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Parsing Out the Damian Lillard Conundrum

Question are buzzing around Portland’s franchise player once again.

NBA: Portland Trail Blazers at Utah Jazz Rob Gray-USA TODAY Sports

Portland Trail Blazers All-Star Damian Lillard has produced his best statistical season ever in 2022-23. The 32-year-old guard has averaged 32.2 points, 7.3 assists, and 4.8 rebounds per game over 58 appearances—posting career-highs in scoring and field goal percentage, near-career marks in rebounds and assists—while routinely pasting 40+ points on hapless opponents.

At the same time, the Trail Blazers have turned in one of their most disappointing seasons in recent memory, compiling a 32-40 record through 72 games, leaving themselves outside of serious contention for a spot in the 2023 NBA Playoffs.

The lackluster performance came with Lillard surrounded by the most talented lineup he’s had since 2015, including Olympics veteran Jerami Grant, top-notch glue man Josh Hart, 20-point scoring guard Anfernee Simons, and versatile center Jusuf Nurkic. Add in NBA Finals defender Gary Payton II, defensive forward Justise Winslow, and surprisingly bouncy rookie Shaedon Sharpe, and the Blazers appeared primed for success at the start of the year.

With veterans traded away for unproven prospects and injuries ravaging the rotation, both season and lineup are in tatters. Claiming the Blazers are no closer to a championship solution than they were last September would be disingenuous. They’re farther away.

In this atmosphere, an old, fearsome specter has reappeared. National commentators openly lament Lillard getting stuck in Portland, laboring for a franchise that seems incapable of building around him. Lillard himself seems resigned to the lack of success for yet another season, but has stated that he isn’t interested in substitutes for winning, particularly at the cost of time.

The rising turmoil has caused a corresponding flood of submissions to our Blazer’s Edge Mailbag, covering everything from Lillard’s contract to his trade status to his philosophical approach to the game and legacy. Rather than treat them separately, let’s try to cover the basic issues here in an omnibus post about Dame.

Is Lillard Tradeable?

The short answer is yes. Maybe underlined. You’d think Lillard’s trade value would be diminished by age and having just signed an extension that will pay him between $45 and $63 million through 2027. 33 high-mileage years and $215 million owed isn’t a great starting point for trade negotiations.

Dame has obliterated that with his play this season. His recovery from abdominal surgery last season was worth every stitch and second. He’s driving more, drawing a previously-unmatched level of foul shots, and still shooting well from the three-point arc.

Completing his 11th season, Lillard is about to get more consideration for league MVP than he has at any point in his career, and will get closer to All-NBA First Team than at any point since he was actually named to that squad in 2018.

Ask if Luka Doncic or Steph Curry are tradeable, then step it down about a quarter of a notch. That’s where Dame lives right now.

Injuries or a bad season could diminish Lillard’s value at any point, but even then, it’s not going to be zero. There’s always a second chance, a hope of return to form. Since the form we’re talking about here is All-World, Lillard carries as much value right now as he ever has.

Does Lillard Want to be Traded?

Everything Damian Lillard has said overtly has confirmed that he would prefer to stay in Portland. That has not changed. He has not contradicted himself publicly.

Along with those statements, Lillard has also claimed that he’s playing for a championship, even if he doesn’t regard his career as defined solely by winning one. He’s also given the quotes cited above about wanting to win now and not being interested in a slow rebuild.

The gap between those two paragraphs gives rise to speculation. Lillard would like to contend and insists upon winning in the short term either way. Are those preferences stronger than his preference to stay in Portland?

Only Lillard himself can answer that question with authority. So far he has made remaining in Portland his priority. That’s all anybody can go on until he states differently. Anything else is guesswork.

However, we also need to acknowledge that Lillard is free to change his mind at any point. The only contract binding him is the one he and the team agreed to. He’s not obligated to any viewpoint. He’s not required to live up to things he felt five or three seasons—or even one season—ago.

