As has been true since he was drafted in 2012, Damian Lillard remains the focal point of the Portland Trail Blazers franchise as they enter the summer ahead. Following a season of career-high statistical production, Lillard is looking forward to contending for an NBA Title, or at least making a run into the playoffs. The Blazers have not been able to help him towards either of those goals over the past two years, leading to increasing tension surrounding his tenure.
The Blazers have several decisions to make as the offseason commences, but the greatest of them is clear. Do they continue to build around their soon-to-be 33-year-old superstar, spending future assets and youth to pry open a window through which he can advance? Or do they pull down the curtain on the Lillard Era, emphasizing young talent and building up assets to make their next run at relevance?
We’re going to explore that question in-depth in a two-part series. Today we’ll cover the arguments for keeping Lillard. In the second part, we’ll explore the rationales for letting him go.
Here’s why keeping Dame makes sense.
Any discussion of Damian Lillard has to start and end with this assertion: he’s not only the best player on the Blazers, he’s one of the best players the Blazers have ever known. Last season, at age 32, Lillard put up 32.2 points per game, shooting 46.3% from the floor, 37.1% from the three-point arc, earning 9.6 foul shots in the process. All except the three-point shooting percentage were career marks. He also added 7.3 assists and 4.8 rebounds per outing.
Lillard played 36.3 minutes per night, exactly his career average. His total games played only came to 58, the second-lowest mark of his career, but that may have been influenced by Portland’s late-season urge to chase NBA lottery position.
Scoring your age is cool when you’re 19. When you’re 32, it’s incredible. Lillard isn’t just playing well, he’s playing at an All-NBA level. Every discussion of his value, either organically to the team or in trade, has to start with that unshakable assertion. This is a minted, bona fide NBA star, the kind every team covets. That’s the rarest resource in the sport. Trading away a superstar requires reasons far beyond your garden-variety starting forward switch.
Effect on Teammates
Damian Lillard has more positive influence on the Trail Blazers franchise than any other single individual in the organization, and it’s not close.
Lillard makes life easier for his teammates, at least on offense. Look at the numbers for Jusuf Nurkic, Al-Farouq Aminu, Moe Harkless, even recent additions Matisse Thybulle and Jerami Grant. Their scoring efficiency generally rose when they took the floor with Lillard. Their three-point percentages did as well, in some cases skyrocketing. Lillard’s mere presence creates open shots and single-defended drives for the players next to him. He’s not going to turn a poor scorer into a volume one, but he has a positive effect on efficiency and range across the floor...a one-man “Easy Button” for fellow players.
If Lillard leaves, shots are going to come much harder for Grant in isolation. Three-point shots will be contested for everyone. Those marginal-to-good shooters who somehow became great once they joined the Blazers will likely revert to their traditional percentages with other teams.
We suspect, but do not know, that fellow guards Anfernee Simons and Shaedon Sharpe will be able to get their own shots with or without Lillard. But if the Blazers move him, the young point-producers will get an instant education one becoming the focus of NBA defenses. It’s a necessary step in their growth process, eased so far by Lillard’s presence. If they trade Lillard, the Blazers had better be prepared to sink or swim with the learning curve that follows.
Lillard also provides a one-man exit strategy from any Blazers scheme that isn’t working on a given night. Dame bailing out his squad with 30 points is so de rigueur as to be cliché. He makes bad nights good, good nights great. It’s no accident that, as soon as the Blazers determined they had no shot over the last two seasons—deciding to tank—shutting down Lillard was their first move. When he’s on the court, he has a hard time not excelling, often dragging the team right along with him.
When you have a player like Lillard, getting equal value back in trade is impossible. Swapping peak-level (let alone All-NBA-level) stars is a lateral move for both franchises. Almost nobody does that. Anyone who has a slightly-younger version of Lillard would keep that player rather than trading for Dame. The Blazers aren’t going to get equal value in the deal.
