Trading a superstar is a lot like racing a cheetah. You're probably going to lose. You might even get killed. But if you want to win, your best bet is to give yourself the biggest head start you can possibly get. The Oklahoma City Thunder dealt Paul George mere days after his request -- one that wasn't made public until after the trade -- and received a historic haul in the process. The Los Angeles Clippers received George and were familiar with the strategy.
The Clippers themselves stunned the basketball world by shipping Blake Griffin to the Detroit Pistons months after signing him to a five-year extension without leaking a peep. In exchange for their oft-injured franchise player, they received two assets that would later become essential in their pursuit of George: Tobias Harris, whom they dealt for picks that would later be re-routed to Oklahoma City, and the first-round pick that, after a detour to Charlotte, would become Shai Gilgeous-Alexander.
The longer the process drags out, the uglier it gets. Jimmy Butler went out of his way to humiliate the Minnesota Timberwolves, who had little choice but to swap him for Robert Covington and Dario Saric. They didn't even receive a first-round pick in the deal. The Houston Rockets (James Harden) and New Orleans Pelicans (Anthony Davis) got far more back for their stars, but similar processes played out for each of them. It's a playbook stars have spent the past decade mastering. Make things ugly for your team. Exclude certain bidders from the process. Force management's hand.
It's a process that can be avoided with a little bit of honesty. The Thunder traded George because he wanted out, yes, but also because they knew they had little to gain by keeping him. They had just lost in the first round two years in a row. They had no cap flexibility and had spent their few compelling trade assets to get George in the first place. A little proactivity not only jumpstarted their rebuild, but saved them from an unnecessary year or two circling the drain.
That's an outcome the Portland Trail Blazers are walking right into. All signs, to this point, suggest that they are not interested in trading Damian Lillard. They hired a coach that he publicly endorsed. Teams tend only to trade players of Lillard's caliber when they ask for it. He himself refuted reports that he could do that after Team USA's practice Friday. He said he expects to play for Portland next season. He didn't exactly sound committed.
"I haven't made any firm decision on what my future will be," is not the sort of quote a player confident in his team gives. "Right now, I'm not sure what I'm going to do," Lillard later said. "My intention, my heart has always been set on being in a Trail Blazers uniform for my entire career. But I think over time, you want to win it all. I want to win it all in a Trail Blazers uniform."
He might want that, but he doesn't exactly seem confident in it. "I think if you look at our team as it is, going into next season, 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," he said. After four first-round losses in five years, these quotes amount, essentially, to marching orders. Go build me a contender or I'll find another team that will. In their current state, the Blazers seem ill-equipped to do so.
Portland didn't have a first-round pick last offseason and it doesn't this offseason either. The Blazers' last first-round pick, Nassir Little, barely played in his first two seasons, and 2018 selection Anfernee Simons saw both his minutes and scoring decline last season. All of this is to say that there isn't much young talent in the building, and the Blazers lack the financial resources to sign meaningful veterans. Portland already has roughly $120 million in salary committed for next season, but that is with only eight players on the roster. A new contract for Norman Powell alone is sure to vault the Blazers up to the projected $136.6 million luxury tax line, and any further expenditures will only increase their bill.
If the CJ McCollum-for-Ben Simmons Hail Mary is available, Portland should by all means consider it, but it's hardly a fix-all for its roster. How would he fit with a center like Jusuf Nurkic, who has barely made more 3-pointers in his career (17) than Joel Embiid did in the 2021 postseason alone (16)? Simmons is pricier than McCollum, so it's not as though they'd have much cash left to build a bench. The best-case scenario likely involves Portland sending more assets back to Philly. Daryl Morey isn't known for being a particularly generous trader. More likely, the deal isn't available at all at the moment. The Athletic's Shams Charania reports that the Philadelphia 76ers want an All-Star back. The only one Portland has is Lillard.