Lillard’s expressed preferences are just words. That’s what all of this speculation is based on: words. I believe they were, are, and will remain sincere as Lillard speaks them. That makes them a great gauge of what’s happening at the moment they’re uttered. Credit Dame for that. But they’re next to useless when used to speculate on an uncertain future that even Lillard doesn’t control.

The last we heard, Damian Lillard does not want to be traded. That does not mean he’ll not want to be traded in the summer of 2023, or 2024, or at any time in the future. But neither does it mean that we’re free to substitute our own biases and presumptions about career goals or personal priorities in place of what he’s actually stated.

Is Loyalty Owed on Either Side?

Let’s divert onto a side path for a second. Damian Lillard is not being disloyal to Portland and their fan base if he decides he has a better professional future somewhere else. The Portland Trail Blazers are not being disloyal to Lillard if they determine that the only sensible way forward is a rebuild into which Lillard no longer fits comfortably (by his own admission, no less).

Loyalty is a complex concept. It involves regard for, trust in, and affirmation of a party outside of the self. It does not irrevocably bind those parties together for the rest of eternity regardless of the health, well-being, or outlook of the participants involved. Loyalty means that what you do with someone, you do with care and the best long-term outlook in mind. It does not always dictate what you do with them.

When a team and player unite, it’s understood that each gives the best effort possible (play or compensation) until the relationship no longer works for one or both, at which point transition becomes a possibility. In the meantime, the player shows loyalty by supporting the franchise and giving his all. The team shows loyalty by signing the player to a fair contract.

By those criteria, Lillard and the Blazers have been more than loyal to each other. The franchise has hung its star and most of its salary cap on Lillard. Dame has performed at an All-NBA level. That will remain true—as will all the accomplishments, memories, and honors—whether or not Lillard gets traded over the next three years.

Also of note: Commentators and analysts are not being disloyal or slighting Lillard if they ask whether, in the long run, the Blazers would get farther ahead by trading Lillard when his value is sky-high than riding out the rest of his career in Portland. Loyalty to the subject matter requires some level of truthfulness and respect, but loyalty does not disallow thought, nor discussing options, nor having opinions.

Loyalty can only be given, not taken or even demanded. In order to be given, it has to be an unfettered choice from all parties involved. Blazers fans can’t unilaterally claim that Lillard must stay. Blazers players can’t demand that nobody talk about the possibility of trading them. The franchise can’t pressure Lillard to take a lesser contract than he deserves without consequences. Those things aren’t loyalty, but manipulation.

Can Lillard Force a Trade?

As we said above, Lillard is under contract through 2027, but he has a player option in the final year, meaning he could voluntarily depart as soon as the summer of 2026.

If he wants to explore greener pastures before then, Lillard would need to request a trade. The next round of Collective Bargaining Agreement negotiations may have something to say about this, but in the current NBA environment, stars who request trades tend to get them, usually instantly.

Should Lillard ask to be traded, his leverage will probably get the job done. He’s the face of the franchise. Portland can’t afford extended negative publicity attached to his image. This is doubly true because nobody outside of the front office—and that includes most Portland fans—would feel Lillard’s request unjustified. The Blazers haven’t built around him. As a result, and partly because of their resulting PR reliance on him, Lillard’s personal brand shines far brighter than Portland’s own logo.

With every single national pundit, 90% of the media, and more than half of Portland fans siding with Lillard in any brand split, the Blazers would have huge incentive to get ahead of any Lillard trade request. He wouldn’t have to force a deal. It’s likely his people could whisper half a syllable in the right ears and the Blazers themselves would begin to pivot into a “Have to rebuild, trying to honor Dame by finding him a good landing spot,” narrative to preserve both of their public images.

Even though the Blazers hold the contract, Lillard holds the cards. If he wants a deal to be done, it will be.

Should the Blazers Trade Lillard?

It’s an interesting question, but ultimately a moot point right now. The front office and Dame determine franchise direction and goals. As long as the GM says, “Win now with Dame!” and Lillard says, “I want to stay,” trade speculation is worthless.

