There wasn’t much to a trip to Sacramento in the late 1980s or early 90s. Except you’d get to see Mitch Richmond work.
I can’t say I loved going to the Market Square Arena in Indianapolis back then either. Except you’d be able to watch Reggie Miller ping-pong his way around the court, like a pinball in your favorite machine, wildly bouncing off the bumpers and racking up points.
Minneapolis? KG. Nuff said.
A trip to pre-Tim Duncan San Antonio meant deep help from David Robinson, “The Admiral.” Dallas was Ro Blackman’s town. Utah was Stockton-to-Malone.
On nearly every NBA roster, there was a star, and sometimes a superstar, worth watching.
Now, it was a long time ago before League Pass and RSNs brought every team and every player to your big screen, iPad or laptop. Times are different now. The NBA is more intimate and accessible to millions.
So you can watch every Damian Lillard game with Portland, home and away, with one click. And with another click, you can read or hear all the tricks about Lillard’s future there.
If you’ve done so lately, you might be overwhelmed by the annual back-and-forth soap opera over whether or not Dame wants to stay in the Rose City or eventually ask for a trade. And you found out in real time last week that the Blazers didn’t move the No. 3 pick, as Lillard had strongly suggested they do, in pursuit of a veteran or veterans to help him thrive in the Western Conference next season .
Not only did Portland hold the pick, but it also took what a logical person would assume is Lillard’s eventual replacement in Scoot Henderson, the talented and precocious 19-year-old from the G League Ignite.
The Blazers and their 32-year-old face of the franchise met on Monday. General manager Joe Cronin called it a “good discussion” and reiterated that the Blazers are determined to build a winning team around the seven-time All-Star. Collective eyes rolled in the PDX. The emotions there have been rubbed raw, especially for a fan base that is among the league’s best.
Is it too much for me to hope for a miracle by keeping Dame in Oregon?
Not because of any animosity toward the Miami Heat, Brooklyn Nets or any other team that has been linked to Lillard in trade talks. Miami is an exemplary franchise that more teams should emulate. Brooklyn has one of Lillard’s best NBA buds in Mikal Bridges; Miami has another in Bam Adebayo.
But what makes the association such a strong draw is that you can go to any arena every night and almost always see someone plying their craft at the highest level. And so it does matter that people in Portland have the same access to greatness that people in LA or New York or Miami have.
Henderson definitely figures to be a great player in the NBA one day and maybe soon.
Sure, Lillard is already fantastic.
You could now argue that the best move for Portland is to trade Lillard and surround Henderson with as many good players as possible as he begins his career. I cannot and will not argue the point. I want to ask: Would Henderson, Anfernee Simons, Shaedon Sharpe, Nassir Little and say Tyler Herro, Duncan Robinson and a bunch of late future first round picks from Miami be better? (Some around the league believe a released Simons — free of Lillard — could do a lot of damage going forward along with Henderson.)
But someone has to back up Lillard’s main reasons for wanting to stay and try to win in 503 and 971.
Someone needs to speak up for loyalty. Blind, stupid, wonderful loyalty. It’s a quality lost on too many these days who haven’t earned it, who treat it like a disposable currency, something to be mocked on social media rather than celebrated.
Yes, Lillard has been paid a lot of money over the years and he has earned every penny.
Since his rookie season in 2012-13, the Blazers are 14th in the league in wins with 462 per game. StatMuse. But among teams that haven’t won a title during that stretch, Portland is … eighth, behind the Clippers, Celtics (remember: since 2012-13), Oklahoma City, Memphis, Utah, Houston and Indiana. He’s been more loyal to Portland than Portland — the team, not the city — deserves. Have Blazers fans gotten their money’s worth over the years after watching him? I can’t answer that for them, but I’m guessing which way I think the preponderance of the fan base would lean.
Lillard has played through multiple coaches, multiple GMs and personnel people. The only constant in Portland has been ownership, which has remained in the Allen family, with Jody Allen in control of the team since her brother Paul, the Microsoft co-founder and billionaire, died of cancer in 2018. But nothing has gotten that much better during Lillard’s 11 years there.
