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Is Damian Lillard Still Portland’s Future?

Our annual Keep or Yeet series concludes with the most important question of all.

Portland Trail Blazers v Los Angeles Lakers Photo by Katelyn Mulcahy/Getty Images

The Portland Trail Blazers’ 2021-22 season has come to an end. The summer ahead will hold plenty of decisions for the club. They put 27 different players on the court during the regular season. Not all are still with the team, but enough are that there’s no way the Blazers could retain them all...if they even wanted to. A 27-55 record would argue against a high retention rate, but asterisks abound despite the dismal performance.

Into this question-filled swamp stride Dave Deckard and Dia Miller with their annual review of Portland’s roster. They talk about each player, then decide whether they would keep or yeet (toss) the player in the coming year. Performance, fit, age, salary, and team priorities/direction are all open for discussion.

Today we conclude the series with a look at the franchise’s shining superstar. For ten straight seasons, Damian Lillard has given the Blazers a cultural hub, national attention, and a cumulative 24.6 points, 6.6 assists, and 4.2 rebounds per game. He’s won two NBA playoffs series with buzzer-beaters, earned six NBA All-Star nominations, and made a case for being the greatest player ever to wear Portland’s uniform.

The 2021-22 season was not kind to Dame. He played in 29 games before taking time off for surgery to correct a chronic abdominal injury. He still scored 24 per outing, but his shooting percentages from the field and arc were dramatic career lows and he just didn’t have “it” most nights.

Both Lillard and the Blazers expect him to bounce back from the injury next year, but the lapse was a reminder of his age (turning 32 this summer) and the 28000 minutes of NBA court time already accumulated. Those numbers overlay Portland’s 27-55 record last year, the loss of several veterans via mid-season trades, and the general impression that the Blazers are in a fog, unsure of how to proceed forward in a meaningful way with the current roster.

Portland is certainly in a different situation this off-season than in any since 2015. How does that affect the future for Lillard?

Dave: Well, here we are, at the end of a long journey through the roster. We’re finishing with the Big Guy, the superstar. What are your thoughts on Damian Lillard and the future of the franchise?

Dia: Damian Lillard should finish his career in Portland if that’s what he wants. Which, as of now, seems to be the case. Look, I get the argument for trading him while his value is high, but in this situation, I don’t think that’s the move.

Dave: We have to distinguish what we mean by “the move”, I suppose. If we mean “the move the Blazers will actually make”, then yes, I agree. I don’t foresee the Blazers trading Lillard unless they’re forced to. But if you mean “the right move”, from a basketball/franchise perspective, we have more of a debate.

Throughout this process, we’ve talked about being stuck in a corner. More than once, we’ve uttered the phrase, “This isn’t necessarily the best move, but given the situation, it’s what the club is forced into.” Lillard is the massive, heavenly body around which all other objects revolve. His gravity holds everything in place, for good or ill.

Lillard’s timeline affects what kind of players the Blazers need to sign, draft, or trade for. Lillard’s salary affects how much they can pay. It’s the single biggest contributing factor to the “capped-out” scenario that’s forcing the Blazers to compromise. “Might as well sign this guy and use his salary slot even though he’s not a clear solution,” all hinges on the $42 million owed Lillard. Without that timeline and that salary, Portland’s forward options become more varied.

“More varied” doesn’t necessarily mean “better”, though. If the Blazers do remain hitched to Lillard’s engine, with the rest of the roster like boxcars behind, how far does he tug them? What’s the ultimate destination here? That’s the argument for keeping him, I think.

Dia: There seem to be two schools of thought when It comes to what to do with Dame. One is to sell high— essentially, he’s a huge asset right now, so trade him while he’s worth a lot which dumps his contract and frees up some space and also would give the team, theoretically, some young assets to rebuild with. The other is that he’s Damian Lillard— drafted by the Blazers, loyal to the Blazers, the best star we could get and he’s earned his place here. The latter way of thinking is more in line with how I feel. But it’s not just loyalty and nostalgia that have me wanting to keep Dame. The fact is, he’s a star, and I can’t wait to see him back on the court. I think there are things that can be done to build around him. I keep thinking about the 2019 WCF and the roster we had at the time. A roster similar to that isn’t out of reach. Building a team around Dame that can win a championship isn’t an impossible task. And as long as there’s hope, I think that’s what we do.

