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How the Damian Lillard Media Storm Changes the Trail Blazers Outlook

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There’s little short-term impact, but Portland better have an eye on the long game.

NBA: Los Angeles Lakers at Portland Trail Blazers Craig Mitchelldyer-USA TODAY Sports

Damian Lillard has hit the national media spotlight at the beginning of NBA Free Agency, 2018 in a big way. Though not a free agent himself, Lillard is riding the media wave after a couple tweets of frustration over the departure of teammate Ed Davis—plus reputed casual interest from the Los Angeles Lakers—created a firestorm of speculation about his tenure with the Blazers. This culminated yesterday in an interview from NBA Summer League during which he told assembled media that he was not unhappy with his current situation. Though the interview was meant to calm the situation, fractured quoting and the remaining bit of wiggle room (Lillard did not praise the roster specifically, saying he wanted the Blazers to go “all out” to win) left the wake choppy.

In the midst of this, I am now staring at 27 different inquiries about Lillard in my inbox, all coming in over the past week. In an attempt to address them in one fell swoop, let’s summarize the situation and put a bow on this issue.

Long story short: The Blazers don’t have a thing to worry about with Damian Lillard right now. I’d be floored if anything that happened this month, including the Davis departure, changed that. At the same time, they have to be aware that “right now” will not last forever and plan accordingly.

Here’s why.

The Right to Make Choices

Every professional player has a right to make choices over his or her own career irrespective of history or franchise involvement. The claim that athletes owe a franchise loyalty beyond the terms of their contract is one of the most unfathomable aspects of sports fandom. An athlete owes 100% effort and commitment for the duration of their deal with a team. Anything less is a tacit breach of contract. But contracts are limited in duration. So is the loyalty of fans and franchises. Players should not be expected to pay out things they do not get in return.

If Damian Lillard suffered a career-ending injury in the last stretches of his current deal, 0% of Portland’s fan base would cry out for the team to be loyal to him by extending his contract for another four years. They’d have a ceremony, retire the jersey, then start looking for their next point guard. If the Blazers did offer $30+ million to Lillard under those circumstances, their fans would riot and call them idiotic.

If a clearly superior player became available during Lillard’s tenure but the franchise had to trade Lillard to get him, people would wail, but most of the fan base would quickly acclimate. If the Blazers didn’t make the move out of devotion to Dame, they’d be criticized.

Loyalty from fans and franchises hinges on the ability to produce. Once player production is gone, employment and fan passion go with it. This is appropriate and necessary in a sports setting. Winning is the most central, least-dispensable, reason for athletes to take the floor. Moves that don’t eventually lead to wins are almost always a bad idea.

That mantra is also true for players. If a franchise is not improving, a player has every right to adopt the same stance franchises and fans do. “You’re awesome. I’ve loved our time together. You’re not helping me produce enough wins, so our association needs to end.”

A player actually has more incentive to take this stance. Franchises continue over decades. Damian Lillard’s era was preceded by the Brandon Roy Era, the JailBlazers Era, the Traveling All-Star Run, and the Drexler Years. Other epochs will come after, during which Lillard himself will be a misty memory. Fans get to enjoy dozens of iterations of their team. An athlete only has one career. It’s brief, it’s irreplaceable, and decisions made therein cannot be undone or made up for later.

The Blazers wasting Lillard’s prime would be sad for fans, but they have other memories and will get other chances. Lillard wasting Lillard’s prime would become one of the defining stories of his life. Professional athletes have an obligation to make the most out of their gifts while they last. The fans’ need to feel fuzzy about them cannot compare in the hierarchy of priorities.

No matter what he says, does, or feels, Lillard must always retain the right to leave...to make the best decisions possible about his own career.

A Question of Power

Decision-making responsibility is a moot point if there’s no opportunity to exercise it. That’s exactly the situation the Blazers and Lillard find themselves in now. Lillard’s contract runs for three full seasons. Portland is free to trade him at any time, but they’ve shown little inclination to do so. Until they do, or until the contract runs out, motion is theoretical.

Over the past week, much has been made of Lillard’s statements, explicit historical quotes and current veiled tweets. Speaking is one way an athlete can exercise power even while under contract. Lillard has every right to do so, and to be believed.

At the same time, nothing Lillard says is binding upon him, either now or in the future. Interpreting what he might be thinking at a given time is not only silly, it doesn’t matter. He could profess undying devotion or complete antagonism towards the Blazers. The next contract he puts his signature on will speak louder that words.

