Among all the refrains sung in the drawn-out Damian Lillard Trade Request Opera, one of the most common is, “Why don’t the Portland Trail Blazers just trade him to whomever makes the best offer, regardless of his desire for the Miami Heat?” We’ve received several dozen variations on the theme in the Blazer’s Edge Mailbag over the last month, including this one.
Heard you talk with [Chad Doing and Dwight Jaynes of Rip City Radio 620] about the Lillard trade stalling and Dwight made a point I want to follow up on because you didn’t talk about it long. He said that Lillard will play for any team because that’s who he is. But you argued that other teams besides Miami still wouldn’t trade for him. You didn’t talk about it enough to explain though. Could you elaborate on why you think that? I think Dwight is right and that the Blazers should just trade him to another team regardless. He’d be under contract for them same as us.
This gets to the root of why teams trade superstars to begin with.
Have you ever wondered why superstar trade requests are such earth-shaking things, why they become near-automatic? Why does it matter what Damian Lillard wants? As you point out, he’s under contract through 2026, at minimum. Why not just keep him? Or send him to Minnesota if they can make the best deal?
It’s because NBA teams know that, on a nightly basis, the lead player in the locker room sets the tone for the team more than any other single figure does. He makes more money than anybody else. He gets more touches than anybody else. No matter what any coach, GM, or teammate says, this guy has the power to direct team flow on the court. The only way to alter his decisions is to remove the ability to make them, either sitting him or trading him. If you’re not willing to do those things, you have to live with his performance and priorities.
Franchises led by an unhappy, unfocused, or distracted superstar don’t win...at least not as much as you’d think they should. It takes about half a nanosecond for the change in priority to filter through to the rest of the roster. If our job is to pull a dump truck by a big chain, but the strongest guy among us—the guy we presumed would make the difference in this Herculean task—is sitting in the back of the truck, directing a kazoo choir and enjoying a brandy instead of pulling, how long are we going to keep doing it? Screw it. If he’s not throwing his all into it, there’s no point.
When you trade for a central superstar, you’re not just trading for talent. You’re entering into an agreement to put your franchise in his hands. In return, he’s supposed to take good care of it and motivate everyone else to do so as well.
Among the things you don’t want to hear at the start of that kind of relationship is, “I’m not really happy being here.”
Dwight Jaynes’ point about Lillard being Lillard—among the most trustworthy players in the league—is exactly, 100% correct. There’s a counterbalance. Lillard has also professed loyalty to the Blazers for years. He’s made a hugely successful career as the face of that franchise. If he’s going to play somewhere he’s not happy, why would he not just stay in Portland, where he has everything his way and he’s universally adored? The fact that he’s asking out must mean that he’s really, really not willing to play in a place he’s not fully invested in. If he’s not willing to be less than fully happy with the Blazers, why would any other franchise have confidence he’d be willing to be less than fully happy with them?
We’re not talking certainties here. Maybe there’s an owner and GM out there so brash as to think, “Dame hasn’t met US yet!” Every time someone says, “I’m really not looking to get married,” some derp-derp dude always thinks they can change that. If Portland finds that team, maybe they’ll make the deal over Dame’s protests.
Failing that, though, opposing franchises are facing a landslide of questions. They’re acquiring a 33-year-old, culture-changing, #1 option with $210 million remaining on his contract. He had a career season last year, but he’s also averaged 55 games per year over the last four and hasn’t played 70 or more since 2018-19. He’s going to need to play more defense than he has in Portland to help a team to the championship level. He’s probably capable of that—he’s shown it in stretches—but it depends on his drive and motivation.
For the privilege of acquiring this guy, you’re going to spend an enormous amount of future assets. If the Blazers have their way, you’ll be giving up 3-4 first-round picks, maybe a pick swap or two, and young players. You’re raiding the cupboard for years to come in order to seize the opportunity now. There’s no making it up later. If he doesn’t work out with you, his value will become much more modest. It’s not an all-or-nothing move, but plenty of chips are going onto the table.
It’s to Damian Lillard’s credit that the move would be a no-brainer for most NBA clubs, were he willing. His talent and approach are enough to overcome the potential risk aversion spawned by the realities we just listed.
But you know what? With that many critical variables in play and so much on the line, everything else has got to be perfect. That extra issue—“Does Dame really want to be here?”—will be enough to get most franchises to fold on this quicker than Kenny Rogers with an eight-jack off-suit.
People are going to remember that the Minnesota Timberwolves really, really thought that Jimmy Butler was the answer to their prayers in 2017. They traded Zach LaVine, Lauri Markkanen, and Kris Dunn to the Chicago Bulls to get him. Barely more than a year later, they were unloading him to the Philadelphia 76ers for Jerryd Bayless, Robert Covington, Dario Saric, and a second-round pick.
People will also look sideways at a certain semi-prominent franchise that was sure they were buying the inside track to a title when they signed a championship-vintage, All-NBA forward to lead their squad a few years ago, only to have that guy be better known for load management than his 9 win shares and 24 points per game. That player still ranks above Lillard in the NBA pecking order. Plenty of teams would trade for him today, given the chance. But they’d want questions answered too. If they weren’t sure he’d want to play for them? No dice.
Damian Lillard is more popular—and is seen as more of a stand-up guy—than either of those two players. Few in the NBA can match him, in fact. But like a potential spouse who loudly claims, “My fiancee will never, ever cheat on me!” prospective trade partners are going to stop and think why they’re having to ask the question about his desire for them in the first place. It’s a little bit of a red flag.
Lillard may well open up his list of happy destinations. Or maybe the single-team scenario was exaggerated by the media and destinations are already open. Either way, as soon as Dame indicates that he’d like to play somewhere, I’d expect that team to jump at the chance to negotiate for his services. Until that point, though, I don’t think suitors will be plentiful, even if Portland is willing to trade him over his objections. You can do that with your fifth starter or second-string power forward. You can’t compromise the same way with your heart and soul, or the guy who holds your nine-figure mortgage.
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