By: Ryan A. Chase/Oregon Sports News
For many Portland Trail Blazers fans, the concept is unthinkable. Take the team’s best player since Clyde Drexler and send him on his way when he has been nothing but unquestionably loyal to the team and the city of Portland as a whole. The very idea is borderline blasphemy. Damian Lillard deserves better from the Blazers.
But it needs to be done.
The team is already at the demolition point. Coach Terry Stotts was fired at the end of last season. General Manager Neil Olshey, the architect of this squad for better or worse, has been fired. The Blazers are pinned against the cap with mega deals given to Lillard and CJ McCollum, plus the offseason extension given to Norman Powell. Jusuf Nurkic and Robert Covington are on expiring deals, and Anfernee Simons is due for a raise. Owner Jody Allen has shown no indication that she would be willing to be a repeat luxury taxpayer with all of the extra penalties that accrue. One way or another, this team will look dramatically different next season.
If this team was still knifing its way across the Western Conference, that would be one thing. So far this season, the only knife has been in the team’s playoff aspirations. Sitting at 11-18 at time of writing, even below the play-in game threshold, losers of 9 of their last 10 games, including four straight at home. Yes, Lillard has been battling the same abdominal injury he suffered in the Olympics. McCollum, Simons, Cody Zeller, and Nassir Little have all missed games due to injury. Every team deals with injuries, and Portland currently has the second-longest losing streak in the league behind the Detroit Pistons. In nearly every defensive category, the team is close to last in the NBA. The offense is stagnant and limited. This is not a playoff team.
The most damning evidence of a deal needing to happen is when Lillard and McCollum were out. Suddenly, the team’s defense dramatically improved. The ball moved more on offense. Coach Chauncey Billups’ system seemed to function when the two offensive black holes were gone. Portland may have lost those games, but the real damage came from the knowledge that the Blazers were working better as a team when Lillard was not there.
It hurt Blazers fans when the team decided to trade Drexler to the Houston Rockets in 1995. Portland was out of contention. Their window had closed. The same is true now. Portland’s path to the title relied on Lillard and McCollum playing out of their offensive minds while Powell, Covington, Nurkic, and the bench held down the defensive front. It relied on Powell guarding bigger players at small forward and Covington making up for the massive hole on defense caused by the guards. That path is done. That window is closed. Lillard is 31, fighting through injury, trying to be the same hero he has always been. The results have been his worst shooting season in his career.
The rebuild will not be easy or straightforward. Either Interim General Manager Joe Cronin or whoever succeeds him will have a heavy task. The team is down future first-round picks in the Covington and Larry Nance Jr. trades. McCollum’s contract is an albatross, with his value cratering throughout the league. Powell’s extension makes trading him harder. Teams have asked about Covington and Nance, but unless the Blazers add Simons or Little, the way forward is murky at best.
The question is whether ownership would allow Lillard to be traded. The team would be admitting that the rest of this season and all of next season are going to be hard to watch. 15 to 20 wins would be the team’s ceiling. At a time where Allen is trying to maximize the team’s value for a potential sale, dropping ticket sales through the floor may not make financial sense. In which case, Portland will be stuck in no man’s land. No way forward with the cap issues and Portland’s small market free agent problem. No way backward with no real tradable assets.
If Lillard should go, whether it be to Philadelphia, Dallas, Miami, or a different contender, Blazers fans should cheer his quest for a ring just as if he were still wearing black and red with the pinwheels. He has done everything he can, constantly playing at a superstar level while carrying his teams into the playoffs. He has been a model citizen and worked closely with the community. He deserves a chance at a ring, even if it is not here.
The need for Lillard to be moved does not take away from everything he accomplished here. The fans will forever remember 0.8. They will forever remember The Wave. They will always remember the insane amount of times Damian Lillard saved the team’s bacon and sent the other team home disappointed. Lillard goes down as one of the top five players in team history, and you can make a case for the top spot. Clyde Drexler was a better all-around player who would have a title if not for that one player in Chicago. Bill Walton gave the team their only title. Brandon Roy brought the city back to the team in the smoldering ashes of the Jail Blazers era. Lillard will be spoken of in those high terms whether he leaves or not. He is the consummate competitor. He deserves to compete. Anything less is a disservice to him and his legacy.