The Whiteboard is The Step Back’s daily basketball newsletter, covering the NBA, WNBA and more. Subscribe here to get it delivered to you via email each morning.
Damian Lillard is committed to the Portland Trail Blazers. He’s been repeating this fact for months, using different words and different degrees of intensity but the core message has been consistent. He wants to win but he wants to in Portland. And earlier this week, he said it again, loudly and clearly, on Instagram Live.
The nature of the modern NBA means this won’t stop the trade rumors or fantasy trade proposals. As a hypothetical — both for other teams looking for an upgrade or for Blazers’ fans eager to start over from the beginning — he’s just too intriguing to give up on. But he’s done everything he can to make clear where his loyalties lie for now.
On the court, Lillard has done about everything he could to make good on his championship aspirations. His last two seasons have been arguably the best of his career — 29.4 points, 7.8 assists, 4.3 rebounds and 1.0 steals per game. More than 10 3-point attempts per game with 39.6 percent of them going in. And he’s done all that while playing more minutes than any other NBA player over that stretch. Put that with the rest of his career resume and Basketball-Reference’s Hall-of-Fame Probability model gives him a 90.6 percent chance of eventual induction, that’s 10th among active players and higher than Kyle Lowry, Kawhi Leonard, Kyrie Irving, Giannis Antetokounmpo or Draymond Green, all of whom have won championships.
The answer to what more Damian Lillard has to do is nothing. He could retire today as arguably the best and certainly the most beloved player in franchise history, and waltz into the Hall of Fame. His legacy is secure. What happens from here is about what Damian Lillard wants to do.
What does Damian Lillard want most?
It’s clear that Damian Lillard wants to win a championship and it’s clear that he wants to do it with the Trail Blazers. However, recent results suggest that those things may be mutually exclusive. And the primary complicating factor is they aren’t exclusively guaranteed either. It’s not like he’s choosing between staying in Portland and winning a championship somewhere else. He’s choosing between what he knows and the possibility that things could be better somewhere else, between staying loyal to Portland and his perception of the greenness of other grass.
Lillard is still at the point where he doesn’t have to accept that staying in Portland and winning it can’t go together. Portland’s discouragingly passive offseason isn’t making it easy for him but he can still tell himself that the chances of breaking through are as solid here as they are in Philadelphia or New York or any of the other teams he could reasonably force his way to with a trade demand. For those of us on the outside, with no real emotional investment in the situation, it’s much easier to be objectively pessimistic about Portland’s real chances. We expect there will be a point in the near future where Lillard won’t be able to ignore the reality of his situation anymore and he will have to make the choice he’s been kicking down the road.
We are conditioned to mistrust NBA stars when they say that loyalty to team and city are the most important things. We understand, intuitively, that franchises rarely hold the same precious sentimentality and we’ve seen enough stars proclaim loudly and then change their minds. But not many of them have accomplished as much as Lillard has, or built as deep a connection to a fanbase and place. It may sound naive, but I am prepared to take Damian Lillard his word. When he says he’s staying in Portland, I’m going to believe him.
Surprising no one, a thorough statistical analysis pegs Trae Young as the player most likely to be impacted by the NBA cracking down on players looking to draw fouls with an unnatural shooting motion.