As the Damian Lillard saga drags past the one-month mark, the tenor of submissions to the Blazer’s Edge Mailbag has started to change. Anticipatory grief has given way to a little bit of impatience, slivers of hope and expectation, and a fair bit of thoughtfulness. We’re going to capitalize on the latter today with this Mailbag question, craving perspective.
How much do you think Dame leaving will affect the team? I don’t mean the players. I mean everything Blazers! To me it’s a step into the unknown. I don’t have much context. I’ve only been a fan for about 10 years and it was because of Dame. You’ve been around longer. Where would you rate this for importance? How do they ever come back from it?
It’s significant, for sure. A watershed moment. But it’s not as high on the list as you’d think. That has less to do with the importance of Lillard—he’s obviously one of the most memorable players ever to don the uniform—than the reality that lots of things happen over a 54-year franchise history.
Probably the most significant single on-court event was Bill Walton getting injured in 1978. Had he stayed healthy, the Blazers could have claimed one or two more World Championships. Social media didn’t exist back then, so we don’t have records of the widespread reaction, but it was stunned devastation for a while. The whole city knew who the Blazers were. BlazerMania had infected large tracts of the population, far greater than Trail Blazers fandom does now as a percentage per capita. When Walton went down—when the Blazers started losing and the feud between the parties began—disillusionment was palpable. And that was before the dozen-year rebuilding journey to get to the NBA Finals again.
Beyond that, the fourth-quarter collapse to the Los Angeles Lakers in Game 7 of the 2000 Western Conference Finals was pretty big. So was blowing a Game 6 lead to the Chicago Bulls in the 1992 NBA Finals. Greg Oden collapsing with a knee injury in his first pre-pre-season practice series was huge, as was choosing him over Kevin Durant in the 2007 NBA Draft. Obviously picking Sam Bowie over Michael Jordan in 1984 counts too. Let’s not forget the ending of Brandon Roy’s career either.
Off the court we have numerous friends to remember who have passed: Jerome Kersey, Cliff Robinson, Maurice Lucas, Paul Allen, and Bill Schonely to name a few. Each one of those stories transcends anything we’d come up with in reaction to trades.
The Jail Blazers Era was also a significant bump in the road, the subtle effects of which still lie in the substrata of the franchise. It was a blue-screen crash requiring not just a CTRL-ALT-DEL response, but getting a whole new computer.
We can find positive examples too. The 1977 title and Clyde Drexler’s teams making the NBA Finals stand out. The 0.9 Shot and the Shot Heard ‘Round the World against OKC certainly qualify, those at the hands of Lillard himself. Speaking of...will losing Dame after 11 years really be a bigger event than drafting him, Drexler, or Walton? Perhaps, but it depends on your perspective. Selecting Lucas in the 1976 ABA Dispersal Draft was a big deal too, as was the trade for Buck Williams in 1989.
Once we’ve rehearsed all of those things, we can begin to talk about the times the team had to say goodbye to established stars: Drexler demanding a trade in 1995, LaMarcus Aldridge leaving in 2015 free agency, even Lucas getting moved in 1980. Lillard’s departure will be bigger than Lucas’. You could argue it’s on par with Aldridge’s, with extra emotional freight added pushing it past LMA. Given the relative performance of their teams, Drexler and Walton might claim bigger significance. Clyde was coming off of his second NBA Finals appearance the year things went sour; Walton had just won it all. You can argue whether Lillard is a better player than either, but the team’s distance to drop in 2023—after two straight lottery appearances—is more like jumping off a curb than falling off a cliff. There’s a long road ahead, but as multiple (rumored) failed trade attempts and fixes show, the road was long even with Dame on board.
Lillard’s exit will go down as one of the most significant moments in franchise history, but the phrase “one of the” matters. It stands among all the events just listed, higher than some but lower than others. It is neither the beginning nor the end of all things Trail Blazers. That’s the beauty of professional sports. SuperSonics aside, one it starts, it just keeps on going. There’s always another turn ahead, another mountain trail to scoot upwards.
Go ahead and share where you think this event sits in the pantheon of significant moments for the Trail Blazers. And thanks for the question! You can always send yours to email@example.com and we’ll try to get to as many as we can!