Either way, though, the Blazers need to make a choice. If they’re going with the 26-and-under crew, moving Lillard for young players and draft picks is a no-brainer. If they really do want to win now, they’d better convert some of their future assets into players who can actually do so. The hybrid approach hasn’t worked for Golden State this year, and they’re far better positioned (and have far more talent) than Portland. It’s not going to work in the Rose City either.

In short, the Blazers don’t have to trade Lillard, but they better trade something to bring more organizational direction to this team.

Does a Championship Define Dame?

The easy answer is no. Charles Barkley, Patrick Ewing, and John Stockton are household names. None of them have a title to their names. Lillard isn’t quite at that level, but he’s still going to be mentioned among the great guards of this era. In Portland, he’ll be king, ring or no ring.

One of the more surprising quotes from Lillard in this recent media frenzy was that “nobody will talk about him” when his playing days are done and fans move on to someone else. That’s patently untrue. Blazers fans still hold Clyde Drexler and Bill Walton in reverence. No matter what, a generation of Portlanders will associate Lillard with Trail Blazers basketball. They’ll say they became fans because of him. They’ll root for him to win a title if he gets traded. Dame’s jersey will be retired the instant it’s appropriate, maybe a few seconds before. He’s going to be a franchise spokesperson forever, the same way Jerome Kersey and Bill Schonely were.

With the river running that high, a championship is a footnote issue. “The only thing he didn’t do was win it all,” will be the tagline after a half-hour dissertation on his accomplishments.

Honestly, the whole question misses the point.

You know who a championship matters to? The Portland Trail Blazers. What about the team that’s been mired in mediocrity for nearly the entire time Lillard has been here? What about the franchise that had such a severe break with its winning culture in the early 2000’s that it lost continuity and tradition that it’s never gotten back? What about a fan base that’s been encouraged by dissembling front-office salesmen—wielding far-reaching power over narratives—who repackaged oatmeal mush as filet mignon so often that first-round exits are celebrated and making the second round of the playoffs seems like success?

The Portland Trail Blazers need to re-learn the dedication, sacrifice, will, and uncompromising quality play that winning a championship requires. They’re not even close.

It’s no accident that this, “A championship isn’t everything!” talk in Portland is coming right in the middle of the “Dame might be leaving” storm. Part of it is to close the gap mentioned above, minimizing the desire for a title so the franchise superstar won’t want to chase one. Part of it is also that this organization—including much of its fan base—doesn’t know how to define itself apart from Lillard.

Damian Lillard will make millions of dollars, receive national recognition, get plenty of sponsorships, and be embraced in Portland for eternity whether or not he stays here his whole career, whether or not he wins a championship. He’s going to be ok.

The same is not true for the Blazers. By their own admission, they will not be the same if Lillard leaves. Looking at record, personnel, and decisions, they are absolutely in the dark about how to get into contention and haven’t been anywhere close for almost a quarter century now even with Dame in tow, let alone if he departs.

For all his individual success, that’s one thing Lillard hasn’t been able to bring to the franchise. He’s been a generational player. The Blazers have been entertaining during his tenure. By outward appearances, the locker room/chemistry culture has improved. But basketball excellence has eluded them to the point where, when Lillard goes, he will take almost all of the team’s recent legacy with him.

So yeah, I agree that a championship will not define Dame’s career. But it would mean everything to the Blazers. And nobody is asking that question.

As long as Lillard wears a Blazers uniform, that’s what he should be working towards, talking about, and playing for...not for his sake, but theirs. Conversely, they should be aiming at that target—making the decisions to rebuild towards that level of organizational and on-court quality—whether Lillard remains in Portland or not. Desperation makes bad mortar. The Blazers are never going to be able to win with Dame unless they’re confident that they could be a viable, successful, smart franchise even without him.

Thanks for all the questions, folks! If we didn’t address your issue here, you can always submit (or re-submit) your questions to and we might follow up.