In the NBA, loyalty may cost a lot of money. Just ask Kevin Garnett, who spent 12 years in Minnesota stuck in mediocrity and eventually wished he had moved sooner. Ask Scottie Pippen, who sacrificed millions of dollars and persevered through injuries to preserve the Bulls’ dynasty in the 1990s. You’ll be able to ask Damian Lillard too in about a week if the Portland Trail Blazers don’t move him to one of his favored locations.
Lillard provided the Blazers with 11 years of steadfast leadership and excellent play in an era of temperamental stars. He ranks first in minutes played and assists, and second in points, 3-pointers, and free throws for the whole franchise. But the Blazers never returned his loyalty, building subpar teams around him. Lillard has never had a conference finals victory in his professional career. The Blazers have made it obvious that they won’t necessarily transfer him to his desired destination, which is supposedly Miami, now that he has requested a trade. Chris Paul was sent to a contender by the Thunder after serving them for a full year. But Joe Cronin and company appear to simply be interested in obtaining the best return on Dame’s skill.
It’s a bitterly cold industry. has always been. Even some of the most illustrious alliances between star players and organizations in the league have fallen apart. Do you recall when Dwyane Wade signed with Chicago because the Miami Heat refused to pay him, causing a brief divorce between the two teams? The Bulls once ended a Michael Jordan-led dynasty because they didn’t want to keep paying out money.
The only difference between then and now is that players today are also bloodless businessmen who are aware of how loyalty can be abused and have developed strategies for retaliation.
Let’s go back in time to 2012, when Lillard first joined the NBA. We didn’t know much about the Weber State graduate who wore the number 0 in homage to Oakland, Ogden, and Oregon, the cities that shaped him and to which he paid devotion. He was the kind of guy who would want to dance with the team that brought him, which was a quality that fans would grow to adore, appreciate, mock, fixate on, and doubt.
LeBron James won his first championship with the Heatles, a Big Three that would usher in the age of the superteam, a week before the Blazers selected Lillard sixth overall in the NBA Draft. James, who was once reprimanded for abandoning his local team in pursuit of a championship, would eventually be recognized as a champion as well as the originator of player empowerment. Other athletes would emulate him, realizing and using their authority to play where and with whoever they desired, reclaiming agency from the front offices that had previously dictated their futures.
These athletes included Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving, and Kawhi Leonard. They refused to let uninspired front offices reap the rewards of their labor, and they no longer allowed the romantic idea of playing for one city, one fan base, and one franchise their entire careers to stand in the way of what they desired.
The Now This Is Going to Be Fun Lakers, who were defeated by Portland and went on to lose in the first round of the playoffs, served as a cautionary tale about superteams that were quickly put together. Lillard’s NBA debut, which featured a performance of 23 points and 11 assists and was characteristically cool, stoic, and precise, was overshadowed by them. The remainder of the league has however continued to attempt star consolidation despite that infamous failure. The Big Three in Brooklyn have been created, recreated, and destroyed since then. In Los Angeles, Paul George and Leonard made plans to work together. By force, Anthony Davis joined the Lakers. In the past three years, James Harden has asked for three trades. One ring has been accounted for by all those great, audacious maneuvers.
To the consternation of all parties involved, Lillard is regularly asked why he didn’t make a similar move (until now) in this brave new world. It’s difficult to blame him for being irritated. The notion that Lillard would want something different from what most people expect from him has been lost in this era of player empowerment. He frequently provides astute remarks from a player who is increasingly disenchanted by the NBA’s changing atmosphere.
Just three weeks ago, he questioned the effectiveness of how superteams are built, criticizing our early coronations and fixations on player movement:
They might trade me to a location that everyone believes is a contender. But how much will it cost me to get there? What would getting there cost the club that we’re claiming to be a contender? And how can I be certain that we will be performing when I arrive in June? How can we be sure that everyone will be in good health? How can we tell if it will be successful?
It is a valid criticism. If the past several years have taught us anything, it’s that star power alone doesn’t ensure success right away. Teams like Milwaukee, Golden State, Boston, Miami, and Denver have demonstrated the value of having depth beyond the top three players and espoused the merits of continuity, or what Lillard jokingly refers to as “the grind,” in their respective leagues. The issue is that Portland has never possessed the creativity, ambition, usability, or cunning of those teams. In assembling a team around Lillard, the Blazers committed mistake after error. They constructed around CJ McCollum, a different small guard, and didn’t trade him for a good enough return. The Blazers had the closest player to Steph Curry and offered him a contract while he was revolutionizing the NBA as a dazzling long-ball shooter. Jusuf Nurkic, who was never quick enough or flexible enough for today’s game.
Even their handling of this scenario is revealing. They lacked the acumen or vision to trade Lillard years ago, when he was still young, on a smaller contract, and would have fetched a higher return. Furthermore, they hid their long-term goals from the public. Even after Lillard stated this offseason that he doesn’t have “an appetite for building with guys two or three years away” from contributing, they quietly decided to put the onus on Lillard to make a trade request by selecting Shaedon Sharpe and Scoot Henderson instead of trading them. Lillard’s attempt to exercise power was unusual, but the reality is that he doesn’t have much of it. He continued to do what he usually did by signing an extension with the Blazers last summer. He may suffer as a result of trading allegiance for leverage.
Lillard, unlike Bradley Beal, does not have a no-trade provision that would bind him to a specific location. He’s 32 years old, and he doesn’t seem like the type to complain or boycott games if the Blazers do trade him to a team he doesn’t want to play for. The repercussions of his loyalty to Portland may serve as a stark reminder of why his peers frequently act in their own best interests.
That doesn’t necessary imply that Lillard erred by spending so much time in Portland. The benefits of loyalty are less obvious than championships and dominance, and they are the kinds of things Lillard has stated he values: his connections to the community and the supporters, as well as the relationships he has forged with his teammates. A passionate fan base that will always treasure the memories he created for them will greet Lillard with a chorus of deafening cheers when he makes his return to the Moda Center in a different jersey months from now. He might even come back in the future with a ring on his finger, like LeBron and Wade did. However, he would be the first to point out that nothing is certain. Only time will ultimately be able to judge whether Dame’s loyalty was worthwhile.