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Is Dame’s Time Up in Portland?

Trade suitors are circling, but Lillard is giving the Trail Blazers a chance to build a better contender for him. Could a Ben Simmons–for–CJ McCollum deal be the answer? 

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

With rumors swirling that he intended to request a trade, Damian Lillard clarified his plans for the future on Friday at Team USA practice. Well, sort of. Lillard denied a report that suggested he was prepared to ask out of Portland, but was noncommittal beyond that. “I haven’t made any firm decision on what my future will be,” he said.

Lillard said he expects to return to the Trail Blazers for his 10th season, but that the front office needs to be “more urgent” about making improvements. That’s not exactly a long-term commitment. Here’s some information on what has happened regarding Lillard’s future and some thoughts about what could happen in the year to come.

Which Teams Want Lillard?

Few team executives expect a Dame deal to happen this offseason. But multiple front-office sources say the Heat, Kings, Knicks, Rockets, and Sixers have recently been the most aggressive suitors.

Front-office executives say that if the Blazers eventually move Lillard, they can expect a return rivaling or surpassing what the Nets gave up for James Harden: multiple young players, plus three first-round picks and four first-round pick swaps. Harden is a former MVP, but he had only two guaranteed seasons left on his contract at the time of the trade. Portland could do even better because Lillard has four seasons remaining on his contract worth a grand total of $176 million. The long-term security in Lillard’s contract could lead to more interest from teams and more return in a trade.

But unless Blazers general manager Neil Olshey decides to blow it up and trade Dame before he demands a trade, it sounds like the team will have time to try and get things right. The question is how much time.

“I think if you look at our team as it is, going into next season,” Lillard said Friday, “I don’t see how you can say ‘This is a championship team, it just needed a new coach,’ when we just lost in the first round to a team that was hurt.”

Olshey claimed weeks ago that the roster wasn’t at fault for Portland’s 29th-ranked defense or its loss to Denver, implying that it was instead a coaching problem. But Lillard has seen Olshey whiff on draft picks, signings, and trades. The same year Portland added Seth Curry and Nik Stauskas, he saw the Raptors trade for Kawhi Leonard and win a title. Though the Blazers added Robert Covington, Lillard watched the Bucks and Suns make the Finals after trading for Jrue Holiday and Chris Paul.

Portland has made some good moves through the years, from acquiring Jusuf Nurkic to grabbing Gary Trent Jr. in the draft to trading for Norman Powell. But the Blazers have never made the type of blockbuster move that most championship-winning teams have managed. Portland’s most memorable move was also its biggest bungle: spending $70 million on Evan Turner.

Go for Ben Simmons?

If there’s a bigger question than time, it’s opportunity. Olshey and Lillard would both love to add another star. The trouble is finding one. In past years, Lillard remained loyal to CJ McCollum and the Blazers didn’t seriously pursue trades involving him. But even if they changed course and put him on the trade block, All-Star targets are slim.

Only Ben Simmons is readily available. A deal built around McCollum and Simmons could be the most realistic scenario. If Norman Powell opts out and re-signs, he could replace McCollum in the lineup. Simmons would provide All-NBA defense to a team in desperate need of it. And he could also offer playmaking from the frontcourt to complement Dame, who primarily runs the offense, and Powell, a versatile offensive threat. A Lillard-Simmons pick-and-roll would also have shades of Steph Curry and Draymond Green if Simmons embraced setting hard screens and becoming a weapon on the roll.

A Simmons-Nurkic frontcourt would have major spacing issues and likely necessitate other moves, but a few other tweaks could give the Blazers a brand-new identity.

The Sixers hope to enter the Lillard sweepstakes, not settle for McCollum. But there’s pressure on the Sixers front office to maximize Joel Embiid’s prime. And just like Simmons could be better in Portland, McCollum could be better in Philadelphia.

