The Trail Blazers will welcome back Damian Lillard tonight as they face off against the Cavaliers. The Blazers have struggled to stay above .500 this season, losing on Saturday to the last-place Hawks and needing overtime to beat a woeful Bulls team last night.
Meanwhile, Lillard has been one of the few bright spots. He’s proven that he’s a bona fide NBA star, improving his defense from “miserable” to “at least adequate” on most nights, while still ranking among league leaders in points (No. 7) and assists (No. 13).
The team’s fortunes sink or swim with their point guard – a point driven home during Lillard’s recent absence when the Blazers offense has been nearly unwatchable and their efficiency stats, already below average, have plummeted to near the bottom of the league.
Many of Lillard’s teammates have played below expectations this season (e.g. Jusuf Nurkic, Noah Vonleh, Maurice Harkless, Meyers Leonard), but Lillard’s explosiveness gives Portland a puncher’s chance every night.
Despite Lillard’s play, the Blazers’ weaknesses will almost inevitably fate them to a low playoff seed and near-impossible first round matchup again this April. Ordinarily, sneaking into a lower end playoff spot thanks to a superstar’s sublime on-court efforts wouldn’t be the worst outcome, and might even be a good sign. “We can add another key player or two this summer, maybe a draft pick, and jump to a No. 5 or 6 seed next year. With some development our guys will be competing for home court advantage by the following season.” Fans of the 41-41 2007-08 Blazers remember watching this scenario playing out successfully.
Mired in Mediocrity
Unfortunately, unlike the 2008 team, the 2018 Blazers have little potential for significant improvement. Much has been written about the miserable summer of 2016, and, suffice to say, it continues to haunt the team.
General Manager Neil Olshey has committed $99 million of next season’s $101 million salary cap to Lillard, CJ McCollum, Leonard, Al-Farouq Aminu, Zach Collins, Caleb Swanigan, and salary being paid out to “stretched” players. The Blazers have $98.5 million tied up to the same group of players the next season, minus Aminu. Signing free agents to anything more than a mid-level exception will be impossible for the foreseeable future.
To make matters even worse, most of Portland’s tradeable players – Nurkic, Napier, Ed Davis, Pat Connaughton – will be free agents this summer, limiting their trade utility and making it more difficult to pull off the mythical consolidation trade. And without cap space the Blazers lack the flexibility to absorb prospects for free, a la the Harkless trade two years ago.
The Blazers did have a chance to immediately improve this summer by using one of their three first round picks to draft one of several players likely to make an immediate impact. Instead they traded two picks for one and chose long-term project Zach Collins at No. 10 and current D-Leaguer Caleb Swanigan at No. 26.
The Collins choice has become even more painful as Donovan Mitchell, selected by the Jazz at No. 13, has flourished. Ordinarily, it’s unfair to second guess draft picks, but at least one person in the Blazers’ organization had Mitchell on his radar:
“After I got drafted, [Lillard] actually texted me and said that he was hoping I slipped to Portland,” Mitchell said...— Eric Griffith (@EricG_NBA) December 31, 2017
“I thought he was going to come in and work out for us and we might’ve picked him,” Lillard confirmed.https://t.co/yaiaOVkXtm
Collins very well might be develop into an excellent player, but with significant trades unlikely and major free agent signings impossible, the Blazers needed help immediately from the 2017 draft. Unless Collins becomes All-NBA and Mitchell levels off at a below all-star level this was a huge miss.
Ultimately the 2017 draft sealed a bitter reality for Blazers fans; unless Olshey pulls the trigger on a blockbuster McCollum trade, the current roster is more or less locked in for several years, excepting minor tinkering.
Will Lillard Get Fed Up?
Many fans will be able to live with this reality – low end playoff berths and an outside shot at winning a playoff series are de rigueur for BlazerManiacs. But there’s a bigger question in play when considering the team’s future: Will Lillard eventually get fed up with mediocrity and demand a trade?
He’ll turn 28 at the end of this season and 29 at the end of the 2018-19 season. At that point, it will be five years since “the shot” and more than four years since the Blazers were anything more than also-rans. John Wall and Kyrie Irving, the players to which Lillard is most often compared, will each have six All-Star appearances by then. Lillard will have, at most, four.
In a world where pundits regularly question Chris Paul’s all-time great status for failing to reach the conference finals, it’s not hard to imagine Lillard becoming this generation’s Baron Davis or Steve Francis.
It's easy to see a fan in New York or Chicago thinking, "He's just a score-first guard who doesn’t do enough as a playmaker to improve his teammates! He sucks at defense, and is coasting on a once-in-a-lifetime playoff moment. Heck, Dame couldn’t even regularly make the All-Star Team!"
Comparing Lillard to Davis or Stevie Franchise may be offputting to local fans, but casual observers likely won’t realize that Lillard’s score-first attitude has more to do with limitations of the roster than selfishness, and that his defense actually is passable now. It’s certainly not fair or just, but it’s the reality that legacy-driven narratives create for NBA players on lesser teams.
Lillard’s style of play also does not lend itself to a John Stockton-esque seemingly eternal prime. He relies on explosiveness and athleticism to get to the rim, and misses several games each season with seemingly minor injuries. Over time, those factors will add up and limit his effectiveness as he enters his mid-30s. Lillard seems young right now, but each year is immeasurably precious to professional athletes without superhuman durability.
Am I being paranoid?
As a fan, it’s hard for me not to notice these realities and conclude that the clock is ticking for Lillard. The Blazers are likely mired in mediocrity until Lillard hits 30, and his legacy likely hangs in the balance. If the team doesn’t improve very soon I worry that sacrificing his prime in a Sisyphean attempt to keep Portland on the NBA map will frustrate him to the point that he asks for a trade to pursue playoff success, similar to Kevin Garnett’s decision to leave the Timberwolves.
And history hangs ominously over the franchise, practically daring fans to imagine Lillard’s departure. Nearly every player that reaches all-NBA status for the Blazers eventually leaves as the team fails to achieve or maintain contendership.
Maurice Lucas demanded a trade in 1979 to pursue more money and publicity, Clyde Drexler asked out in 1994 to return home to Houston, and LaMarcus Aldridge left in 2015 to also go back to Texas. Throw in Bill Walton’s acrimonious departure in 1979, and Brandon Roy’s tragically short career, and it feels almost inevitable that Portland will lose its best players.
To his credit, the media-savvy Lillard has never even hinted that he wants out of Portland, even saying that staying in Portland is more important than winning rings. But he’s also made it clear that he wants some help, attempting to recruit Carmelo Anthony this summer, and namechecking Anthony Davis, Kristaps Porzingis, and Paul George as desired teammates. This is a subtle change from the player who urged Olshey NOT to make any roster moves two years ago at the trade deadline.
So, for now, Lillard’s saying all the right things and bringing it every night on the court. But as he returns to action tonight against the Cavaliers, and lines up against Isaiah Thomas playing for a championship contending Cavs’ team, it will be hard to ignore the limitations that life with the Blazers might have for Lillard and worry that, eventually, he’ll be fed up with perpetual mediocrity.
Do you worry that Lillard will eventually leave Portland if the team doesn’t improve significantly?
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