The Damian Lillard saga is now dragging into its third week, as the Trail Blazers and their perennial All Star try to negotiate a trade that will take him out of Portland.
As the days unfold, trade machine suggestions and tensions are piling so high that even Shaedon Sharpe couldn’t leap them. Meanwhile, many Blazers fans are grieving, wondering what’s going to happen to their franchise, its most prominent player, and their own fandom.
We’re going to address those questions in today’s special edition of the Blazer’s Edge Mailbag. Check out this question.
This is my first question ever. I wanted it to be about strategy or some grand trade, but honestly I’m having real trouble coping with losing Dame. I was shocked by his trade request. I’m even more shocked by reaction to him and his reaction to the team. Everybody is sniping at each other. It feels like a family falling apart. I’m sad. I didn’t think it would ever get to this point and I don’t know how to deal with it. I’ve been a fan since just after he came and it feels like something is dying. What advice would you offer people like me?
Hi, Jillian. I can hear the stress in your voice. It came through just as strongly in the parts I’ve edited out. You’ve described the feeling of the situation very well. I think your words speak for many. I respect that, and you.
Some people will consider this a “soft” topic compared to a trade analysis piece or a logical look at leverage in the NBA. We’ll have one of those tomorrow. Today, it’s time to remember that sports is about people. Professional leagues exist—and prosper—because of the exact feelings of attachment you’ve described.
This feels like family. For many, especially those whose relationships don’t go perfectly in “real” life, it becomes family. Players like Damian Lillard provide a rallying point of hope, comfort, and joy for thousands of people, who then become united via common experience.
It feels cold, and disingenuous, to ride those feelings through tickets sales, jersey sales, and Mailbag clicks, then to ask you to put them aside and get on with it when things like this happen. So today, we’re going to stop the world for a minute and rest with you. Maybe you’ll find some words of comfort. But just as importantly, you’re going to find that you’re not alone.
As we start, let me share a couple things with you and all the folks who justifiably feel this way...things I’ve said for the better part of a year now.
You and I don’t control anything about this situation. It lies in the hands of Lillard, Joe Cronin, and the Trail Blazers organization. No amount of angst or worry will change that. We have no choice but to let them work, hope they find a good solution, then focus on the path forward.
Damian Lillard’s job is to do the best thing possible for himself, his career, and his family with the years he has remaining. We can’t ask him to do anything different. We wouldn’t want him to, really. No matter how much we enjoy him, we only see Dame for a couple hours every other day during the season. He’s surrounded by people who depend on him for real, all the time. Just as importantly, he looks at himself in the mirror every day. We need Dame to do what’s right by his definitions and those of his loved ones. If we really are “family”, even in a remote and semi-contrived way, that’s what we’d wish for him. We’d say the same for anyone we loved.
Meanwhile, General Manager Joe Cronin’s job is to do the best he can for the Trail Blazers as an organization and for all of us fans besides. He’s conducted himself accordingly over the last year and a half. We don’t have to agree with his decisions. We can acknowledge that he’s trying to build a future with us that make sense. The Blazers have gotten younger. They drafted Scoot Henderson and vowed to keep him. Scoot is not Dame, but he’s going to grow with you and the franchise over the next half-dozen years, minimum. The front office hasn’t given up on the future. Neither should we.
A player getting traded isn’t as serious as losing a loved one, but as you’ve identified, it can invoke the same feelings.
Often, when we grieve, it feels like moving into the future disrespects the past. The first time we laugh after—or at—a funeral, we wonder if this means we’re “moving on”, like we don’t care anymore. We try to tamp down those feelings and reactions as a way of holding on to the person we’re missing.
This isn’t necessary. Celebrating the wonderful parts of a past relationship doesn’t invalidate it. Those moments affirm the way the relationship changed us. That’s how “moving on” becomes moving with instead of leaving behind.
