Are the Blazers really building around Damian Lillard?
Is he really cool with these moves?
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BY HENRY ABBOTT
Tommy Beer @TommyBeerThe Blazers traded two first-round picks and Trevor Ariza for Robert Covington. The Blazers traded Gary Trent Jr. and Rodney Hood for Norman Powell. And now all the Blazers have to show for those two trades is a Keon Johnson, J Winslow, a couple months of Eric Bledsoe. Yikes
Outlandish things are happening in Portland. Last summer, the 31-year-old star of the Trail Blazers wavered in his commitment to the Blazers, publicly insisting on a roster upgrade. Privately his agent wielded big threats. (Anthony Davis sat out in New Orleans, forcing a trade to the Lakers. James Harden did a mix of skipping training camp and playing poorly before getting his way to Brooklyn. There’s a playbook to pick your team without being a free agent.) The clear implication was that the Blazers needed to get way better, and quickly, or risk losing their star.
Then the Blazers did everything but what Lillard wanted. First they brought in a new coach, then they fired a GM and played lottery basketball. The capper, this week, was the Blazers making trades that amount to the precise opposite of a roster upgrade. They traded arguably Lillard’s two best teammates—C.J. McCollum and Norman Powell—for a grab bag of salary savings, cap space, luxury tax avoidance, and middling interest prospects. Word is they’re not done, but for now it seems hard to believe that these are the moves of a team that will contend anytime soon.
Lillard demands a major roster upgrade—or else—and they do this? Lillard can’t still be into this, right? The Blazers were pretty good when he almost demanded a trade last summer. Now they’re terrible. Why is Lillard still saying he’s into the direction of the team?
Some time ago, Lillard said, of Paul George “Keep switching teams ... running from the grind. You boys is chumps." He followed that with some rap lyrics: "I'm built different I'm one of a kind. Ask Chris Haynes I'll never run from the grind."
This is the current understanding of Lillard’s thinking about Portland. He won’t demand a trade because he won’t run from the grind. The logic felt strained over the summer, to the ticking clock of his prime years, and his urge to win a championship. Now–barring another big deal before the trade deadline—with the Blazers talking about lottery picks and youth, a search of the word “Dame” on Twitter mostly turns up stuff like this:
It’s almost as if Blazers management were begging Lillard to force his way out.
A theory going around the NBA: that’s exactly what they’re doing.
There are a lot of theories out there. Here’s another:
Lillard tells Blazers.com’s Casey Holdahl that he is keeping an open mind:
For me, my heart is Portland Trail Blazer. I want to win it. I know that I have a plan that’s going to put me on my best level when I come back to play. And I want our team to fit that. I’m a huge fan of Chauncey Billups. I love Chauncey, we’ve got a great relationship and I think he’ll continue to grow into the head coach that he wants to be. And I’m a Joe Cronin fan. In his position I think it takes being bold and doing bold things, doing what you see fit and standing on it. He’s told me that our plan is to build a winning team, not to rebuild. Because we had a prior relationship to him becoming GM, I trust his word.
I’m at peace, I’m doing what I’ve got to do to get myself right and being at home with my family. I’m just waiting patiently to let things unfold and allow him to execute his plan. Once we get there and we see what that looks like and what that is, then I’ll have, I guess, more feelings than I have now but you’ve got to allow him to do his job and see what that finished product is. That’s just where I am.
The Athletic’s John Hollinger has all kinds of brilliant insight into this trade, and despite Twitter’s reaction, believes this theory holds water.
I don’t agree with the hot take du jour that this is some crazy fire sale by Portland. It’s a completely reasonable response to a bad, expensive team. The Blazers have flexibility they haven’t had in half a decade … If Lillard comes back healthy next year, how do you feel about a lineup of him, Simons, Nurkić, Hart, Nassir Little, two lottery picks and another player acquired via the trade exception?
David Thorpe meditated on this question, though, and came back with the answer that he feels … “not good! This would be the worst defensive backcourt in the league. Three of those players combined to average 28 percent from 3. And what would 32-year-old Damian Lillard do with two lottery picks? The schedule is completely off.”
The Oregonian’s John Canzano: “Does the franchise really have time to draft a 20-year-old savior and grow him up in time to complement Lillard on the court?”