The big hope is getting a young player who might grow into a star, plus future draft picks to obtain same in later years. No matter which way you slice it, that’s a gamble. Even if the young player pans out, the chances of them rising to Lillard’s level are small. Hitting on those future picks is the only way to gain ground in this scenario, yet the trade will be made without knowing where they’ll land or which players will be available when they do.
In the NBA, you generally don’t want to be the team giving up the best player in a deal. The only time when that’s a bonus is when a team misjudges “best player” (c.f. the Minnesota Timberwolves trading Walker Kessler and a raft of draft picks for Rudy Gobert). There’s no chance of that happening with Dame. Lillard will be the best player in any exchange, and it probably won’t be close. That puts Portland into disadvantage—and probably into rebuild mode—by default.
If the goal is an NBA Championship, the Blazers will be farther away from it after a Lillard trade than they were before, for all the reasons mentioned above. There’s no other way to reckon it.
That doesn’t automatically make the move wrong. If you’re traveling to Albuquerque by Side Road A, then find that it ends in a town only halfway there, retracing the road back to the main highway is the only way forward. No matter how you try to force a way through that terminus town, you’re still going to end up short of your goal.
In that case—a dead-end scenario—going backwards to find a road that actually goes through is the only sensible move. But it will cost time, gas, and progress. So will trading Lillard.
Advocates of keeping Dame would also argue, maybe correctly, that we can’t be sure that the main highway goes all the way through either. Arguing for a Lillard trade means arguing convincingly that the Blazers are at a dead end right now, and that their new road doesn’t lead somewhere worse, like a swamp. That’s hard to prove, given the variables involved.
Even though most of the league is screaming that it’s time for the Blazers to trade Lillard, the move will reflect poorly on the franchise in a couple of ways.
Lillard himself has underlined repeatedly... repeatedly... re...peat...ed...ly that his first preference is to win a championship in Portland. That’s balm to Blazer Fan ears, but it also has a couple insidious side effects.
First, it defines the issue in terms of his wants and needs rather than the team’s...which are simply presumed to be him. The way the issue has been defined, he loses nothing by being traded, the Blazers lose everything.
Second, it creates the inevitable narrative that if the Blazers do trade him, it’s not to make moves forward, but precisely because they couldn’t. Everyone from the Portland faithful to the most removed of national broadcasters will be repeating the phrase, “The Blazers couldn’t build a contender around Dame.” That is not a good look for them.
The Blazers have traditionally had trouble attracting star players. They’re not a destination team for the league’s elite. Fumbling away one under these circumstances, particularly one who professed alignment with, and maybe affection for, them will only increase that impression.
Face of the Franchise
Damian Lillard has brought attention to the Trail Blazers and redefined their image as much as any player since Bill Walton back in 1977. Not everybody remembers Portland (with good reason, given their recent performances), but most everyone roots for them when they do. That’s not because of the uniforms or talent. It’s because of Dame: the commercials, the buzzer-beaters, the logo shots, the interviews...the whole package. Even if the Blazers could get equivalent basketball talent down the road in a Lillard trade, there’s no guarantee they can replace the franchise cornerstone that he’s become. The loss Blazers fans would feel at his departure would go beyond numbers.
Lillard is one of the few players in professional sport who gives rise to the question, “Is this about more than winning?” Plenty of Portland supporters are ready to say yes. They may not be correct about that long-term. Every player, even the best, has a shelf-life beyond which only transparent memories remain. Every franchise must strive for common goals beyond any of its members, even the most singular and winsome. That we’re even asking that kind of question shows how unique Lillard is.
That effect—his representation of the Blazers’ zeitgeist and the hearts of so many fans—cannot be encompassed or replaced in the abstract. If they trade Lillard, they’ll have to wait for the next once-in-a-lifetime player to grace their locker room.
That wait may be long.
Next Up: Convincing reasons to trade Lillard.