There has been a lot of debate going around the Rose City since the last part of June when two things happened in very quick order – the Portland Trail Blazers used the #3 pick to draft Scoot Henderson, and we were told that Damian Lillard had made a formal request to be traded.
The second part is the most intriguing since Lillard has not publicly stated he wants out of Portland. Lillard has been very honest with the fans in Portland since he arrived over a decade ago, and it stands to reason that until he speaks, we can’t completely trust what we have been told. Blazers GM Joe Cronin has confirmed Lillard requested a trade, but for all we know, that conversation went a lot differently than Lillard just asking out.
More than likely, Lillard asked what the direction of the franchise was and how they planned to improve the roster with veterans with such young assets and was told they didn’t plan to move assets to bring in short-term help. It’s speculation but based on how the story is playing out, it’s the most realistic. What was said in a private meeting between the front office and Lillard’s camp may never be completely made public, but let’s assume we know the most crucial facts – Lillard asked for an answer to the question he’s been asking for years – “are we doing everything and I mean everything we can to win now?” and was told in perhaps only one word – “no.”
If that is close to the truth, that answer essentially splits the road between the franchise and its best player. This is a tale as old as professional team sports; players approaching their final years as a player don’t want to spend them trying to carry an inexperienced roster. It’s different if the player in question has health issues or isn’t as good as they once were, but neither is the case for Lillard. He’s playing great and is just as healthy as the next aging superstar.
Aging might be a funny way to describe a person that isn’t even in their mid 30’s, but in the NBA, that’s the truth. Rookies are 19 years old, and the average age for a star on a championship team is 28 years old, which means Lillard is past the peak expected years in the NBA, even if his play on the court says otherwise.
Lillard is at the top or near the top in every meaningful statistic in franchise history and has personally carried the team into the playoffs for the majority of his career without help from an all-star caliber player. Can you name another player in franchise history who has done that? No. And I think it would be tough for you to find one in league history who did that and had more success than Lillard has.
The case against Lillard has long been either Bill Walton, who helped the team win their lone championship, or Clyde Drexler, who helped Portland get back to the Finals twice, even if he was unsuccessful at getting a second championship. Walton’s team was not great on paper, even though he had some entertaining players around him, but only the great Maurice Lucas was on his level. Drexler, on the other hand, played with a full lineup of all-star or all-star caliber players. Terry Porter, Jerome Kersey, Buck Williams, and Kevin Duckworth were some of the best players at their positions, and only Kersey was not named to an all-star or all-NBA team while in Portland. Even reserve forward Cliff Robinson played at an all-star level, winning sixth man of the year in 1993 before getting starters’ minutes in 1994 and being selected as an all-star.
Lillard hasn’t played on terrible teams, but he hasn’t played with all-stars or even one for most of his career. Lillard arrived in Portland in 2012 and played alongside LaMarcus Aldridge for his first three seasons, and Aldridge was an all-star for all three years. But the team struggled in Lillard’s rookie season before breaking out in 2014 as one of the best teams in the league with a starting roster of Lillard, Wesley Matthews, Nicolas Batum, Aldridge, and Robin Lopez. Lillard and Aldridge were both selected to the all-star team, the first time Portland had two players chosen since Drexler and Robinson in 1994. Matthews, Batum, and Lopez were all quality players, but none were named to an all-star or all-NBA team in their careers in Portland.
Aldridge left after the 2015 season, and Lillard has had to carry top-heavy lineups ever since. CJ McCollum is the only player that comes close to matching the caliber of Drexler’s teammates or Maurice Lucas, and I think everyone would agree that McCollum was a really good player, but not on the level of some of the greats in franchise history. One of the best shooters in the league today, he just didn’t do enough things outside of scoring to help the team regularly.
Lillard and McCollum got the team back to the Western Conference Finals for the first time in 19 years but were swept by the eventual champion Golden State Warriors and have not made it past the first round since. It’s easy to point to Lillard’s lack of deep playoff runs and say that other players accomplished greater things, but all you have to do is look at the lineups those players had and wonder if they could pull off the things Lillard does without all the help.
One of the common arguments against Drexler being the best player in franchise history is that he asked for and was granted a trade out of Portland once it became clear they were not competing for a championship in 1995. Walton also requested to be traded out of Portland after struggling with treatment on his foot, and after sitting out for a year, signed with the Clippers. If a player has to retire here or be traded against their wishes to be considered the greatest player in team history, I’m not sure they will ever figure out who that person is.
Even if Lillard did request a trade and he is granted one, it shouldn’t impact his legacy. It really shouldn’t impact anything at all as far as how people in Portland view him. This guy grew up in California, went to college in Utah, and then was asked to be a role model ten minutes after being drafted here. He has done everything right on and off the court, signed multiple contract extensions, advocated for talented players to sign here or request to be traded here, and has continuously stated that he wants to be here as long as Portland is trying to win this year, not in the next few years. He has been honest with fans about how he sees things and has made it clear that he values loyalty and wants to be here. Whether you believe what he says or not isn’t important; what’s important is that he does what he says he’s going to do.
I believe that Lillard wanted to stay here but was told the team didn’t have a way to help him win now, and he asked if they could trade him to a team that wanted to win the title this year. Whether he demanded a trade to a specific team or was pressuring the team to grant his wish remains to be seen.
No matter how the rest of this story plays out, we already know who Lillard was in the last decade and more. Nothing changes that. He gave his all for this team and this town. He gave his all for the fans. I don’t think Lillard is trying to do anything out of spite, but even if he were, I wouldn’t hold it against him. He’s done what he can against double and triple teams and signed up for more every chance. He asked for help, but the team didn’t give him help. If that is the final straw, I wish him well and will cheer for him against any team other than Portland. Lillard deserves to compete for a championship, and if the team that selected him in 2012 doesn’t want to be that team, then they owe it to him to help him go somewhere that does want to win right now.