Players at Dame’s age typically have already played their best years, particularly at such an athletic position. If he’s going to lead a title team, he has to do it with a mega-star, or yesterday. The Blazers star 22-year-old Anfernee Simons, and brought in players like 19-year-old Keon Johnson, 23-year-old Elijah Hughes, 26-year-old Josh Hart, and all kinds of cap space which, in Portland, is difficult to turn into free agents. These are not the players to get Dame a title.
The current roster makeup is stylistically the opposite of building around Dame, a ball-dominant guard who, if he were to play, would be sharing the court with dribbles-a-lot Anfernee Simons. Add to that mix the following other guards: Ben McLemore, CJ Elleby, Eric Bledsoe, Dennis Smith Jr., Josh Hart, Keon Johnson, and Elijah Hughes. (That’s nine guards, to accompany one real big proven big man in Jusuf Nurkic, who is, of course, reportedly on the trading block.)
ESPN’s Kevin Pelton points out that the Blazers could be entering full tank-o-rama. “Part of the benefit to the Blazers from moving players at the deadline,” he writes, “is the opportunity to improve their own lottery-protected pick, which would be eighth entering the lottery if the season ended today.” Does that sound like something Lillard, who is theoretically due back from injury in a few weeks, wants to be part of?
It could be that the Blazers are rebuilding around Lillard. But it’ll take years and Lillard doesn’t have them. It’s not the easiest theory to buy.
On the Habershow, Tom Haberstroh has a good theory: The Blazers are being primed for a sale. Jody Allen can offer the next billionaire open spots for GM and team president, a lease that expires in 2025, and now a clean balance sheet with luxury tax revenue due to roll in. The roster is a superstar, bargains, and expirings. If some billionaire is eager to make his or her mark, there will never be a better opportunity. The location, the roster, the key executives … all up for grabs.
There have long been indications that Jody Allen didn’t want to keep the team for the long term. There are plenty of interested suitors, the key question is price. It would go up if a new national TV deal secured future revenues, and, possibly, if the team becomes much cheaper to operate.
Cutting costs fits a theme. Jody Allen’s Blazers are also entering in a nasty legal battle after declining to honor the remainder of former GM Neil Olshey’s contract. Jody Allen hasn’t let the public get to know her much since her brother Paul died in 2018 and she took over. But trading young prospect Nickiel Alexander-Walker for the expiring contract of an injured Joe Ingles gives the feeling either she likes to save money, or the team has another big move left to make. I’m reminded that all those years the Clippers were terrible, Donald Sterling made money.
But that doesn’t explain why Lillard would want to be part of it.
After Tuesday’s surprising trade of CJ McCollum to the Pelicans, one theory emerged in phone calls to executives around the league: Perhaps, as the theory goes, Lillard doesn’t want to be part of it. Perhaps the Blazers and their star do want a divorce, but neither wants the bad press of being seen as the instigator. Some sources told me they are sure this is the case. (Amin Elhassan shared the same theory on the Habershow.)
As the thinking goes: The Blazers would like to trade Lillard, but don’t want to ruin their own reputations among Blazer fans by appearing to do so against his will when he’s basically the Babe Ruth of the Rose City, and the captain of #teamgrind. Meanwhile, Lillard has a lot of friends and family who have moved to Portland, and doesn’t want to inspire the public backlash that followed power moves by Kevin Durant, Anthony Davis, and James Harden. Who wants to be seen as a quitter?
Also, his salary is so big that it’s difficult (but not impossible) to fit him onto a contending roster. If the only viable trades take him to a middling team, the guess is he’d rather stay in Portland—something that would be awkward after a public trade demand.
So, the thinking goes, both parties hope the other will make the move to get Lillard traded.
Two executives also raised the idea that sandbagging has been part of the NBA this year. Experts who have been watching the Nets closely feel like James Harden probably could play far better, and some believe Harden underperformed in Houston as a strategy to encourage a trade to the Nets. Ben Simmons is in a slightly different situation, but plainly would like a new home and is withholding services in the interim.
Lillard reportedly played through tremendous abdominal pain. But also, sources point out, played 29 of the worst games of his career then sat for elective surgery, and now says he might well sit the entire season. Whatever his intent, the reality is this sub-par performance makes him much more likely to be traded. If he had come near his career-best level of play, with 60-point games now and again, and a team in the top four in the West, the Blazer front office simply would not have traded him. Missing the playoffs opens the possibility.
And, from the Blazers’ point of view, stripping the roster bare might be a way to get Lillard to make the unpopular move and publicly demand a trade.
