Damian Lillard has requested a trade out of Portland. Since he made his request public, the internet, social media, and sports talk shows have been burning up with what the Blazers will get in return for the franchise icon. It sure seems like it’s Dame over in Portland. But what if it’s not?
Lillard has made it clear he prefers to play in Miami and nowhere else. His agent, Aaron Goodwin, has reportedly been calling other teams around the league, telling them that if they make a trade for Lillard, the star will simply not report. The Heat and Blazers have largely been at an impasse. The Heat know they are the only team Lillard wants to play for, but they don’t have the picks or players the Blazers want in return for an All-Time great still in his prime with 4-years left on his contract.
Unless the Heat can pull a magic trick and make some top-10 draft picks appear, the two teams seem stuck in the same holding pattern waiting for something to give. And that’s a scenario where the Blazers hold most of the cards.
With those four years on his contract, it’s not like Lillard can easily just sit out and wait for his freedom. The Blazers may choose not to play him so as not to risk an injury before trading him. Or Lillard could refuse to report to the Blazers, meaning he would not get paid and would be fined for refusing to fulfill the terms of his contract. Both scenarios could get ugly, but both ultimately play into Portland’s hands. Suppose the Blazers tell Lillard to stay away, and he shows up with a DNP in every box score. In that case, they are telling the Heat (and any other team who should decide to ignore Goodwin and try to make a trade for Lillard) that they are so serious about getting value for Lillard that they are willing to essentially light $45 million a year on fire until they get what they want.
On the other hand, if Lillard refuses to report to the Blazers, he will a) not get paid and b) do significant damage to his brand. After the Blazers shot down his hopes of adding veteran talent and not going young this offseason, I wouldn’t blame Lillard for saying he has no desire to wear a Trail Blazers uniform ever again. But if you are a team that is about to invest a significant amount of cost in both talent and draft picks to acquire him, that course of action may make you think twice. Lillard is also not getting any younger, and punting a season, whether it’s his choice or the Blazers, doesn’t get him any closer to a championship.
While it’s still likely that Lillard will wear another jersey in the near future, with each passing day, it’s becoming more apparent that the Blazers are not feeling pressured into taking a below-market deal just to appease him. However, while they do that, it would be in Portland’s best interests to leave the door open for Lillard to play with the Blazers this season. In the best-case scenario, he rescinds his trade demand, the Blazers make a few trades to reconstruct their roster around Lillard and Scoot Henderson, and they rise back up the Western Conference ranks. Kobe Bryant demanded a trade from the Lakers in 2007, but the Lakers convinced him to stay, reshaped their roster on the fly, and won two more titles with Kobe on the team. In 1992, Hakeem Olajuwon requested a trade from the Houston Rockets. Instead, they brought in a new coach, reshaped their roster, and won a pair of titles.
Nothing is stopping the Blazers from trying a similar course with Lillard. With four years left on his contract, the possibility certainly exists that both sides could smooth things over and still have a long and happy future together.
In the worst-case scenario for the Blazers, Lillard comes back and plays, the Blazers remain a dysfunctional mess, and they find themselves in the same position as they are now-at which point they could still trade him to the team he wants and probably get the same value as they would get currently.
It may seem like Dame time has ended in Portland, but it certainly doesn’t have to be the case. If the Blazers don’t get an offer they want for Lillard, they should be in no rush to trade him. With no rush to trade him, the team should not go overboard in trying to push him out the door. Even if they did not live up to his demands this offseason, there are certainly still opportunities for them to prove that Portland is the best place for him.
Maybe the Blazers find a deal that works for them, but as history has shown in the NBA, a divorce between a franchise icon and a team doesn’t have to be inevitable, and good things can come to those who figure out a way to work things out.