Coaching Trail Blazers fans through losing Damian Lillard

The Damian Lillard saga now drags into its third week as the Trail Blazers and their perennial All Star try to negotiate a trade that will get him out of Portland.

As the days progress, suggestions for trading machines and tensions pile up so high that even Shaedon Sharpe couldn’t jump them. Meanwhile, many Blazers fans are mourning and wondering what will happen to their franchise, its most prominent player and their own fandom.

We will address these questions in today’s special edition of the Blazer’s Edge Mailbag. Check out this question.


This is my first question ever. I wanted it to be about strategy or a grand trade, but honestly, I’m having a really hard time dealing with losing Dame. I was shocked by his trade request. I’m even more shocked by the reaction to him and his reaction to the team. Everyone sneaks up on each other. It feels like a family falling apart. I’m sorry. I never thought it would get to this point and I don’t know how to deal with it. I’ve been a fan since right after he came and it feels like something is dying. What advice would you give to people like me?

Jillian J

Hi Jillian. I can hear the stress in your voice. It came through just as strongly in the parts I edited out. You have described the feeling of the situation very well. I think your words speak for many. I respect that, and you.

Some people would consider this a “soft” topic compared to a trade analysis or a logical look at leverage in the NBA. We’ll get one of those tomorrow. Today is the time to remember that sports are about people. Professional leagues exist – and thrive – because of the exact sense of attachment you’ve described.

This feels like family. For many, especially those whose relationships don’t fit perfectly in “real” life, it becomes family. Players like Damian Lillard provide a focal point of hope, comfort and joy for thousands of people who are then united through shared experiences.

It feels cold and frivolous to ride those emotions through ticket sales, jersey sales and mailbag clicks, then ask you to put them aside and move on when things like this happen. So today we want to stop the world for a moment and rest with you. Maybe you will find some comforting words. But just as importantly, you will discover that you are not alone.

As we begin, let me share a few things with you and all the people who rightly feel this way…things I’ve been saying for the better part of a year now.

You and I do not control anything in this situation. That rests in the hands of Lillard, Joe Cronin and the Trail Blazers organization. No amount of anxiety or worry will change that. We have no choice but to let them work, hope they find a good solution, and then focus on the way forward.

Damian Lillard’s job is to do the best he can for himself, his career and his family with the years he has left. We cannot ask him to do anything differently. We didn’t really want him to do that. As much as we enjoy him, we only see Dame for a few hours every other day during the season. He is surrounded by people who depend on him in reality, all the time. Just as important, he looks at himself in the mirror every day. We need Dame to do what is right by his and his loved ones definitions. If we really are “family,” even in a distant and semi-constructed way, that’s what we’d want for him. We would say the same to everyone we loved.

Meanwhile, General Manager Joe Cronin’s job is to do the best he can for the Trail Blazers as an organization and for all of us fans besides. He has behaved accordingly over the last year and a half. We don’t have to agree with his decisions. We can recognize that he is trying to build a future with us that makes sense. The Blazers have gotten younger. They drafted Scoot Henderson and promised to keep him. Scoot isn’t Dame, but he’ll grow with you and the franchise over the next half-dozen years, minimum. The front office has not given up on the future. Nor should we.

A player being traded is not as serious as losing a loved one, but as you identified, it can evoke the same feelings.

Often when we grieve, it feels like moving into the future with no respect for the past. The first time we laugh after—or at—a funeral, we wonder if it means we’re “moving on,” like we don’t care anymore. We try to suppress these feelings and reactions as a way to hold on to the person we are missing.

This is not necessary. Celebrating the wonderful parts of a past relationship does not invalidate it. These moments confirm the way the relationship changed us. This is how “moving on” becomes moving along instead of not letting go.

You don’t have to forget the 0.9 shooting in 2014 or the series-winning strike against Paul George and the Oklahoma City Thunder in 2019. We’re not going to lose the 71-point game or see him average 30 points for not one, but two seasons. No one can take it away. Nobody want to.

If all we get out of Damian Lillard is 19,376 points over 27,942 minutes of play, that’s more than anyone will see from him. That’s more than any other Trail Blazers player has ever given. That’s enough for one career. We all gave everything we could to each other. We can take all these things with us and celebrate them without regret.

Dame will play for another team or two during his last few years in the league. He’s probably going to win a little more than he would have in Portland. We can also celebrate that in a way. Good for him! Hopefully, the Blazers will grow into a team that earns more wins and honors than they would have, even with an aging Lady. If both happen, all the better.

I’d bet real money that after Lillard’s playing career is over, the Blazers won’t be able to retire the letter O soon enough. I guess Dame will also be part of their organizational structure if he wants. This is not the last you see of him. It is the beginning of a new phase of the relationship.

Before that, we have to go through this transition period. Between now and the day he trades, you’ll hear mixed messages from both sides.

Even if Lillard and the Blazers remain friendly — and I think they are so far — they can’t express it without reservation. Lillard and his agent need to hold the Blazers accountable for his request, showing they are serious. Cronin and the front office need to make it clear — not just to Dame, but to franchises across the NBA — that they will not be forced into a low-value deal for their best player. Without these declarations, none of them could move forward.

Making these positions clear requires a certain amount of public backbone. It means staring down the other party and saying, “I respect you, but here I will stand.” If you have ever seen or experienced an amicable divorce, you will notice that the lawyers officially use a completely different language with each other than the main parties do privately. It is a necessary part of the process.

Lillard and the Blazers are in the posturing phase of the breach highlighting the big picture now. This must also come through. The first time Dame meets his former teammates and coach after the trade is completed, it will be hugs and smiles all around. Blazer fans from the Moda Center to their living room couches will give Lillard a standing ovation. He will also wave and acknowledge it. He’ll probably even smile and shake Cronin’s hand. It’s coming.

Until that time arrives, try to focus on the future, on the return the Blazers can get for Lillard, and on the chance to see their young players develop into Portland’s next shot at success.

You have to enjoy Dame because some fans before you stuck with the team and each other after Clyde Drexler was traded in 1995. The Blazers ended up with Otis Thorpe and Randolph Childress in that deal. They will do better than that for Lillard and for you.

Those 1990s fans came to love Clyde because people stuck around after Portland lost Bill Walton to forced free agency in 1979. They got Kevin Kunnert, Kermit Washington and a draft pick that became Mike Gminski as compensation. They didn’t even keep Gminksi, who played 14 years in the NBA. Instead, they traded him with Maurice Lucas to New Jersey for Calvin Natt. What a heartbreak to see Walton and Lucas leave one after the other after the glory years of ’77 and the NBA Championship.

But Calvin Natt led to Kiki Vandeweghe. And Kiki Vandeweghe led to Byron Irvin. And Bryon Irvin led to Danny Ainge. And now you’re right back to the Trail Blazers that need to be NBA finals again in 1990 and 1992.

I’m not sure it’s going to go so smoothly this time, but we know this: you get a chance. You don’t have to give up that chance — what will likely be the best move the Blazers ever made to trade a superstar — just because Dame is leaving.

Go ahead and mourn the loss of Lillard. Most of us will. But in the process, it’s OK to honor and continue the process that got him here, that he invested in for 11 seasons and that he’ll leave behind when he’s gone. It not only respects the players, staff and fans who stay, it makes the next great love possible.

While saying all this, I recognize that I am not the only voice out there. After reading Jillian’s question, what advice, experience, or compassion would you like to share? Feel free to add your thoughts in the comments section below.

Thanks for the question! You can send yours to [email protected] and we will contact as many as we can.

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