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Trail Blazers Mailbag: Lillard, Love, and The Streak

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Will Damian Lillard stay in Portland? Will Kevin Love come? The Blazer’s Edge Mailbag sheds new light on these questions.

Portland Trail Blazers v Cleveland Cavaliers Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images

The Portland Trail Blazers have been embroiled in multiple fascinating news stories over the past week. Damian Lillard’s future, Kevin Love’s contract status, and a wholly improbable road winning streak have converged into a headline-making maelstrom. As usual when this happens, the Blazer’s Edge Mailbag is here to help you sort things out.

Thanks to everyone who wrote in about these three topics. I couldn’t include all the question variations on each theme, so I picked out the simplest version of each. If you wrote in about Lillard, Love, or The Streak, no worries...I read your questions even if they’re not the ones printed here.

Dave,

So we have contradiction stories about Dame and whether he’s staying. Then we hear rumors about a Knicks trade. Is this even smoke or is there a fire? It seems to me that the reporting was shoddy on this one and someone got out on a limb. Do you feel the same way? Are you worried about Dame staying or his attitude?

Kent

In case anybody missed it, Kent is referring to an article from Chris Haynes of Yahoo sports, released last week, saying that Lillard hasn’t received enough support in Portland to win a championship. Haynes has a good relationship with many NBA players, including Lillard, which led to the assumption that Lillard’s voice was somehow behind the article. In a post-game press-conference that night, Lillard denied that he was behind the article, but did not comment on its veracity or his opinion of the content itself. This left a Rohrschach Test situation wherein those who claim Lillard is on his way out of Portland and those who claim he’s a loyalist for life could each find what they wanted to support their point.

This isn’t a new situation. The concerns are real. I would be surprised if Lillard demanded a trade this summer or made any public fuss at all. Unless he really, really wants out—which I don’t believe he does—that would be counterproductive. It would also create controversy around his heretofore-pristine image.

Even so, we’ve said for years that this time was coming for Lillard and backcourt mate CJ McCollum. They’re 30, not 26. The Blazers have made essentially zero progress towards title contention over the course of their careers. They were celebrated for not going backwards when LaMarcus Aldridge left for San Antonio in 2015. A brief glimmer of hope provided by their run to the Western Conference Finals in the 2019 NBA Playoffs has since been snuffed to soot, as the experiment wasn’t replicable. Other than those two high points, their journey has been a serious of false starts and heroic rallies as a rotating cast of forwards and an oft-injured center struggled to hit their stride around two star guards. That makes for great narrative copy, but it’s a long way from actual contention.

I do not believe Lillard fed Haynes information for the article directly at this time. Nor do I believe he would ever get in front of a microphone in the middle of a season and say, “Yes, I agree with that article. My colleagues are inadequate; the front office has failed me.” He said himself in the press conference that such conversations would happen behind closed doors, if at all.

At the same time, I don’t think Haynes misrepresented the situation and I wouldn’t be surprised if he was conveying Lillard’s outlook in broad strokes. This was the season the Blazers were supposed to excel. They haven’t, at least to this point. This marks the third time they’ve reshuffled the lineup and come up without a firm solution or much progress. Every success has come with an equal measure of disappointment. If their intention is to retain Lillard for the balance of his career, they should be worried about these things. He’s taken seriously around the league; they aren’t.

I am never, ever worried about Damian Lillard’s attitude or approach in the immediate term. If we’re looking towards the future, though, I suspect we’re hearing the opening strains of a much longer symphony that will play out over the next 15 months. Stay tuned.

Dave,

Kevin Love coming to the Blazers? What do you think? Is this finally the secret move that puts us over the top?

Katherine

We have to thank Chris Haynes for this one too. Here’s my initial thought.

Seriously, you want another forward nearing the end of his career who’s not going to play defense but will still take shots like he’s in his prime? Carmelo Anthony has made that work about as well as it possibly could. He’s shooting 40.3% from the arc, 42.1% from the field overall, and is nearing 20 points per 36 minutes. Meanwhile Love is shooting 34.9% from the arc, 40.4% from the field, and averages 17.4 points per 36 minutes...well below Anthony in each case. Love is not as good as a starter as ‘Melo is coming off the bench. Nor was he the season before this. You’d have to go back to 2018-19 before you could even make an argument.

I think Love would get the usual Trail Blazers three-point-percentage bump when he joined the team. An eternally-green light and playing next to guards who draw defenses both pay dividends. But he’d better not displace Robert Covington in the starting lineup and he’s not accustomed to any kind of bench role. No matter when he plays, he’s not going to help in the areas the Blazers need most. At best, he’s Melo, Part 2, still needing to adjust to the new role and new team. The Blazers would be better off pitching Anthony on staying.

Besides, if Love was so sentimental about playing for the Blazers, why didn’t he say this six years ago when Aldridge left? Or even three years ago? I understand that deals would have been more difficult then, but that’s when the Blazers really needed him. And that version of Love is the player the Blazers would require to make this move make sense in anything more than a “More of the Same, Add Curiosity Factor” way.

In short, I can see the advantage in Kevin Love saying these things. I can’t see the advantage in the Blazers doing it.

Dear Dave,

Have the Blazers really turned it around with this road trip? You asked the question but didn’t answer it! I’m hoping!

Barbara

We’ve seen a different intensity during this road trip and more commitment to defense in particular. Those are positive signs. Aggression from Damian Lillard and the ability of all three starting guards to get points against the Brooklyn Nets and Boston Celtics doesn’t hurt.

I’m writing this before the Blazers play the Atlanta Hawks on Monday night, but whether the road trip ends up 5-1 or 6-0, it’s still a major improvement. Portland is making a legitimate year-end run.

That said, we’ve seen this before, right? The Bubble Blazers surged big time. They’ve made year-end rallies in seasons past to make us hope. Those didn’t amount to much.

We should absolutely celebrate, and give full credit to, the Blazers for this trip. It’s genuine and it’s awesome. But if this is THE turn-around, it’s coming too late. Where was the “new leaf” two games prior, when they faced Memphis? Where was it a month earlier, or at the beginning of the season before Jusuf Nurkic went down?

In that way, this streak makes me annoyed even as I’m rejoicing in it. Yes, Nurkic has been key, but they actually fared well when he was down. That wasn’t their only problem. They’ve been mushy at exactly the points they should have excelled, then excelled after they’ve dug themselves a hole. Once again, they’re exerting all their energy just to get out of that hole and back to level ground, while teams who have gotten serious about this from the start of the season are already far above them.

As long as the Blazers remain the kind of team that needs some kind of external motivation—like being counted out—in order to rally and play well, they’re going to keep being what they have been: mediocre, and mostly an afterthought. They’re not young players anymore. These are veterans. They shouldn’t have to play games in order to play the game well.

Forgive me if I seem less than enthused, but the Blazers are at the point where, if you have to ask if they’re turning a corner, you also have to ask what the heck they’re doing on that corner to begin with. We’ll see what happens. It’s certainly better to make this run than not. But until they parlay this into a deep playoffs run—which seems improbable given their overall play and the seeding range they’ve dug themselves into—my reaction is to cheer like heck now, but be prepared to shrug later.

Thanks for the questions! You can send yours to blazersub@gmail.com and we’ll see if we can answer!

—Dave