Damian Lillard doesn’t want off the Portland Trail Blazers. He just wants to know where they’re going.
The two-time All-Star point guard met with Blazers owner Paul Allen before last week’s win over the Indiana Pacers to ensure they were aligned on the team’s title aspirations, per ESPN’S Chris Haynes.
It should not be news to either of them that the other would like to win a championship. The reality both men now must face: They’re just not good enough, and they may not be under Lillard’s tenure.
The hourlong meeting was reportedly conducted at the Moda Center without the knowledge of Blazers general manager Neil Olshey or others in the organization. “Allen feared Lillard would request a trade,” sources told Haynes, “but a trade request was not made.” Instead, the 65-year-old billionaire and 27-year-old max-salaried point guard discussed the team’s unsettled past, present and future.
Lillard’s biggest question mark, it seems, was the franchise’s willingness to provide him with a supporting cast capable of contending with the Golden State Warriors — a shortcoming Allen apparently accepted, while also wondering why his seventh-place Blazers (23-21) are underachieving.
But what exactly can either of them do about it? Lillard is a great player, one of the 25 best basketball players on the planet and one of few putting up 25 points, seven assists and five rebounds a night. He’s also not Stephen Curry or James Harden. So, what next? Make a coaching change? According to Haynes, Lillard went to bat for Blazers coach Terry Stotts. Replace Olshey, the man who signed Lillard to a max extension and built a team that has reached the playoffs in four straight seasons? Well …
It is interesting that Lillard believes the organization’s missteps are cause for their inferiority — and not the fact that he just isn’t as good as some of the players he’s chasing. According to Haynes, Lillard specifically cited the February 2015 trade of Will Barton as a decision he opposed. It’s an odd example to harp on. Adding Arron Afflalo was considered a playoff-bolstering move at a time when he was still a productive shooting guard and Barton was a fourth-year player averaging three points off the bench. Few saw it as a future-mortgaging deal at the time and probably still don’t, but Lillard does.
Since then, Olshey has committed $246 million to Lillard and C.J. McCollum — a dynamic duo that isn’t as good as Warriors guards Curry and Klay Thompson through no fault of their own. The Blazers have the NBA’s seventh-highest payroll in the 23rd-largest media market, which should be evidence to Lillard that Allen is fully invested in financing a contender. Maybe this just means Lillard isn’t a fan of how they’ve invested that salary, and that’s something he needed to take up with Allen.
The Blazers are currently paying almost $40 million this season to Evan Turner, Mo Harkless and Meyers Leonard. Olshey chased bigger names during 2016 free agency, when he had a brief window to spend big before the extensions for Lillard and McCollum tied up Portland’s cap space for the foreseeable future, but the Blazers had to settle for those three and the since-traded Allen Crabbe.
Is that a small-market issue? Or is it that a “We have $246 million committed to Lillard and McCollum” issue? I, for one, would love to know if that question was broached in the Lillard-Allen meeting.
The Blazers are not the Warriors. Neither are 28 other teams. That’s OK. I get why Lillard isn’t satisfied with that. But what would he like Allen to do about it? Olshey has already called the Los Angeles Clippers about DeAndre Jordan’s availability, according to The New York Times’ Marc Stein. But if they fail to land Jordan or any of the other big names on the market, is that the GM’s fault? Maybe it is on Olshey that they don’t have the assets to land another star. But for every Barton trade, there’s a Jusuf Nurkic deal. This isn’t easy. So, maybe it’s time to face reality: Not everybody can be the Warriors.
We know this is a source of frustration, as it should be, because Lillard informed us of his disdain for superteams in October 2016, when he said, “You get to take a monster down and that’s always more fun.” We also know Lillard wants to stay in Portland, because he told ESPN last week, “I want to be the best Trail Blazer ever.” With them committed to spending above the salary cap through 2021, when Lillard turns 31, is he waking up from his championship dreams to realize chasing a monster is no fun?
This comes on the heels of Lillard’s frustration over receiving less All-Star attention in a smaller market. He is self-aware and entirely self-aware at the same time. Yes, he got fewer votes than Lonzo Ball because he doesn’t play for the Los Angeles Lakers. But no, he hasn’t really been robbed of All-Star appearances the past two years, because he plays in a conference with Curry, Thompson, Harden, Chris Paul and Russell Westbrook — all of whom have arguably been more deserving of the honors.
Sometimes you’re just not good enough, as hard as that may be to accept.
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