Damian Lillard and the Consequences of Loyalty

Loyalty in the NBA can come at a high cost. Just ask Kevin Garnett, who spent 12 mediocre years in Minnesota and came to wish he had left sooner. Or ask Scottie Pippen, who left millions of dollars on the table and endured injuries to keep the ’90s Bulls dynasty intact. In a week or so, if the Portland Trail Blazers don’t send Damian Lillard to one of his preferred destinations, you’ll be able to ask him, too.

In an era of stormy stars, Lillard gave the Blazers 11 years of steady leadership and outstanding play. He is the franchise’s all-time leader in points, 3-pointers and free throws, second in minutes and assists. But the Blazers never repaid his devotion and constructed mediocre teams around him. In his career, Lillard has never won a single game in the conference finals. And now that he’s requested a trade, the Blazers have made it clear they won’t necessarily send him to his preferred destination, reportedly Miami. Even the Thunder made sure to ship Chris Paul to a contender after they received a year of his services. But getting the most out of Dame’s talent seems to be the only thing Joe Cronin and Co. is occupied by.

It’s a cold, cold business. have always been. Even some of the league’s best-known relationships between franchises and star players have broken down. Remember Dwyane Wade’s brief divorce from the Miami Heat that was sparked when he signed with Chicago because the Heat didn’t want to pay him? The Bulls once broke up a dynasty led by Michael Jordan himself because they didn’t want to keep spending money.

The only difference between then and now is that the players have also become ruthless businessmen themselves, wise to the way loyalty can be exploited and find ways to fight back.

Let’s fast-forward to 2012, when Lillard entered the NBA. We knew little about the kid from Weber State, who wore 0 to honor Oakland, Ogden and Oregon — the places that shaped him, to which he paid allegiance. He was, we would learn, the type of guy who would want to dance with the team that brought him—a quality fans would come to love, respect, ridiculeobsess over, and ask questions.

A week before the Blazers drafted Lillard sixth overall, LeBron James won his first title with the Heatles — a Big Three that would usher in the superteam era. James, once chastised for leaving his hometown team to chase a ring, would eventually be vindicated not only as a winner but also as the father of player empowerment. Other stars — like Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving and Kawhi Leonard — would follow his example, understanding and exercising their power to play where they wanted and with whom they wanted, taking agency away from the front offices that once determined their fate. They no longer let the romantic notion of playing for one city, one fanbase, one franchise, their entire career stand in the way of what they wanted, and they weren’t going to allow uninspired front offices to benefit from the fruits of their labor.

Lillard’s NBA debut — a characteristically stoic, precise and cool performance of 23 points and 11 assists — was overshadowed by the team Portland beat: Now it’s going to be fun The Lakers, who blazed out of the first round of the playoffs and became a cautionary tale of hastily built super teams. But the famous disaster has not stopped the rest of the league from trying to consolidate stars. In the time since, the big three in Brooklyn have been made, remade and disbanded. Paul George and Leonard conspired to join forces in Los Angeles. Anthony Davis forced his way onto the Lakers. James Harden has requested three trades in three years. All the big, bold moves have accounted for one ring.

In this brave new world, Lillard is constantly bombarded with questions about why he hasn’t made a similar move (until now), to the point that irritation for all involved. It’s hard to blame him for being annoyed. Lost in this era of player empowerment has been the idea that Lillard might want something other than what most people want from him. Often, he offers the sharp observations of an outsider, a player increasingly alienated by the NBA’s changing culture.

Just three weeks ago he took on our early crowning and player movement fixing, questioning the effectiveness of how superteams are constructed:

They could trade me to a place where we all say, “This is a contender.” But what will it cost me to get there? What will it cost the team that we say is a contender for me to get there? And how is it a guarantee that we will be playing in June when I get there? How do we know if everyone gets well? How do we know if it succeeds?

That’s a fair criticism. If we’ve learned anything from the past few years, it’s that accumulating star power doesn’t guarantee overnight success. Teams like Milwaukee, Golden State, Boston, Miami and Denver have proven the importance of having depth beyond the top three players and extolled the virtues of continuity — what Lillard fondly calls the grind.

The problem: Portland has never had the imagination, ambition, functionality or acumen of these teams. The Blazers made mistake after mistake in building a team around Lillard. They built around another small guard, CJ McCollum, and didn’t trade him soon enough to get a valuable return. While a scintillating long-ball shooter, Steph Curry, redefined the league, the Blazers had the closest thing to him and gave him … Jusuf Nurkic, who was never fast or stretchy enough for the modern game.

Even the way they have handled this situation is telling. They didn’t have the wisdom or foresight to trade Lillard years ago when he was younger and on a cheaper deal and would have demanded a bigger return. And they weren’t forthcoming about their long-term plans. They simply instructed Lillard to request a trade himself, quietly prioritizing the future over the present, drafting Shaedon Sharpe and Scoot Henderson instead of trading them — even after Lillard said this offseason that he hasn’t ” one appetite to build with guys who are two or three years away” from contributing. It was a rare instance when Lillard tried to exert power, but the truth is, he doesn’t have much. Last summer, in signing an extension with the Blazers, he did what he’s always done. He traded leverage for loyalty, and it could end up hurting him.

Unlike Bradley Beal, Lillard does not have a no-trade clause to force his way to a specific destination. He’s 32 years old, and if the Blazers trade him to a team he doesn’t want to play for, he doesn’t seem like the type to sulk or sit out. The ramifications for his allegiance to Portland could be a reminder of why his peers have often made decisions with their best interests in mind.

That doesn’t necessarily mean Lillard made a mistake staying in Portland so long. The rewards of loyalty are more subtle than rings and power, and those are the kinds of things Lillard has said he values: his relationship with the city and the fans and the bonds he’s built with his teammates. Months from now, when Lillard returns to the Moda Center in a different jersey, he will be greeted with a chorus of deafening cheers from a devoted fan base that will always cherish the memories he created for them. Years from now, he might even return, à la LeBron and Wade, with a ring on his finger. But he would be the first to remind us that nothing is guaranteed. In the end, only time will tell if Dame’s loyalty was worth the price.

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