There’s another negotiation happening. Lillard is eligible for a historically large contract extension this summer. To get the biggest possible income, he’ll have to sign with the team he’s on; free agency would cost him tens of millions.
In the seasons when he’ll be 35 and 36, Lillard could make more than $50 million per year. “The smart money,” says one source, “is that Dame wants to make the most he can.”
There have been mixed reports about whether or not the Blazers are willing to give him this extension. If Lillard has assurances Portland will offer the full extension on July 1, and Lillard wants a trade, the time to demand the trade, says a source, would be July 2, when the new deal is signed. This could explain Lillard’s going along with the Blazers plan in his public comments.
Lillard also has some uncommon say in where he ends up because he is hurt. Four weeks after core surgery, Lillard has a special advantage.
As one source explained, NBA executives live in fear of losing their lucrative and flashy jobs. Imagine you’re Leon Rose, running the Knicks, and send all your draft picks and good young players to Portland for Lillard. Ideally, he’d be in uniform the next night, and you’d look like a hero. That moment itself would help your job security. We already know Lillard wouldn’t be able to do that because the soonest he could possibly return would be in a couple of weeks. What if, instead, Lillard went on First Take the next morning to say he’d be out for the year recovering from surgery? “James Dolan,” says one source, “would probably fire the entire Knicks front office.”
And so instead, the way things work, the Knicks—or any team—would have to make back-channel inquiries. Is Lillard healing OK and ready to play? Will he say stay on message about his new team? Lillard’s camp can answer those questions however they want. If it’s a team he wants to play for, they can say he’ll be ready to play soon. If it’s a team he doesn’t want to play for, they can be vague.
Ben Simmons has a similar power, thanks to his being out for mental health reasons. There’s discretionary power among the injured.
One other argument I heard: in the messed up way the CBA works, Lillard might hurt his title chances by getting the biggest possible contract extension. His former teammate Carmelo Anthony is one example. Anthony could have left the Nuggets for the Knicks as a free agent in the summer of 2011, joining a team with a winning record. But he insisted on being traded, which preserved his path to maximum earnings. In February 2011, the Knicks gave up Danilo Gallinari, Timofey Mozgov, Raymond Felton, Wilson Chandler, Eddy Curry, Anthony Randolph (and later, arguably, J.R. Smith) to make the numbers work around Carmelo and Amare Stoudemire. The Knicks managed one exceptional season, with 54 wins, but never came close to a title because Anthony never played on great rosters.
Where is my help? Anthony might have wondered.
“All your help is in your pocket,” replies an NBA insider, referring to the extra money Melo made with his big deal.
Several guards who took huge deals in their later years came to be poor values. The nature of NBA rules is that good players are vastly underpaid in their early career, and vastly overpaid at the end. Kobe Bryant, John Wall, Russell Westbrook … the players with record-setting NBA salaries in their waning years have lost a ton of games. (Chris Paul is threatening to be an incredibly rare exception.)
“Is Russell Westbrook happy now?” asks a source. “He could be scoring 25 a game in Oklahoma City but instead Houston hates him, Washington half hates him, and L.A. definitely hates him.”
Research shows that income over $75,000 or so a year doesn’t do much to affect happiness. It’s doubtful that people smile more making $600 million over a career instead of $500 million. If the highest possible salary might keep Lillard from his basketball dream of winning a title, is the extra money worth it?
Lillard knows well what can happen to a team’s competitiveness when an owner feels the financial pinch. He’s playing for a roster like that right now. Some very fine players—Gary Trent, Jr., Powell, McCollum—have left the Blazers in moves that saved Jody Allen a bundle. The team might be hard to watch for a few years, but the bottom line just got a lift.
All of which makes me think the CBA is due for a refresh. Billionaires are scrapping for savings, and don’t know who’ll show up for work. The best young players are wildly underpaid, leading to resentment and a need for payback. (Evan Mobley is worth, what, five times his current salary?) Damian Lillard loves basketball but might sit out this year because his team would rather not win. Ben Simmons has been sitting out all season, James Harden plays sometimes. Bradley Beal is in play—and out for the year. John Wall isn’t playing at all. Zion Williamson is away from his team. The incentives are carefully negotiated … and pulling a lot of great players away from playing basketball, and teams from playing their best. Did you notice all the empty seats in the Moda Center when the Blazers played the Magic last night? There’s a lot more going on here than love of the game.
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