You don’t have to forget the 0.9 shot in 2014 or the series-winning strike against Paul George and the Oklahoma City Thunder in 2019. We’re not going to lose the 71-point game or seeing him average 30 points for not one, but two seasons. Nobody can take that away. Nobody wants to.
If all we get out of Damian Lillard is 19,376 points over 27,942 minutes of play, that’s more than anybody else will see of him. It’s more than any other Trail Blazers player has ever given. That’s enough for one career. We all gave everything we could to each other. We can take all those things with us, celebrating them without regret.
Dame’s going to play for another team or two during his last few years in the league. He’s probably going to win a little more than he would have in Portland. We can celebrate that too, in a way. Good for him! Hopefully the Blazers will grow into a team that earns more victories and honors than they would have, even with an aging Dame. If both happen, all the better.
I will bet you really good money that, after Lillard’s playing career is done, the Blazers won’t be able to retire the Letter O fast enough. I’m guessing Dame will become part of their organizational structure, too, if he wants. This isn’t the last you’re seeing of him. It’s the beginning of a new phase of the relationship.
Before that, we need to get through this transition time. Between now and the day he’s traded, you’re going to hear mixed messages from both sides.
Even if Lillard and the Blazers remain friendly—and I believe they are, to this point—they cannot express that without qualification. Lillard and his agent have to hold the Blazers accountable to his request, showing that they’re serious. Cronin and the front office have to make clear—not just to Dame, but to franchises across the NBA—that they’re not going to be forced into a low-value deal for their best player. Without those declarations, neither could move forward.
Making those stances clear requires a certain amount of public backbone. That means staring down the other party and saying, “I respect you, but here I will stand.” If you’ve ever seen or experienced an amicable divorce, you’ll notice the lawyers using quite different language with each other officially than the principal parties do privately. It’s a necessary part of the process.
Lillard and the Blazers are in the posturing, big-picture-emphasis phase of the breakup now. This too shall pass. The first time Dame meets his former teammates and coach after the trade gets done, it’ll be hugs and smiles all around. Blazers fans from the Moda Center to their living room couches will give Lillard a standing ovation. He’ll wave and acknowledge it too. He’ll probably even smile and shake hands with Cronin. It’s coming.
Until that point gets here, try to concentrate on the future, on the return the Blazers might get for Lillard, and on the chance to watch their young players develop into Portland’s next shot at success.
You got to enjoy Dame because some fans before you held tight to the team and each other after Clyde Drexler got traded in 1995. The Blazers ended up with Otis Thorpe and Randolph Childress in that deal. They’re going to do better than that for Lillard and for you.
Those 1990’s fans got to love Clyde because people held on after Portland lost Bill Walton to forced free agency in 1979. They got Kevin Kunnert, Kermit Washington, and a draft pick that became Mike Gminski as compensation. They didn’t even keep Gminksi, who played 14 years in the NBA. Instead they traded him with Maurice Lucas to New Jersey for Calvin Natt. What a heartbreak to see Walton and Lucas leave in succession after the glory years of ‘77 and the NBA championship.
But Calvin Natt led to Kiki Vandeweghe. And Kiki Vandeweghe led to Byron Irvin. And Bryon Irvin led to Danny Ainge. And now you’re right back to the Trail Blazers going to the NBA Finals again in 1990 and 1992.
I’m not sure it’ll work out that tidily this time, but we do know this: you’re going to have a chance. You don’t have to give up on that chance—what will likely be the best haul the Blazers have ever pulled in for trading a superstar—just because Dame is leaving.
Go ahead and grieve losing Lillard. Most of us will. But in the process, it’s OK to honor and continue on the process that brought him here, that he invested in for 11 seasons, and that he’ll leave behind him when he’s gone. That not only respects the players, personnel, and fans who remain, it makes the next great love possible.
As I say all this, I acknowledge that I’m not the only voice out here. Having read Jillian’s question, what advice, experience, or commiseration would you share? Feel free to add your thoughts in the comment section below.
Thanks for the question! You can send yours in to firstname.lastname@example.org and we’ll get to as many as we can.