Through the past three seasons, including the playoffs, here’s how McCollum’s per-36 minutes stats compare when playing with Dame versus without him:

Is McCollum Ready for a Solo Act?

Stat Without Lillard With Lillard
Stat Without Lillard With Lillard
Points Per 36 25.4 21.5
Assists Per 36 5.9 3.3
True Shooting 51% 57%
Via PBP Stats

McCollum’s scoring volume and playmaking go up without Lillard, but his scoring efficiency dips. Playing with an elite big man like Joel Embiid could help create easier chances for him, and he could provide balance as a perimeter shot creator.

The Sixers could move Simmons elsewhere or hold out hope that Lillard or Bradley Beal becomes available. But both the Blazers and the Sixers should consider a McCollum-for-Simmons swap, especially since it could be Portland’s only chance for a big move before Lillard’s patience runs out.

Who Are the Options?

Other than Simmons, there’s not a whole lot else immediately on the horizon involving top-50ish players. There’s no sign that Beal will push his way out of Washington just yet. Indiana seems prepared to move forward with both Myles Turner and Domantas Sabonis. It’s tough to get a read on Kawhi, but the Clippers remain the favorites for now.

The Blazers don’t have much value to offer in trades, though. They don’t have their first-round pick this year, and a team betting against Dame staying long term needs their future firsts. Anfernee Simons and Nassir Little are their two most valuable young players, but teams aren’t all that high on them. Moving a veteran like Nurkic or Covington could net multiple valuable players in return as opposed to one better individual.

Some change is inevitable. Bringing back Powell is a priority, especially after giving up Gary Trent Jr. for him before the trade deadline. Enes Kanter and Carmelo Anthony will also hit the unrestricted market. Zach Collins, a long-lost lottery pick, will be an unrestricted free agent.

This free-agent class is a guard-heavy group, but Portland needs wings with versatility and bigs with perimeter skill. Since the Blazers are over the cap, the most they can offer is the non-taxpayer midlevel exception, which is worth $9.5 million.

Just speculating, here’s a list of bigs that could fit Portland’s price range: Gorgui Dieng, Blake Griffin, Daniel Theis, Kelly Olynyk, Nicolas Batum, or Jeff Green. Acquirable wings are guys like Tony Snell and Rudy Gay. Even Doug McDermott, Evan Fournier, and Kelly Oubre Jr. are probably all too pricey. Any other key free-agent target would realistically have to come via sign-and-trade. A shooter like Duncan Robinson or a big like John Collins makes some sense, but the Blazers would have competition for them and would have to give up something of value in return.

What’s Next?

It’s hard to feel all that optimistic about Portland’s path forward. There’s a dry trade market. A shallow free-agent class. No financial flexibility. A lack of trade value. A disgruntled superstar. And the Western Conference will only grow stronger. The Lakers and Warriors are reloading. Young teams like the Mavericks, Pelicans, and Grizzlies are expected to get better. A playoff spot isn’t a lock for Portland unless impactful moves are made around Lillard.

Lillard could still eventually request to be dealt. If the Blazers are willing to move him to a team not on his preferred list of destinations—like the Pacers did by sending Paul George to Oklahoma City, or the Spurs trading Leonard to the Raptors—it could open up new trade possibilities. With that in mind, why wouldn’t the Pelicans offer a bunch of draft picks and possibly Brandon Ingram to pair Dame with Zion Williamson? Would Boston offer Jaylen Brown and future firsts? Would the Raptors try to strike again using whoever they pick fourth plus one of their young players and future picks?

Lillard is an MVP candidate with multiple seasons left on his deal. That is why mostly everyone wants him. It’s why the Blazers are reluctant to move him. Should the Blazers fall short of Lillard’s expectations again next season, they’ll get a haul in a trade, putting the franchise in good position for the post-Dame era. But Portland first hopes to assemble a roster that can support Lillard’s quest to win a championship. Some relationships grow stronger after going through hard times and some collapse. We’ll see which side this one falls on.