January 23, 2018, 7:00 pm
Very shortly before or almost immediately after his highly-publicized meeting with team owner Paul Allen, Damian Lillard publicly affirmed his commitment to the Portland Trail Blazers.
“That speaks to me, because when you think of the Mavericks, you think of Dirk,” the newly-minted All-Star told ESPN’s Chris Haynes in a story published on January 18. “You had a lot of people that came through there, but he’s been there. I think what he’s meant to that organization is huge. The same thing with Tim Duncan. He represents the Spurs. That’s the name that comes up. And for the Trail Blazers, I want to be the best Trail Blazer ever. And when people talk about this franchise, I want them to talk about me. I want to be what people think of first when they talk about the Portland Trail Blazers.”
Lillard has certainly accomplished that feat in the short term, after news of his sit-down with Allen broke Monday night, igniting a mini fervor over perceived discontent with the only organization he’s ever known. Reaction to the meeting, which wasn’t attended by general manager Neil Olshey, coach Terry Stotts or anyone but owner and player, makes sense considering Portland’s typically middling performance over halfway through the 2017-18 season.
Two years ago, after LaMarcus Aldridge left in free agency and the team officially began building around Lillard, the extent of success the Blazers are experiencing now was enough to make them a feel-good story. Portland exceeded all realistic expectations in its first season of a decidedly new era, winning 44 games, taking out the short-handed Los Angeles Clippers in the first round of the playoffs and putting pressure on the Golden State Warriors, who were without Steph Curry for three games, one round later.
All of that unexpected success came back to bite the Blazers, though, and not just because it put them on an assumed upward trajectory that makeup of the roster alone didn’t necessarily suggest. Olshey felt obligated to keep the team together after 2015-16, paying prices to retain incumbent role players and add supporting pieces the one-off boom of that summer’s salary cap has made look foolish. Portland is locked into Evan Turner, Mo Harkless and Meyers Leonard through 2018-19 for a combined amount of approximately $39 million per year, about 40 percent or more of the projected salary cap for each of the seasons between now and then.
With max money doled out to Lillard and C.J. McCollum for the next three years, the Blazers’ financial flexibility is supremely limited. Olshey already dumped Allen Crabbe’s exorbitant contract in a trade with the Brooklyn Nets, saving his team tens of millions in luxury-tax payments and future guaranteed salary, but getting nothing back in return. If Portland has the intention of re-signing Jusuf Nurkic in restricted free agency this summer, might additional debilitating moves of a cost-shaving nature be on the horizon?
That’s the type of question to which only upper management knows has a worthwhile reply, just like one concerning the Blazers’ approach to the upcoming trade deadline. Both answers are instructive to Portland’s present and future, too, and Lillard has made abundantly clear time and again he plans on playing in the Rose City as long as he can. Considering those best-laid plans and his team’s apparent place stuck on the pinwheel of mediocrity, it should come as no surprise that Lillard, who turns 28 in July, wanted a first-person glimpse at Allen’s outlook before trade season ends on February 8.
Not every meeting between a faction of players, coaches or executives has to be fraught with tension, or indicative of simmering discontent about to boil over. The Blazers have never been the Cleveland Cavaliers in that respect, and Lillard has definitely never been LeBron James. He’s among the most thoughtful, resilient and loyal superstars professional sports has to offer. The notion that he would be comfortable with Portland’s current status as a postseason also-ran that lacks the personnel for meaningful internal improvement is actually an insult to one of the league’s most ardent competitors. Of course this ongoing status quo isn’t enough for Lillard.
His meeting with Allen is only making waves due to the recent history of other stars who seemed stranded on mediocre teams. Nowhere in ESPN’s report is a nugget about Lillard’s unhappiness playing for the Blazers, nor one conveying anything close to an ultimatum regarding a major in-season shakeup. Instead, the story consistently alludes to his steadfast desire to bring Portland its first championship since 1977, and includes an anecdote that Allen feared a trade demand was possible, one Lillard quickly put to rest.
The day after a tough road loss to the Denver Nuggets, amid so much locker-room turmoil across the league, a fan asked Lillard on twitter whether he’d be playing in Portland beyond this season. His response was as telling as it was succinct.
Sure will https://t.co/kFD2XbxtDE
— Damian Lillard (@Dame_Lillard) January 23, 2018
Lillard, it seems, will be with the Blazers until the team decides otherwise. His meeting with Allen, knee-jerk reactions be damned, looms no larger than that reality.