will heal those wounds.
Maybe Portland believes it could get something better for Lillard at the deadline than now when teams are scrambling to load up for a playoff push. That’s the only scenario that makes keeping him through this summer make sense, and that plan would have to be clearly communicated to and accepted by Lillard. Anything else would be detrimental to the Trail Blazers, Lillard, and the fans, who just want to see their team one day end a championship drought that’s now old enough to have adult children.
The Trail Blazers don’t need to be held hostage by one of their best-ever players, and Lillard doesn’t have to be held hostage by a franchise that’s not built to contend while he’s in his prime. The sooner it’s over, the sooner things can get better for everyone. The longer it takes, the worse it will be.
Death, taxes, and change.
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