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How Damian Lillard’s Statements Will Change the Trail Blazers

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Portland’s superstar made some not-so-veiled demands today. Can Portland deliver?

2021 NBA Playoffs - Portland Trail Blazers v Denver Nuggets Photo by Garrett Ellwood/NBAE via Getty Images

After a day of rumors regarding trade demands and his status with the Portland Trail Blazers, Damian Lillard took the podium following a Team USA practice to make clear his thoughts on his tenure in Portland and what he needs to see from the Blazers in order to remain happy.

As with all PR opportunities, clarity is in the eye of the beholder. For most people, the bias with which they came into the press conference is the same bias with which they will leave it. There were opportunities for the “Lillard is Staying Forever” camp to lift their cheers. At other points the “Lillard is Gone Tomorrow” circle got to pass the Kleenex box while playing Florence and the Machine at half speed.

For those wondering how to parse out the day, here are the events in a nutshell, analysis of where things stand now, and a look at how this day changed the narrative surrounding Lillard and the Blazers.

How We Got Here

The seeds for this day have been planted and watered over the last couple months, maybe longer.

For years, Lillard has been an All-NBA player on a relatively pedestrian team. The rally cry of, “Take that, doubters!” that played so well after LaMarcus Aldridge left in 2015 has grown stale in 2021. The Blazers’ needle has moved only sporadically over the last six years, always settling back firmly into neutral.

The keystone event of the season was Portland’s 2-4 loss in the first round of the 2021 NBA Playoffs to a Denver Nuggets team missing star guard Jamal Murray. Lillard scored 55 in Game 5 of that series but his team still suffered a stunning double-overtime defeat. Denver getting swept by the Phoenix Suns in the second round did not improve matters.

This was supposed to be Portland’s time. They spent years building towards the day when the Golden State dynasty would falter and they could ascend to the throne. When the Warriors fell out of the Finals, LeBron James took the first trophy and the Suns got the shot at the second. The Blazers were nowhere to be found.

Lillard is now staring down the barrel of his 30’s and is no closer to a title than he was when he was 24.

In this environment, unrest and questioning are natural, and there’s been plenty. Turmoil during the early off-season surrounding Portland’s coaching change, accompanied by a lack of draft picks and cap space this summer, have exacerbated the situation.

What Happened Today

Early this morning, Henry Abbott of TrueHoop published an article summarizing some of the above, adding in a source close to Lillard who told TrueHoop that Lillard was on the verge of demanding a trade out of Portland.

Soon after, Chris Haynes of Yahoo Sports published an interview that did not follow Abbott’s “trade demand” theme, but did feature Lillard stating clearly that the Blazers need to improve in a way they haven’t been able to before.

With a mini-tornado sweeping the internet in the wake of these articles, Lillard took the podium in Las Vegas to answer media questions about his relationship to his team.

During this interview, Lillard made the following declarations:

  • He is not requesting a trade
  • Neither has he made a decision about his future in Portland*
  • He is not the type of person to speak through sources
  • He will address whatever needs to be addressed with President of Basketball Operations Neil Olshey and his team
  • He is in conversations with same
  • He does not believe the Blazers, as constructed, can contend for an NBA Championship*
  • He does not believe that Portland’s recent coaching change alone is enough to bridge the gap*
  • There is a sense of urgency to improve that situation now, greater than there was before*
  • He does expect to be in Portland next season

The items listed with asterisks were new (or stated in different fashion) today. Those without were familiar and/or implied from Lillard’s statements in the past.

Four asterisks in nine items doesn’t seem like a huge percentage, but for the eternally-conservative-and-supportive Lillard, it’s a change. And even a casual glace shows that those four new statements are doozies. It’s a lot.

What This Means

In the face of unrest, the big question on everyone’s mind is what’s going to happen. Lillard did little or nothing to answer that question, nor can he, probably. Nobody knows at this point, maybe not even him.

The real question here is, “Has the situation changed?” That we can answer with a greater degree of certainty.

Some are claiming that the Abbott report was completely wrong. That’s not likely. There’s a wide space in which he and Haynes are both essentially correct. It exists here:

Damian Lillard is not satisfied with the state of the Blazers and is not willing to endure that indefinitely, maybe not much longer. Lillard is feeling that strongly enough to have told somebody. That person told Henry Abbott.

Both the Haynes interview and Lillard’s comments at the press podium bolster the first clause. That Lillard mentioned his feelings to someone in his personal or professional circles is not unlikely.

The real kicker for Blazers fans, the item they want to know most about, is the middle of the statement: and is not willing to endure that indefinitely, maybe not much longer.

Lillard’s oft-repeated proclamation that he wants to win a championship in Portland is a double-edged sword. Up until this point, Portland fans have interpreted it to their advantage. “In Portland” has been taken as the firm part of the statement, “Wants to win a championship” as the lofty desire. Today, for the first time explicitly, Portlanders felt the bite of the opposite edge. Lillard intimated that “Wants to win a championship” is the firm part and “in Portland” is the wishful aspect.

Obviously, that does not bode as well for the Blazers as the original translation. Now they’re forced to ask whether they can meet Lillard’s demand of title contention. Adding to the gravity: he just told them flat-out that they haven’t been progressing that way and he doesn’t see them as close right now.

Clearly the onus is on Portland to move...not next year, not around the edges, but right now and right at the core. Lillard’s statements were as close to a shot across the bow as the image-savvy superstar has ever made.

Neither the Blazers nor Lillard may be able read how close the clock is to striking midnight, but he just told the world it’s soon.

Unlike so many addresses Lillard has given before, Portland fans were not at the center of this message. The bullseye now rests on Olshey and Portland’s management to build a contender out of the rubble of last season. They have to prove Lillard’s assessment wrong, in dramatic and efficient fashion. If they have any cards to play, they have to put them on the table now. Holding back will be the same as pushing him away.

The NBA as a whole will perk up at the second part of Lillard’s address. If Portland doesn’t make it happen, somebody needs to be ready, furnishing a title contender with a Lillard-shaped hole.

None of this is entirely new. We understood today’s developments as abstract possibilities as far back as 2016. They’ve crystallized and localized in the past 24 hours in a way they hadn’t before. This is real and this is it. The Blazers will put Lillard in contention or they will start a new era without him.

That still leaves the matter of timeline unanswered, though.

The good news for Portland fans is that, repudiating Abbott’s source in timing (not necessarily in substance) means the door isn’t closed. He said he expects to play for Portland next season. Theoretically, they have some time to work with.

The minimum amount necessary would be through the end of this summer’s free agency period, roughly through August. The Blazers will probably need to make a serious, or at least seriously hopeful, move by then if they don’t want the Ghost of Trade Demands Past returning. A sufficiently striking move could buy them up to a year. It’s unlikely that they’ll get another chance in 2022 if they bow out of the playoffs early again, but a fantastic run in next spring’s Playoffs might meet Lillard’s criteria for progress.

Until then, we’re all in the middle, right there with Dame.

Rejoice, Portland fans. You have a shot. But be aware, the things you’ve seen today add up to ultimatum, not approbation. Up until now, Lillard has been a sleeping giant, with power in his hands to control his destiny, the ability to move mountains to get there.

The giant has awoken. It’s far better to be on his side than to get in his way.