Damian Lillard and the Consequences of Loyalty

AP Images/Ringer illustration

Loyalty, in the NBA, can come at a great cost. Just ask Kevin Garnett, who spent 12 mediocrity-mired years in Minnesota and came to wish he’d left sooner. Or ask Scottie Pippen, who left millions of dollars on the table and played through 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 age of tempestuous stars, Lillard gave the Blazers 11 years of stable leadership and superb 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, constructing 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 aren’t necessarily going to send him to his preferred destination, reportedly Miami. Even the Thunder made sure to send Chris Paul to a contender after they received a year of his services. But getting the best return for Dame’s talent seems to be the only thing Joe Cronin and Co. are concerned with.

It’s a cold, cold business. Always has been. Even some of the league’s most storied relationships between franchises and star players have broken down. Remember Dwyane Wade’s brief divorce from the Miami Heat, triggered when he signed with Chicago because the Heat didn’t want to pay him? The Bulls once broke up a dynasty headed by Michael Jordan himself because they didn’t want to keep forking over cash.

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

Let’s quickly rewind to 2012, when Lillard was entering the NBA. We knew little about the kid out of Weber State, who wore 0 to honor Oakland, Ogden, and Oregon—the places that molded him, that he paid fealty to. He was, we would learn, the type of guy who would want to dance with the team that brought him—a trait fans would come to love, respect, ridicule, obsess over, and question.

A week before the Blazers drafted Lillard sixth overall, LeBron James hoisted his first title with the Heatles—a Big Three that would usher in the era of the superteam. 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 wielding their power to play where they wanted and with whom they wanted, taking agency from the front offices that once decided their fates. They no longer let the romantic notion of playing for one city, one fan base, one franchise their entire career get in the way of what they wanted, and they wouldn’t allow uninspired front offices to profit off the fruits of their labor.

Lillard’s NBA debut—a characteristically stoic, precise, and cool 23-point, 11-assist performance—was overshadowed by the team Portland beat: the Now This Is Going to Be Fun Lakers, who flamed out of the first round of the playoffs and became a cautionary tale about hastily constructed superteams. But that famous disaster hasn’t stopped the rest of the league from trying to consolidate stars. In the time since, the Big Three in Brooklyn has been made, remade, and disintegrated. 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 those big, bold moves have accounted for one ring.

Lillard, in this brave new world, is constantly bombarded with questions about why he didn’t make a similar move (until now), to the point of annoyance for everyone involved. It’s hard to blame him for getting annoyed. Lost in this era of player empowerment has been the idea that Lillard could want something different from what most people want from him. Oftentimes he offers the keen observations of an outsider, a player increasingly alienated by the NBA’s shifting culture.

Just three weeks ago, he took to task our early coronations and fixations on player movement, questioning the efficacy of how superteams are constructed:

They could trade me to somewhere that we all say, “This is a contender.” But what is it gonna cost for me to get there? What is it gonna cost the team that we’re saying is a contender, for me to get there? And how is it a guarantee that we’re going to be playing in June, when I get there? How do we know if everybody is gonna be healthy? How do we know if it’s gonna work out?

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

The problem: Portland has never had the imagination, ambition, functionality, or shrewdness of those 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 worthwhile return. While a scintillating long-ball shooter, Steph Curry, was redefining 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’ve handled this situation is telling. They didn’t have the savviness or foresight to trade Lillard years ago, when he was younger and on a cheaper deal and would have commanded a heftier return. And they were not forthright about their long-term plans. They simply put the onus on 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 doesn’t have “an appetite for building with guys two or three years away” from contributing. It was a rare case when Lillard attempted to exert power, but the truth is, he doesn’t have much. Last summer, by signing an extension with the Blazers, he did what he has always done. He traded leverage for loyalty, and that might end up hurting him.

Unlike Bradley Beal, Lillard doesn’t have a no-trade clause to force his way to a specific destination. He’s 32 years old, and if the Blazers do trade him to a team he doesn’t want to play for, he doesn’t seem like the type who will pout or sit out games. The consequences 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 that Lillard made a mistake by staying in Portland for so long. The rewards of loyalty are more subtle than rings and power, and they are the kinds of things Lillard has said he values: his relationship with the city and the fans and the bonds he has built with his teammates. Months from now, when Lillard makes his return to the Moda Center in a different jersey, he’ll be met with a chorus of deafening cheers from a devoted fan base that will always cherish the memories he made for them. Years from now, he might even return, à la LeBron and Wade, with a ring on his finger. But he’d be the first to remind us that nothing is guaranteed. In the end, only time will tell us whether Dame’s loyalty was worth the cost.

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