Thursday, July 18, 2024

Can we please stop acting like the Blazers owe Damian Lillard the world?

If Damian Lillard never plays another game for the Portland Trail Blazers, he has a strong case as the best player in franchise history. It’s either him or Clyde Drexler. The man has been a no-headache, Hall of Fame player and arguably an even better ambassador for both the Blazers and the league as a whole. Nobody is suggesting otherwise. Damian Lillard is, and has been, freaking great. 

But can we please stop acting like the Blazers owe Lillard the world? They’ve paid the guy more than $233 million in career cash. And have signed up to pay him just shy of half a billion — yes, half a billion — should he decide to stay through his current fully guaranteed contract that is set to line his pockets with $45.6M, $48.8M, $58.5M and $63.2M over the next four seasons, respectively. 

No matter where he finishes this contract, Lillard is guaranteed to be one of the highest-earning players in NBA history. I think the Blazers are sufficiently square. 

And yet, this notion persists that the Blazers remain indebted, that they owe it to Lillard to take some fifty-cents-on-the-dollar deal so he can go to his “preferred destination.” Seriously. A lot of people really believe this. I’m not making this up. 

These people, they make it like Lillard has been doing charity work for the past 11 seasons, and now it’s time to finally give the man his due. I’ll repeat: Damian Lillard has made more money than just about any player who’s ever laced up a pair of sneakers in the NBA. 

Yes, Lillard earned that money. The Blazers didn’t give anything to him. But you know who did give Lillard, and every other player with an NBA contract, that money? The fans. You know, the people who can’t afford to take their kids to games because it’s so damn expensive but do it anyway? The people paying out the nose for cable packages, which translates to what some anticipate could be a $75 billion television deal in a couple of years? 

Yeah, those people. They are the reason Damian Lillard is going to make well over half a billion dollars, in salary alone, by the time his career is done, and they would be the ones getting screwed if Portland says whatever and sends Dame wherever he wants to go for a return that won’t put them any closer to a title within the next era of Blazers basketball than they ever were with Lillard in the first place. 

Need I remind you, Lillard, in his 11 seasons, has led the Blazers to all of one conference finals berth, and even that was a matchup-friendly fluke. We’re not talking about Stephen Curry with the Warriors or Kobe Bryant with the Lakers or even Giannis Antetokounmpo with the Bucks or Nikola Jokic with Denver. We’re roughly talking about a longer-tenured Joel Embiid with the Sixers. 

After all, Embiid has been loyal. Embiid has won MVP, something Lillard has never done. He’s going to go down as one of the best players in Sixers franchise history if he stays even a few more years. If the Sixers were suddenly in the market to trade Embiid, would they owe it to him to cripple their future so Embiid can go live out his elder years in the Miami sun? 

This would be different if Lillard were in the last year of his contract. The Blazers wouldn’t have much leverage against the threat of Lillard leaving in free agency for nothing. But he’s not in the last year of his deal. In fact, after signing a two-year, $122M extension LAST SUMMER, he’s contractually committed to the Portland for the next four seasons. 

That’s right. Lillard agreed to play basketball for the next four seasons for the Blazers, who in turn agreed to pay the latest $122M installment on his career earnings, and yet a year later, Lillard wants to play for the Heat, and the Blazers are just supposed to send him there for Tyler Herro and whatever crumbs Pat Riley finds under his couch? 

And oh, by the way, don’t sing me this song that free agency isn’t a viable path to relocation for star players anymore. If you want to stand on that hill, you must acknowledge that this was partly one of the reasons Lillard has been so loyal all these years. I know we want to make Lillard out to be a saint and all, but there’s some hard business being done on his end as well. Portland could pay him. Not many other teams could. 

But sure, it’s true, there typically aren’t a lot of teams with the cap space to pay a guy like Lillard, and even fewer with the actual championship-level roster Lillard seeks. You know what we call that when you want to make too much money for a team to be able to afford under the current salary cap and tax rules? The breaks. 

And tough breaks, they are. Poor guy might have to stay in Portland, where he supposedly absolutely loves living, or worse, go to some other team that isn’t near South Beach to chase his ring, all so the fans that pay his giant salary in the first place can elevate his name in their water-cooler legacy talk. 

I know. It’s a tragedy. 

And yet, tragedy was somehow avoided when Jimmy Butler found his way to the Heat, also his preferred destination when they had no cap space in the summer of 2019. Do you know how that happened? The Sixers got skinned in a sign-and-trade, and they’ve been feeling the pain of that one-sided decision, in one way or another, ever since. But hey, Jimmy got to go where he wanted to go. Hope it was worth it. 

Anyone opposing my thinking will surely argue that Lillard and Butler are two different players. You know what? You’re correct. Butler has taken his teams way farther than Lillard ever has. Butler was also a free agent when he left for Miami, which left Philly with no leverage and in a position to take whatever it could get unless it wanted to lose Butler for nothing. 

The Blazers don’t have to do that. And why is that again? Say it with me, class: Because Damian Lillard signed an extension to stay with the Blazers through 2026. HE IS UNDER CONTRACT FOR FOUR MORE YEARS. 

So was Kevin Durant when the Nets traded him, you say? That’s right. And you know what the Nets got in return for Durant? A huge freaking haul headlined by Mikal Bridges. When Tyler Herro turns into Mikal Bridges, or when a third team gets involved that can sweeten Portland’s return, give me a call. Until then, stop acting like the Blazers owe Lillard whatever he wants, no matter the cost to their fans and franchise. 

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