Dave: I don’t have real championship hope at this point. But if it’s possible, that’s for sure what you do. There’s no serious talk of playoffs success right now outside of Lillard. He is everything. A rebuild isn’t a fun prospect. It’s another one of those things that isn’t special. Lots of teams are trying to do the same thing. It’s more of a reset to neutral than a plan going forward.

That said, delaying that process doesn’t help—in fact it’s costly—if it’s needed. Every year the team muddles in mediocrity without assets for improvement (other than incremental) is another year of potential growth lost. They lose the forward progress they could have made and assets they might have earned, like future lottery picks (from trades) or improvement of current draft picks (from moving up the draft board). They also take themselves out of the market for signings. The story for the Blazers in recent years hasn’t been lack of desire on the market, but lack of resources. You’re not just spending this year’s opportunity, you’re nerfing next year’s and maybe the ones beyond too.

If they end up putting off the rebuild, I think they need strong evidence that they’re improving right now. If they were able to swing a deal, or deals, for strong additions to the staring lineup, then keeping Lillard makes all the sense in the world. If they have another so-so summer, though? I don’t see how you avoid this discussion come September.

What would you need to see to extend, “Hope they win a title soon,” to, “I’m sure they have a chance right now”?

Dia: while I don’t disagree with what you’re saying, I also think it’s going to take a bit to make up for the years of mismanaging assets. I don’t think that’s an overnight fix—or in this case, a one off season fix. I think It may be another year before we get to the point of being legit contenders. But to answer your question, for me to get to the point of feeling like we are on that track, I think it’s going to take a big move that brings in a solid support star for Dame. Not necessarily a superstar, but someone who is established and talented and can handle himself on the court. That’s gonna be the biggest thing to me. In addition, I think It needs to feel like a coherent team. Not just a team built from scraps, but a team that has been pieced together for optimum results. Again, I know that takes time to show, but even with smaller signings, It needs to point to a bigger purpose.

Dave: I’m going to agree with you there, and that’s why, one more time, I’m going to go with a “keep” for Dame, but with an asterisk. The Blazers have run out of clock. They MUST get those veterans this summer, over the next 16 weeks. Not overpaid, mediocre substitutes. Not stories of, “We tried to make a run at this player, but it just wasn’t possible.” They must make significant moves between now and September to show they’re progressing and are capable of doing so further at the trade deadline and/or next summer.

If they are not able to make those moves, both they and Lillard have the data they need to know where this is headed. Delaying the inevitable will cost both parties: Dame the chance to flourish and make a run for a title, the Blazers the chance to rebuild from a position of immediacy and strength, including whatever assets they’d get from a Lillard trade.

That’s my asterisk. The “best by” date for this roster runs through September. If they can reinvigorate it significantly and demonstrably, I think everybody—including Dame—can absorb one more year of trying for old times’ sake. If they can’t, the reasons to keep on this course dwindle to sentiment and wishful thinking. The league isn’t kind to teams like that. At that point, it’s time to dismantle and start building up assets again.

What do you think, Blazers fans? Presumably everybody in the universe—including both Dave and Dia—would advocate keeping Damian Lillard for his talent and the emotional/cultural attachment built with the team. Does that have an expiration date for you? Or would other nuances cause you to move the franchise superstar to the “yeet” column outright? Share your thoughts below!

The Final Tally

Here’s the final look at this year’s Keep or Yeet list, along with links to all the prior posts.

Anfernee Simons: Dave—Keep, Dia—Keep

Jusuf Nurkic: Dave—Keep, Dia—Keep

Ben McLemore: Dave—Yeet, Dia—Keep

CJ Elleby: Dave—Yeet, Dia—Yeet

Nassir Little: Dave—Keep, Dia—Keep

Trendon Watford: Dave—Keep, Dia—Keep

Drew Eubanks: Dave—Keep, Dia—Keep

Justise Winslow: Dave—Yeet, Dia—Keep

Josh Hart: Dave—Keep, Dia—Keep

Greg Brown III: Dave—Keep, Dia—Keep

Keon Johnson: Dave—Keep, Dia—Keep

Joe Ingles: Dave—Yeet, Dia—Keep

The Rest of the Roster: Dave—Yeet, Dia—Keep Elijah Hughes, Yeet Others As Necessary

Damian Lillard: Dave—Keep (*with an asterisk), Dia—Keep