The Portland Trail Blazers are going to finish outside of the 2023 NBA Playoffs despite a career season from franchise superstar Damian Lillard. This is a particularly frustrating development for the team, as they surrounded Lillard with a mix of veteran talent and high-scoring youth this year in an attempt to rise towards significance in the crowded Western Conference. 12 of the 15 teams in the West have a legitimate spot in the race for the postseason. Portland is not among them.
This has opened up a couple lines of questioning, not just locally, but across the league. First, if 32.2 points per game—third overall in the NBA—on a career-high shooting percentage won’t do it, what more can Dame possibly provide? And then its all-too-familiar twin: will Lillard want to stay in Portland under these conditions?
Blazers fans already endured this line of questioning last summer, when it was suggested that Lillard’s affinity for the franchise might be wavering. Lillard responded with affirmations of loyalty, which he backed up by staying with the club, inking a two-year contract extension in late July.
As you can imagine, the issue rising again like The Undertaker in a Casket Match does not have the Portland faithful pleased. That’s the subject of today’s Blazer’s Edge Mailbag.
It’s happening again with this Lillard talk. Shams and KG now too? Dame has said over and over he’s staying and he’s loyal to Portland. You can pull up the quotes as easily as I can. Please do it! Why is this even a thing still? Why can’t the media just leave him alone?
You have a voice. I noticed lots of other local media people and plenty of us regular people groaning when this happened. You were silent. Please, oh guru, rip them a new one! Waiting to see if you’ll take this question. I hope you don’t remain silent because I know you love this team too.
First, we need a little context on the comments offered on a national scale this week.
Blazers fans are used to professional talking head Stephen A. Smith ranting about Lillard’s “wasted” talent in Portland, but when The Athletic’s Shams Charania suggested that Lillard might be in play for other NBA teams this summer, it re-opened the wounds.
Shams Charania:— Legion Hoops (@LegionHoops) March 27, 2023
“I think when you look at this [situation] for Damian Lillard... You have to wonder if he's going to play another game for the Portland Trail Blazers. I expect there to be real conversations this off-season.”
(via @FanDuelTV) pic.twitter.com/OI0EyuOW2Y
Then Hall-of-Famer Kevin Garnett got into the action, suggesting Dame would look better in a Knicks uniform.
"If Dame Lillard gets to New York (Knicks) and does what he does in Portland in New York, he'll be considered one of the best to ever do it."— Kevin Garnett (@KevinGarnett5KG) March 28, 2023
I believe Dame will go down as one of the greatest if he joins the Knicks. Ain't nothing like playing in MSG and Dame will put on a show… pic.twitter.com/5kkrTzeit2
Let’s discuss this in orderly fashion.
I don’t believe Charania or Garnett had any special inside knowledge when making those statements. They were doing what the rest of us do, albeit from a more informed/experienced position than most: reading the situation and analyzing it in the abstract, based on their perspective. In that sense, you don’t have to worry too much about these particular comments. But you’d better get used to them. With the Blazers sinking into the basement of the league, they’re not the only experts who are going to set up the equation this way and come to the conclusion that X doesn’t necessarily mean Lillard remaining in Portland.
But no, I’m not going to “rip them a new one”. First, talking about things like this is literally their job. Second, for all we know, they may be right. The decision rests with one person: Damian Lillard. Whatever he says will almost certainly happen.
Damian Lillard has, to this point, said, “Yes” to remaining in Portland. Therefore, that transpired. If, at any point, Lillard says, “No” to remaining in Portland, it’s going to go the other way.
That’s the nature of the decision being made by a person in power. It can go whichever way that person says, and there’s not a thing anybody can do about it. Analyst speculation doesn’t change a thing. You’re right about that. That also means that fan protestations to the contrary won’t change a thing if the decision goes the other way. That’s the other side of the double-edged sword. Swing it against Garnett and Charania and you may also find yourself having to dodge it.
We do know that up to this point Lillard has said almost nothing indicating he wants to leave. He has said, almost always in the present tense, that he likes Portland, he’s loyal to Portland, and he wants to win in Portland. Doing so, he has also left the “out” that he wants to win and, if the team decides to rebuild, that would not be in line with his plans. But the overall vibe has been positive and assuring.
That means that up to this point Lillard has stayed. Absent a change in conditions, the default expectation would be that he remains. That’s good, as far as it goes.
The current speculation about Portland’s performance and Lillard’s stated priorities neither contradicts nor ignores anything we just said. Instead, it asks a question. “Have conditions changed enough to cause Lillard to alter his line of thinking?”
Once again, only Damian Lillard knows. But he is allowed to evolve his perceptions and decisions based on those changing conditions. And hey, even if we said it wasn’t allowed, he could do it anyway. He’s a human being. He gets to decide about his own life and career. That’s how this works.
