When LeBron James announced his intention to sign with the Miami Heat in 2010, what followed was an ugly display of fire, heartache and fandom.
Cavaliers fans burned their No. 23 jerseys in the streets as they turned on the 25-year-old local legend who had lifted their franchise to new heights and significance. The national media pulled LeBron for his decision and questioned his judgment. Later, LeBron sat on a stage in downtown Miami with his new teammates and smiled. Yes, LeBron went from hero to villain, from darling to unsavory, from loved to hated by the NBA universe. But he also got exactly what he wanted.
Now Damian Lillard faces a similar decision.
It’s not quite the same. LeBron was a free agent, free to sign with whichever team had enough cap space. Lillard is under contract for four more years with the only team he has ever played for. LeBron was also in his mid-20s, the face of the NBA, and had yet to reach his full, GOAT-like potential. Lillard is 33, and his time at the top of the sport is ticking away.
But when it comes to their fans and the love they have for them, their importance to the franchise and to society, and the potential to destroy all of that—Oh, that’s when their circumstances become much more similar.
Since issuing his trade request earlier this month, Lillard has tried to line up getting what he wanted without hurting those who have cheered for him, his playoff buzzer-beaters and his seven All-Star appearances across his 11 seasons.
But the Trail Blazers have not given in to his request to be traded to Miami. The Heat, knowing they have the only offer on the table, will not negotiate against themselves. So, according to several reports, talks have stalled. The market isn’t moving, and the Blazers are calling Lillard’s bluff, with the understanding that he’s under contract and they’re under no obligation to trade him where or when it’s best for him.
To get what he wants, Lillard has to risk what LeBron did 13 years ago. All the love, past glory and goodwill he had hoped to hang on to. At least for now.
Dan Le Batard, who has reported on the Heat’s perspective, suggested on his show Wednesday that the next step for Lillard is to make the situation more uncomfortable for Portland.
“You must be willing to risk the relationship with not only the people who love you the most,” Le Batard began, “but then learn that they are the ones who love you the most conditionally.”
It would be the Blazers fans, already rallying against a common enemy in Pat Riley and the Heat, screaming from every social media platform that Miami’s offer isn’t good enough! Of which they are correct. But should the not-good-enough offer ultimately be accepted, they can blame Lillard, especially if Lillard does it, so the Blazers will have to accept it.
More from Le Batard:
“Lillard doesn’t want to be there anymore, and it’s hard to get those exits right when what you’re being rewarded for is getting out of there wrong,” Le Batard said. “Riley and the Heat talk all the time about what you have to do to make it happen. Because now the partnership is no longer Lillard and Portland. The partnership is now already Lillard and Miami.”
For someone like Lillard, who has been the face of loyalty among a fickle group of NBA stars, this is a chilling statement. Lillard’s whole thing up until now has been how he never stopped at Portland. How, in a league of super teams, he always managed to win on his own – never a championship though, and not very much at all over the past two years. Eleven years of hard work went into the well-deserved reputation. Forcing himself to Miami – at the Blazers’ expense – threatens it all. Coming out “wrong” (to borrow Le Batard’s phrasing) is a lot to ask of someone who has prided himself on doing everything right.
Holding out of training camp or becoming a distraction the way James Harden was when he forced his way out of Houston or when Kyrie Irving forced a midseason trade from Brooklyn would be a heel turn like no other we’ve seen. But it could also be the only way.
Blazers fans would throw away their jerseys, admonish Lillard for ruining their future, and cheer for him for the first time.
But Lillard would also be in Miami, playing with the most talented teammates he’s ever had, as a Hall of Fame coach and Hall of Fame executive, in an arena where he hangs three banners with a real chance to add a fourth — and his first.
Then, four years from now, when he’s a free agent, Lillard could return to Portland and bring everything he learned back to a budding star in Scoot Henderson. Fans would mingle in the rose garden for his swan song, and Lillard would end his career where it began. Perhaps all would be forgiven by then. That’s the best case scenario, but it’s also possible.
Making things ugly to get his way would be the biggest risk in an otherwise secure career. It’s not an easy decision to make, but it’s all in Lillard’s control.
More Miami Heat coverage
- Published on 20/07/2023 at 11:00
- Last updated on 20/07/2023 at 11:00