LAS VEGAS – Damian Lillard addressed reporters on Friday, hours after a report indicating that Lillard intended to request a trade from Portland went online, and if you only listened to the first few seconds you probably left feeling relieved.
“It’s not true,” said Lillard, a USA Basketball banner hanging behind him. “I said the last time I spoke to you guys [that] a lot of things are being said, it hasn’t come from me.”
Well that settles it … right?
“I’ll also say that I haven’t made any firm decisions on what my future will be,” Lillard continued. “There’s really no need for anybody else to speak for me … if there is something to be said, I’ll speak directly with my team and with [Blazers GM] Neil [Olshey]. That’s that.”
Except it’s not. The Lillard/Blazers standoff is reaching a boiling point. Lillard could easily put to rest persistent chatter about his future. He’s under contract through 2025. The only way the Blazers would trade him is if he asked to be traded. But he doesn’t. He says the Blazers need to show more urgency in reshaping the roster. He says a coaching change simply isn’t enough. He says his heart is in Portland. But his head might be somewhere else.
“Right now, I’m not sure what I’m going to do,” Lillard said. “My intention, my heart has always been set on being in a Trail Blazers uniform for my entire career. But I think over time, you want to win it all. I want to win it all in a Trail Blazers uniform. We all have to be making strides toward that.”
Objectively, that isn’t going to happen. Not next season. Not the season after, either. Lillard knows it. In an interview with Yahoo! on Friday, Lillard noted that the Blazers “were eliminated by a shorthanded Denver team that I felt we should have beat.” When asked to address Olshey’s recent suggestion that the roster was not the reason Portland was bounced in the first round, Lillard disagreed.
“We have had so many teams in the league that don’t make dramatic changes to their roster, they change coaches and the team improves,” Lillard said. “Maybe because they needed a fresh voice, somebody new to follow. Sometimes a coach is just that great. I don’t disagree that maybe Chauncey can really change our team and make us a better team and get us going in that direction. [But] I think if you look at our team as it is, going into next season, I don’t see how you can say ‘this is a championship team, it just needed a new coach’ when we just lost in the first round to a team that was hurt.”
To be clear—Lillard isn’t wrong. The Blazers’ defense was abysmal last season. Billups, a first-year coach with a whopping one season as an assistant on his resume, can’t significantly change that. Portland’s roster is already expensive, with $107 million committed to salary already for next season. The Blazers will blow past the luxury tax threshold simply by bringing back Jusuf Nurkic (who has a partially guaranteed $12 million contract) Carmelo Anthony, Zach Collins and Norman Powell. Powell, who is expected to decline his player option, could be particularly expensive. He’s one of the best young wing players on an increasingly shrinking market.
Lillard wants the Blazers to make moves.
The Blazers, frankly, don’t have many to make.
“The best way to put it is to be more urgent about what our next step is and how we move forward,” Lillard said. “I think we have a lot of pride about [how] we made the playoffs all these years in a row. We’re not a bad team. We’re a winning team. We’re in the playoffs every year. We are in a great environment, great city. We have great fans. It’s a lot of positives. I just think we have reached that point where, OK, it’s not enough. Do we really want to win it all? Is that what we’re shooting for? And we got to do things to show that. We have to put action behind that desire to win at that level. That’s been my only thing this entire time.”
Lillard will meet with Olshey and Billups in Las Vegas this week. Lillard downplayed the meeting (“We will talk,” Lillard said) but it will be significant. The Blazers need answers. Does Lillard want to be in Portland? If yes, Olshey will need to dig in. He’s reluctant to move C.J. McCollum, but McCollum is easily Portland’s best asset. Some would argue its only one.
But Olshey needs to know if Lillard doesn’t want to be there, too. Lillard is a superstar. He just turned 31 and is coming off one of his finest seasons. He’s tough, durable and there are few players you would want the ball in the fourth quarter more than Lillard. The trade market would be robust. And with Lillard headed to Tokyo next week, Olshey needs to know if he should be exploring it.
No one wants to see the end in Portland for Damian Lillard. But Lillard wants a championship, and the Blazers can’t deliver it. Portland wants one, too, but the best way to collect one may be to trade arguably the greatest player in franchise history and rebuild around the assets you get back for him.
“The conversations that need to be had are being had,” said Lillard.
That’s good. But more and more, those conversations appear unlikely to end with Lillard in Portland.
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