For better or worse, the Portland Trail Blazers backcourt finds itself in the news every season. CJ McCollum has an annual invitation to hypothetical trade scenarios, but according to Bleacher Report’s Eric Pincus, it’s Damian Lillard, not McCollum, who’s been granted the ultimate out should he choose to use it.
According to Pincus, “Lillard had an understanding with the team’s late owner, Paul Allen, that if a time came when the guard wanted out, the franchise would try to facilitate a move to his liking.” Pincus continued, “Lillard hasn’t made that request, and it’s unclear if that verbal agreement still holds.”
The fact that this kept quiet until now is a good sign for Portland. Although the team never wanted this information to leak, it’s concrete evidence that Lillard, despite years of modest success in the postseason, hasn’t yet hit a breaking point. It also means that the Blazers have a way of keeping their internal affairs mostly internal, unlike certain teams across the NBA. (See: Warriors, Golden State.)
The former is something in which the Blazers can find comfort. Despite the apparent agreement, Lillard has stuck true to his public word and stayed committed to the franchise that drafted him. The latter is possibly even more important. After the 2017 playoffs, The Oregonian’s John Canzano broke the internet in Portland by writing about the Trail Blazers’ “Broken Culture.” This new story being kept under wraps until now isn’t an automatic fix to what Canzano was suggesting, but it shows the team can handle controversy without turning it into a battle of power the likes of which Indiana, San Antonio and Minnesota have now dealt with.
(*Don’t get Canzano’s story confused with locker room chemistry, by the way. Too many fans automatically and inaccurately linked “culture” with “chemistry”; the concern was with the powers at be and the structure of the organization from the top down—not the guys in the locker room.)
It’s also important to understand that this isn’t a fluff story about where Lillard could land. It’s not a theoretical scenario where the three-time All-Star is off to the Los Angeles Lakers for Lonzo Ball because LeBron wants to play with him, or a reaction to Lillard insinuating on Twitter he’d be a “happy camper” in L.A. This was a real-life accord that took place between two people with mutual respect for one another—a tangible first step to getting the star guard out of Portland if the desire to leave came to fruition.
Pincus doesn’t confirm this in his report, but it’s reasonable to question if the verbal treaty was established in January when the two met to discuss the direction of the team.
The question now (and why it’s worth bringing up post-Allen’s death) is whether or not general manager Neil Olshey—and to an extent, Vulcan Inc.—subscribes to the same mindset. Olshey has been defensive to say the least when it comes to the idea of breaking up Lillard and McCollum, but in those situations, he was never dealing with a potentially disgruntled star; he was challenging unsubstantiated (at least in his mind) claims that his team needed a shakeup to compete. What he does now if Lillard approaches him with a trade request becomes the biggest talking point going forward.
That’s not to say, of course, that Lillard will ultimately demand a trade. The Trail Blazers currently hold the second spot in the Western Conference, and Lillard himself is having another All-Star-caliber season. Things are good in Rip City, at least for the moment.
It is to say, though, that, for the first time, the idea of trading the team’s best player and undisputed leader goes beyond barstool speculation and resides within the franchise itself.
We’ve always known Lillard held a significant amount of power within the organization. We just didn’t realize how much.