This summer, rumors of Portland Trail Blazers star Damian Lillard being unhappy in Portland emerged, and the Los Angeles Lakers were pegged as a suitor. The rumors could be chalked up to several things: the arrival of LeBron James and pressure put on L.A. to land a second star; Lillard possibly, actually being unhappy (he met with the owner, Paul Allen, in January after all); Stephen A. Smith being Stephen A. Smith.
But whatever the reason, these rumors felt more unsettling than they have in the past, even if they were weren’t rooted in much truth.
Lillard could be viewed as about as untouchable as it gets in the league, with president of basketball operations Neil Olshey seemingly committed to Lillard and backcourt partner CJ McCollum for the length of their contracts -- both ending after the 2020-21 season. Lillard is also coming off of his third All-Star appearance and his first All-NBA First Team selection, a huge honor and only the third Blazer to ever reach that status in the league.
Despite how great Lillard is individually, the Blazers as a team are not. This was highlighted in the 2018 NBA Playoffs when the New Orleans Pelicans made it a point to harass the Blazers’ backcourt, leaving everyone else to beat them. That strategy worked well; the Pelicans swept Portland in four games.
Thus there’s been a swell of reactionary pieces from the national media calling the Blazers’ foundations into question. One way to solve those questions would be trading one of the foundations, either Lillard or McCollum, and getting pieces to better fill out the roster.
For a cash-strapped team low on assets, that’s the only card left to play -- one management has repeatedly refused to put on the table.
So that brings me to the question: how soon do Lillard trade rumors pop up again and what effect might they have? Will they be sparked after Portland almost inevitably starts slow again? Or if the team is struggling come the All-Star break? How about after the season if the team misses the playoffs?
The Blazers may want to hang onto their stars as long as they can, but there’s also the potential that Lillard earns himself a contract near a quarter of a billion dollars if things go right this season. That’s an incredible amount of money to tie up with an aging superstar.
So maybe, just maybe, those calls from opposing GMs will be worth listening to this season (I know how hard that is to think of). Will this be a minor sideline to the season or will the story start to snowball into a distraction?