Should I stay or should I go? A song made famous by The Clash in the early 1980s, but also an emerging theme regarding Portland Trail Blazers guard Damian Lillard's summer of 2021 dilemma.
Since the Blazers' season ended unceremoniously with a Game 6 loss to the Denver Nuggets June 3, the all-NBA point guard has joined the USA Olympic team, was caught in the middle of a controversial coaching hire, and — depending on who you choose to believe — may have informed the Portland organization that he'd prefer to play elsewhere.
The former two points are indisputable, but the latter remains subject to debate.
Yet, while others' sources have alleged him to be both packing and putting down roots, mine made it pretty clear this past weekend that the six-time NBA All-Star is ready to move on — and that creates a dilemma of its own.
Without revealing my source, I can tell you that the person is undoubtedly privy to intimate knowledge of the situation. It's not a franchise employee, a neighbor, a family friend nor a little birdie, but someone who has proven over time to speak fact and not fiction regarding what is or isn't happening with this city's most powerful and popular sports personality. When my source speaks, I listen, and what I heard this past weekend didn't bode well for fans of a team whose future sits on very shaky ground.
Damian Lillard is the Portland Trail Blazers. In an NBA where superstars have never mattered more and getting them has never been more difficult for the "little guys" of the league, Portland had the good fortune to stumble into one nearly a decade ago.
Lillard wasn't a household name coming out of college. In fact, few outside of the Weber State basketball community were familiar with the two-time Big Sky Conference Player of the Year when he entered the 2012 NBA Draft. At 6-foot-2, he was undersized, played against second-class college competition, and his assist/turnover ratio was concerning for a player whose size lent itself only to the point guard position.
But since his arrival, he's earned the league's Rookie of the Year award, made six All-Star appearances, and has additionally made six All-NBA teams, including a first-team selection in 2018.
His status amongst the league's greats is indisputable, and his importance to the Blazers going forward is invaluable. But as he gets older, the team fails to get better, and the allure of a bigger market becomes greater, "when" opposed to "if" seems more applicable to the superstar's potential departure — and that could be a tough pill for Portland fans to swallow.
A Blazers/Lillard divorce would be ugly. In a league defined by its superstars, teams almost never get value in return for transformative NBA talent. Additionally, getting it and keeping it in a place like Portland are two entirely different things.
Part of what's made Lillard so valuable to the Trail Blazers organization has been his willingness to stay. Unlike in decades past, players are increasingly teaming up — and doing so in bigger and more valuable markets, like Los Angeles, Miami, Brooklyn and the San Francisco Bay Area. Lillard has famously stated his desire not only to win, but to do so in Portland, and that even further ingratiated himself to a fanbase that feverishly loves its team.
But with time ticking on the 31-year-old's career and the franchise failing in its attempt to improve the team around him, it's becoming more apparent that the once loyal player may have eyes for another.
And would you blame him?
Herein lies the true dilemma: Do you continue to love or choose to now hate the guy if he forces his way out of Portland? It's easy to say you'd wish him well in his search for greener pastures, but less so when he's found it in one of the opposing jerseys you've spent your life rooting against. Nor would it be much fun to root for his success as the Blazers' search for glory circles the drain.
My hope is that he stays. If the team can stay healthy, add a significant piece and get a break or two — like both Phoenix and Milwaukee did this year — they can compete. Certainly, those are big "ifs" based on recent history, but at the same time, they aren't impossibilities due to what appears to be the beginning of a shift in league power.
LeBron James is nearing the end. The Warriors' run — like it or not — is over. And Brooklyn's "super team" is entirely dependent on a standard of health it repeatedly fails to meet, spelling opportunity for second-rate powers like the Bucks, Suns, 76ers and, yes, even Portland, if they can keep their star and get a hefty break along the way.
But it begins and ends with Lillard, who himself is probably still wondering what he should do — like you and I might be doing if he leaves.
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