LaMarcus Aldridge and CJ McCollum have been the best of the countless teammates the Blazers have surrounded Lillard with. Role players have come and gone, from Al-Farouq Aminu to Evan Turner; Wesley Matthews to Maurice Harkless; Zach Collins to Jusuf Nurkic. None of those players rose to Lillard’s level. McCollum was sent in a multi-player deal to New Orleans in 2022. Now it’s Simons, Sharpe and Little that Lillard is waiting for to excel.
But Lillard has never let out. He has danced around the topic more in recent years, but has never directed his camp to leak that he wants out.
We’re getting Garnett vibes from Dame. Like Lillard, Garnett made just one conference final with his team in 2004. Lillard has played all 11 seasons in Portland; Garnett played his first 12 years with the Timberwolves before agreeing to a trade to the Celtics for Seattle’s Ray Allen in 2007. And while he hoped and expected Timberwolves management to improve the locker room around him, KG wasn’t going to beg for anything to come play with him in “cold, cold Minnesota,” as he would often put it.
“I’m not a person who flies somebody in here and takes them to a baseball game knowing I haven’t made a Twins game. In the six years I’ve been here, I’ve probably made two Twins games. You know, take you to the park, push you on a swing. That’s not me,” Garnett told me, about midway through his first stint with the Wolves.
But Garnett pushed that swing uphill. As in Portland, free agents did not flock to the Twin Cities. The one Wolves team to reach the conference finals did so after then-GM Kevin McHale acquired Sam Cassell from Milwaukee and Latrell Sprewell from the Knicks in 2003 to help get KG near the top.
Likewise, Lillard hasn’t convinced anyone to come play with him, and that’s left up to the front office. In this way, Lillard made it clear that he would have been satisfied with e.g. to dangle the No. 3 pick for Draymond Green. But Green is almost certain to return to the Warriors, and none of the other free-agent forwards bring Green’s I-need-not-shoot-to-dominate pedigree. (Kyle Kuzma, a very talented player, wouldn’t make the cut. As noted above, the Blazers already have plenty of offensive mouths to feed.) So despite the supposed bonhomie of Monday’s meeting, we’re still where we’ve always been together with Lillard: He wants better teammates, and Blazers say “trust us.”
Blazers beat writer Jason Quick wrote a great piece earlier this week detailing how patience can be the key to everyone getting what they want, and there’s a parallel to Lillard’s current path in how the Pacers rebuilt their team around Miller during his 18-year career.
The first playoff iteration of the Pacers in the late 80s centered around Miller and Chuck Person. Gradually, Indy leaned more toward feeder center Rik Smits — who was taken with the No. 2 pick in 1988 — as Indiana got a rare shot at a top-five pick. The Pacers then got tough, adding Dale Davis and Antonio Davis to their frontcourt to surround the 7-foot-4 Smits.
In 1994, the Pacers were in the Eastern Conference finals. But it took several tweaks — bringing back Mark Jackson, adding Jalen Rose and Sam Perkins, hiring Larry Brown and then Larry Bird as head coaches — to get the Pacers back on top.
Indy eventually made three straight conference finals between 1998 and 2000, breaking through the third time to reach the franchise’s first NBA Finals. But it required excessive patience from Miller, who never asked; from a Hall of Fame general manager Donnie Walsh and from ownership that let Walsh make the moves he wanted.
And now the Blazers’ Cronin says he’s moved up his sleeve to improve the roster from Friday. Portland’s non-Scoot young players have trade value. Henderson has superstar written all over him. But I doubt Cronin can spin those assets into the star that could reset the board in Lillard’s eyes. We’ll know in a week or so.
But it’s not like Dame will hold out and decamp for Oakland if the Blazers don’t or can’t make the big move. He wants to jump.
So is the worst outcome for the 2023-24 season seeing Lillard work in Portland while teaching the guy who eventually takes his key card how to beat a double team? Teach him the fastest route through local traffic, the best place to eat after the game, and how to help make a city love you the way Portland has loved him?
Showing, in word and deed, that loyalty is not a pacifier’s oath.
(Photo of Damian Lillard: Sam Forencich/NBAE via Getty Images)