The fate of the Portland Trail Blazers hangs on Damian Lillard, the best player in the new millennium and perhaps the best player in the history of the franchise, period. Losing Lillard would mean more than 28 points per game down the tubes. The entire organization revolves around him. Any trade involving the All-Star point guard would mean a change of eras, not just of lineups.
With Lillard rumblings increasing across the NBA and trade suggestions starting to float, just in case he wants out, we tackle this question from the Blazer’s Edge Mailbag.
Dame has said he’s upset with fans and I’m worried about his loyalty not being repaid and him leaving. I don’t want to lose the best guy we’ve ever had and the best player too. Do you think he’ll stay? Please tell me it’s yes. You’re the most pessimistic writer besides Dwight Jaynes so if you say it I’ll believe it.
Ummmm...thanks, I think?
I don’t think there’s any way the Blazers could get equal value for Lillard right now. The entire team is built around him. Without Lillard, Robert Covington goes invisible and Jusuf Nurkic becomes a good-but-not-great center. CJ McCollum would still be himself, but he’d face increased defensive pressure. I’m not sure the Blazers could rebuild successfully around a 30-year-old McCollum anyway.
Portland’s best bet would probably be to start a preemptive rebuild, trading Lillard for young players and/or picks. He could garner a fair number of draft selections. They’d just have to be spaced far enough that his immediate impact on the fortunes of the receiving franchise didn’t drive down the value of the picks.
That said, I don’t think you have to worry about any of this right now. In theory, Lillard could demand a trade anytime he wants. He certainly has the star power to get it done. In practice, several factors weigh against it happening right now.
Lillard has three years left on his contract, with a fourth year player-optioned at $48.8 million. The soonest he could get out of Portland organically would be the Summer of 2024. That would entail giving up nearly $50 million from the option as a 34-year-old. That’s not impossible. Players older than 34 have opted out of big deals. If Lillard is healthy and productive at that point, it’d make sense to dive into a new, multi-year contract that paid more than $49 million over its lifetime. But from this perspective, contemplating that move three years down the road, it’s still a risk and that’s still a fortune on the table. If Lillard wants all his money guaranteed, the soonest he could leave is 2025.
The Blazers won’t want to keep Dame around if he’s disgruntled, let alone angry at the franchise. With that length of contract in the books, though, they don’t have to move quickly. Lillard’s leverage is as low as it can get right now. Unless he was willing to have a no-holds-barred public feud with the team, he doesn’t have a ton of options to force a move. He won’t be free next year or the year after...or the year after. Even if he is unhappy (and we don’t know that), the Blazers can get by with, “We will try, but let’s also try to work this out as we go.” He’d probably be willing to listen.
This is doubly true because Lillard’s image has, to this point, been pristine. His brand is one of the best in sports, overcoming the heretofore-unconquerable Blazers Invisibility Syndrome. That’s been as big a part of his success as talent. Loyalty and likability have been cornerstones throughout. Demanding a trade, then engaging in the War of the Rose City to get it, would impact that image. Everyone would agree that he was justified. It still wouldn’t look great.
Lillard is far more likely to edge towards a trade demand—letting it percolate behind the scenes, engineering from a distance—than he is to come forward and blast one over a alphorn for all to hear. Building up that momentum takes time.
It also becomes quite clear as it crescendos. We’ve seen warning signals of a possible process, but we haven’t yet seen it underway. If and when it happens, we in Portland will know. We won’t have to guess.
That process also expands the organization with internal pressure. The Blazers have a couple of weak points in the structure before they get to the mammoth boulder that is Lillard. We saw one jettisoned a month ago as Terry Stotts departed. Neil Olshey is another. Left a choice between losing their superstar and taking a fresh approach to keeping him, Blazers upper brass and ownership would almost certainly choose the latter, convincing Dame to stick around another year under new management.
I have no inside information. I could be wrong. But for all these reasons, I don’t see any immediate fear of a Lillard trade demand and/or departure. I do see that as a strong possibility next summer, with the pressure build-up developing over the coming season. I don’t think any recent events contributed to the situation. I thought the same thing before the summer began.
I do see this process as near-inevitable unless the Blazers make huge strides, and quick. If Lillard really does retire in Porland, the Blazers should consider themselves lucky. If I had to guess, I’d say the odds of him making through even his current contract are small.
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