Shams Charania and Kevin Garnett also get to speculate whether Lillard would prosper more, at least by traditional NBA standards, somewhere else. That’s also how this works.
And yes, fans get to get riled up about the issue and the speculation thereupon. That’s how it works too.
I’ll be honest with you, though. Of the three groups—Lillard, analysts, fans—I feel the most back-of-the-neck itch coming from the fan response. Something weird is going on, and I’m not sure I like it.
We’re all familiar with the toxic negativity that all too often infests the sports world. Loud-mouthed bros (and, yes, they’re usually bros) make sweeping proclamations and predictions, usually to the negative. They’ll shout and troll, dancing over the ruins of crushed dreams, feeding on other people’s misery, making the process all about them. That’s gross and harmful. Yuck.
Less acknowledged: fan bases get into toxic positivity just as easily. And it’s just as icky. In fact, it doesn’t take too much denial, blame, and lashing out against other people’s perceived negativity before you find that the tactics of the, “Yay at all costs!” brigade closely resemble those of the troll bros.
The classic example of this came during the late stages of the “Jailblazer” era. Popular support and team performance were both at their nadir. Almost nobody talked about the Blazers. Those who still did formed into hard, barely-permeable knots, particularly in online venues. They shouted down anybody who criticized the franchise or who suggested things might be going poorly.
They had ample justification, to be sure. Bashing the Blazers was popular at the time. But when the torches and pitchforks of the “haters” were met by the nuclear response of the “real fans”, everybody else suffered. There was no room for conversation, let alone thought or critique.
That’s exactly the environment Blazer’s Edge was born out of. We helped create space where people could discuss the sport that had once united us all. Here we are today, still.
This dualism surrounding Damian Lillard’s decision process is swirling into the same kind of atmosphere. We’re not in the tornado yet, but there’s a watch, heading towards a warning.
Maybe those national analysts aren’t right about Lillard’s future. Maybe Portland fans aren’t either. Who knows? But filling the atmosphere with protestations that people dare to say something, that analysts have the gall to (gasp!) ask logical questions or offer a reasoned opinion...that’s a harder thing to get through than Lillard leaving would be.
I don’t have a monopoly on truth. I don’t have the answers here. It’s possible even Dame and the Blazers don’t! How could anyone else? But I do perceive a flaw in the discourse.
Almost nobody is owning their feelings. We almost never hear, “I love Damian Lillard. He’s my favorite player of all time. With the team doing poorly, I’m scared he might leave. That would make me sad.” If someone said that, we could branch off into a half-dozen lines of amazing conversation. Empathy: “I feel that way too!” Analysis: “I wonder how they could make the team better so this isn’t an issue?” Shared experience: “I remember when Clyde Drexler got traded...”
Instead we get some weird stew of, “Dame said THIS and the team isn’t THAT bad and we’re stupid for even having this conversation and don’t talk to me LA LA LA!”
I mean, ok? But the first conversation seems better to me than the second.
I also think the first conversation is harder to have, not just because people aren’t comfortable being vulnerable, but because people fear the whole thing has already gone south. That’s the hidden lie under toxic positivity. It claims it’s being positive, but it’s only necessary because, at root, it’s already assumed the negative and is reacting to unspoken fears about same.
The trolls who say, “Neener-neener, Dame is leaving you!” don’t necessarily believe it’s true. People who can’t stand to hear Shams speculate on it (or who get mad at other fan bases for coveting Lillard) actually believe in the possibility far more.
To be clear, I’m not downing all positivity here. There’s still a lot to like about this team! Shaedon Sharpe is amazing. Jerami Grant has had a good season. Who doesn’t like watching Trendon Watford or Drew Eubanks play? Those things matter.
But the stripe of “positive” fandom that can’t admit that there’s a ghost of a chance that Damian Lillard might change his mind, that can’t stand to hear that the team is actually in a fairly precarious situation right now, that wants to divert discussion away from basketball into personal attacks or lambasting the media...I can’t go with that. In part, that’s because—at least according to my experience—that’s the same brand of “positive” fandom that will demonize Lillard and/or the team should Dame ever decide to go.
All indications so far say Lillard remains with the Blazers and intends to. That’s the best answer to Shams, Garnett, Stephen A., and everybody else you’re going to hear this summer. And we’re going to talk about that every time this gets brought up.
At the same time, the Blazers have under-performed, have a muddled and expensive road forward, and those are new factors in the equation for all of us, including Lillard. We are going to talk about that as well. So will national pundits and analysts. So will other fans.
Discussing either of these things is great! Not so great: making conclusions based on that discussion and then demanding that reality must conform to our preconceptions. It doesn’t, and nobody in the universe can promise that it will.
All we can promise is that we’ll take care of each other and have interesting, mutually-fulfilling conversations no matter which way it goes. Maybe we should be focusing a little more on that and a little less on claiming that we know the mind of Damian Lamonte Ollie Lillard, let alone that we have a claim on it.