It’s still not too late for Damian Lillard.
The Portland Trail Blazers are fourth in the Western Conference standings as the All-Star break approaches, with the league’s fourth-best net rating since January 1st. They just fortified a longstanding weakness on the wing by acquiring Rodney Hood at the trade deadline, a move that finally affords Terry Stotts with the personnel necessary to dabble in smaller, quicker lineups rather than be relegated to the more traditional style that doomed his team in the first round of last year’s playoffs. The Blazers, in a vacuum of win-loss record, advanced statistics, and recent player movement, have the resumé of a sub-contender with the potential to get better going forward.
But inherent realities of Portland’s personnel limitations and the strength of competition toward the top of the conference more accurately portray its championship hopes. The Blazers certainly don’t pose a real threat to the Golden State Warriors, are a step or two behind the cream of the crop back east, and fell to the Oklahoma City Thunder on Monday night for the third time this season.
Optimistic hopes for Portland this season were that the team could emerge among those fighting for legitimacy below Golden State, perhaps able to win the West should injury befall the two-time defending champions. But the Thunder have proven themselves objectively superior to the Blazers by virtue of head-to-head matchups and statistical profiles, and so have the Denver Nuggets. In fact, there’s not a team in the West’s current top-10 other than the gritty Los Angeles Clippers that Portland would be consensus favorites over in a theoretical postseason matchup.
Lillard understands that, surely, and it’s fair to assume he was aware of such a possibility coming to fruition before the season began. It was just last spring, after all, that his team was waxed in a first-round sweep by the New Orleans Pelicans after earning the three seed in one of the deepest conferences in league history. But after an inconsequential summer that left the Blazers without the major roster upgrade promised by general manager Neil Olshey, Lillard nonetheless expressed his desire to wear the same jersey for the rest of his career.
“That would be an honor to be a lifetime Blazer,” he said in September, per The Athletic’s Michael Scotto. “Not a lot of guys get to play for one organization for their entire career. Obviously, I love playing for the Blazers. I love living in the city. I feel like I’ve established a connection with the people and the culture of the city just as much as I’ve done on the basketball court, so that’s important.”
Lillard, named First Team All-NBA for the first time in 2017-18, has been largely the same player a year later. His stellar averages of 26.3 points, 4.5 rebounds, 6.3 assists, and 1.2 steals per game are right in line with last season’s, as is his 58.9 true shooting percentage.
He’s getting to the rim a bit more often, both finishing better and more frequently finding teammates after drawing extra attention by creasing the paint. Coaches would say Lillard has taken another step forward defensively, too, pressuring ball handlers toward half court, fighting like hell through screens, and doing yeoman’s work digging down to muck up the action from the weak side of the floor.
At 28, Lillard has two years and some $60 million remaining on his contract before becoming an unrestricted free agent in 2021. Portland is capped out through next season, and will have barely enough space come July of 2020 to add a max-level free agent in the dream scenario that type of player would ever seriously consider signing in the pacific northwest. Point being, the next two seasons are likely to unfold much in the way this one and the previous two have for Lillard and the Blazers – successful, but not culminating in anything more than expected disappointment in the playoffs.
Might it be time for Lillard to follow the lead of other superstars recently stranded on insignificant teams by requesting a trade? His preseason declaration of hoping to play in Portland forever suggests that’s an unlikely outcome, but Lillard wouldn’t be the first to ultimately go back on that sentiment. Kevin Durant said all the right things about retiring with the Oklahoma City Thunder before spurning them for the Warriors three years ago. The previous summer, LaMarcus Aldridge reneged on his promise to re-up with the Blazers on a five-year deal, instead signing with the San Antonio Spurs.
There’s precedent for that type of about-face, basically, and Lillard even alluded to the chance either he or his team may eventually want to move on from the other before this season tipped off.
“As we know, it’s a business and a lot of times organizations have other plans, and sometimes players change their stance on that,” he said. “But to be a lifetime Blazer, that would be great.”
Maybe Lillard really is different. The persona he’s crafted since coming into the league as an all-time underdog who knows the value of his humble beginnings suggests as much. But with Portland very likely going nowhere meaningful both this season and the following two, it would make sense if he soon had a change of heart, knowing full well the clock on his prime has already begun ticking. If Lillard’s been unable to take the Blazers to the Western Conference Finals to this point, what gives him the confidence he’ll be able to do so a half step slower?
Time is still on Lillard’s side – for now. He could demand a trade before next year’s trade deadline or next summer, and Portland would undoubtedly be subject to multiple asset-rich offers that would jumpstart its inevitable rebuild. Remember, Lillard doesn’t hit free agency until July 2021. Every day that passes between now and then with the Blazers, though, is another gone without him having any realistic hopes of winning a ring.
Will Lillard’s ardent sense of place in Portland continue to trump that desire going forward? We’ll have to wait and see, but expect the league to be calling about him come summer regardless. Superstars swing the balance of power in the NBA, and Lillard could very well be the next to realize he’s not wielding enough of his while using his prime trying and failing to will the Blazers to contention.