Based on Lillard’s declarations and the shifting environment, the following are likely true:

  • Lillard was telling the absolute truth when he said he wanted to be with the Blazers for life over the past couple years.
  • The combination of losing in the playoffs and losing teammates like Ed Davis have added new dimensions to “life” with the Blazers, not all of them positive.
  • Ideally those circumstances would change, unifying loyalty and results. This would mandate the Blazers getting better talent around Lillard and advancing significantly in the post season...exactly what he’s asked for.
  • Even if the circumstances don’t change, Lillard isn’t likely to complain overtly. Speculation he might “force” a trade is spurious. That’s not Lillard’s M.O. Though he came from Oakland, he took on the identity of “small town underdog/savior” at Weber State and rode it straight through to Portland. He won’t 180 on that overnight. Plus nobody in the NBA is on brand more than Damian Lillard. He carries the “good guy” persona on the court, in interviews, in commercials, on ambassadorial trips. That’s not only his identity, it’s his bread and butter. Digging in his heels and publicly demanding a move would be so off-brand for him, it’s nearly incomprehensible...as likely as catching Superman giving people wet willies. If he started to distance himself from the Blazers internally, it probably wouldn’t find public expression. (Note this is a double-edged sword. Even if he were furious, he’d probably still stay on brand.)
  • At this point, there’s little risk of a rift widening between the two parties. There’s no point. His contract runs long and the Blazers depend on him. For now, there’s no good way forward for either unless they work together.

None of those truths changes the basic power dynamic between the parties, which will swing like an inexorable pendulum. Today the Blazers have all the power. Every calendar month that passes brings a small, but significant, swing towards Lillard. In July of 2021, the Blazers will have no power. All of it will lie in Lillard’s hands.

The Way Forward

What do the Blazers do with all this? Right now, nothing. Their job remains the same as it was two months ago: build the best team possible around Damian, win as many games as possible, get deep into the playoffs.

That said, they have to account for all the dynamics explained in the section above. Life with them isn’t as rosy as it seemed two years ago. Lillard’s talent and pristine public image are assets now, but they could obscure, then justify, an intention to move later. The more time passes, the less control they have over the situation and the less ability they’ll have to recoup if Lillard moves on.

Portland has already experienced the dark side of violating the #1 Rule of Franchise Management: never let your superstar walk away for nothing. LaMarcus Aldridge leaving in 2015 created a ripple effect they still haven’t recovered from completely. Lillard doing the same in 2021 would be exponentially worse.

Many fans wanted to blame Aldridge leaving on a defect in character or lack of loyalty. The Blazers do not have that luxury. (Nor, I believe, should fans persist in it.) What if Aldridge wasn’t a bad guy? What if Aldridge was just a player, doing what any player has the right and duty to do when his career isn’t progressing to his satisfaction? If the issue wasn’t personal, but systemic—the team not flourishing enough around Aldridge to justify him re-signing—then we have to ask systemic, rather than personal, questions about Lillard. Will playing for the Blazers provide enough satisfaction and success in 2021 to justify him finishing out the remainder of his career in Portland?

This summer’s kerfuffle isn’t enough to provide an answer to that question. Likely not even the principals involved can answer it definitively. We know that Lillard has expressed loyalty. We know, in general, that continual early playoff exits are not satisfying and that Lillard was not happy to lose Ed Davis. If the Blazers don’t make postseason progress and continue to lose valued veterans, they have ample reason to expect that negativity will persist alongside any loyalty that Lillard proclaims.

The Take-Away

Though neither party has a firm decision to make now, the franchise is on notice that Lillard’s outlook could be an issue. Whatever disappointment lingers, it’s likely to intensify as the critical decision point approaches. If the Blazers can improve markedly and retain obviously talented players over the next two years, that might be enough to parlay Lillard’s affinity towards them into a new deal. If they can’t do those things, they do not have the option of pretending that they didn’t know he was discontented on some level.

That knowledge has to influence how they approach the last two years of Lillard’s contract. They cannot get to July, 2021 without the face of the franchise accounted for one way or another. They probably can’t make definitive moves in the Summer of 2020 without having a good idea where he stands.

The end of Aldridge’s tenure played out like a slow-motion train wreck, with the Blazers trading away Will Barton and a first-round pick for a player who ultimately didn’t matter, presumably in an effort to appease a star who had already decided against them. (A star who had telegraphed that decision clearly enough that the only people claiming it as a complete surprise were the people in the franchise...and not even all of them). The Blazers cannot repeat that litany of errors. The only reason they survived it last time was the presence of Lillard himself, courtesy of a once-in-a-generation draft heist coming from Gerald Wallace being traded to Brooklyn. That’s not going to happen again.

The events and rumors of the last week don’t matter much, except as a reminder to the Blazers and their fans that they dare not get themselves into a situation where the franchise hangs in the balance. Any illusion that the decision point for Lillard comes in 2021 should dissipate now. The Doomsday Clock on this era has advanced a couple ticks. The Blazers need to know where they and Lillard are headed by 2020 at the latest. If they are not sure—if they do not make dramatic improvement quickly—they have to ensure their future rather than praying that the present will last forever.

The Blazers have to exercise power over this situation while they still have it, either to extend Lillard in perpetuity or to find the right trade for him. When the power falls into Lillard’s hands, he’ll need to exercise it for his own good and the good of his career. That’s both right and appropriate. It just might not be good for Portland.

—Dave / @davedeckard / @blazersedge / blazersub@gmail.com