The Brooklyn Nets have three of them. Before Portland could even earn an audience with the Nets, they'd have to beat LeBron James and Anthony Davis of the Los Angeles Lakers, and nothing that happened in their 2020 series suggests that is likely. The Phoenix Suns are in the Finals with a group that, aside from Chris Paul, is only getting better. The Golden State Warriors team that has so tormented Portland over the years will be right back in the mix with a healthy Klay Thompson. The Denver Nuggets will be as well when Jamal Murray returns. New Orleans and the Memphis Grizzlies are on their way up.
Portland might be able to beat a few of those teams. Maybe the right young player pops. Maybe the right role player is available for the mid-level exception. Heck, maybe Phoenix's path to the Finals inspires Portland to stay the course under the logic that if enough opponents suffer injuries, anything is possible. But the Suns are a good deal better than the Blazers are right now, and a repeat of 2021's injuries aren't exactly likely. No scenario in which the 2022 Blazers contend meaningfully for the championship is likely. Lillard has made it clear that his patience will start wearing thin if they don't. An eventual trade request appears exceedingly likely through that lens. The Blazers don't have to await it so passively.
Portland doesn't have to wait for Lillard to force its hand. It doesn't have to waste the 2021-22 season trying to fix an unfixable situation. Standard NBA dogma aside, teams are allowed to trade superstars before they ask to be traded. Portland could hit the eject button before Lillard does. In pure basketball terms, it absolutely should.
There are obvious reasons for that. One injury could decimate his value. A 31-year-old Lillard is more valuable to acquiring teams than a 32-year-old Lillard. A Lillard with three guaranteed years left on his contract is more valuable to acquiring teams than a Lillard with two remaining guaranteed years. The 2021 offseason features zero superstar free agents, so it's a seller's market for prospective traders. If Lillard isn't available right now, those same teams might take their business elsewhere and lack the assets to get back into the bidding next offseason. If the Blazers act right now, they might be able to get something close to what Oklahoma City got for George. Those offers won't last forever.
But really, that head start Oklahoma City got in 2019 should be all the motivation Portland needs to seek out a trade on its own terms. This doesn't have to get ugly. A media circus doesn't need to artificially deflate Lillard's value or damage his legacy in Portland. He doesn't need to waste another year of his prime on a non-contender. The Blazers don't need to waste an extra year on the back end being a non-contender when they can start the process of remedying that immediately. They don't need to go about this divorce the hard way when the easy way is still available.
It's a bitter pill to swallow on several levels. Portland could go another decade without ever finding a player like Lillard. As the last decade showed, though, having such a player, in itself, guarantees little if you are incapable of properly supporting him. There is a certain subset of fans that don't care about that. They're happy to watch their favorite player try even if there's no hope of succeeding. Succeeding doesn't mean the same thing to every fan. Plenty would rather consume competence every night than gamble on greatness. Lillard is fun to watch. He's a pillar of the Portland community.
That translates to dollars in the pockets of an ownership group that is reportedly readying the team for a sale. Declining television viewership and ticket sales won't help on that front. The real-world implications of rebuilding are far more complicated than their basketball counterparts. There are franchises, justifiably or not, that refuse to tank because doing so would be financially infeasible.
If that's why the Blazers hold onto Lillard too long, well, that's their prerogative. The reality is that their hesitance is likely grounded in misguided basketball concerns. NBA teams rarely trade superstars prematurely because they're rarely capable of accepting their own incapability. They delude themselves into thinking that merely having that player means that they can build a contender, or more dangerously, that they won't need to because their superstar is different from all of the others and won't force a move when they fail to give him that contender. Portland has been operating this way for years, rarely taking major roster-building risks because Lillard has never given the team a reason to believe that it needed to in order to keep him. The Blazers settled for mediocrity that they are now trapped within.
Lillard no longer seems satisfied with that. The Blazers shouldn't be either. Now is their chance to take control of this situation and use it as a launching pad into whatever the next version of this franchise might be. Whether they want draft picks or young players or even a collection of veterans in a desperate bid for continued relevance, all of that is available to them right now. The longer they wait, the less of it they can get. The more suitors Lillard's camp can deter. The more opportunities there are for his value to decline. The more time wasted delaying a breakup both sides need if they plan to pursue championships, either now or in the future. The shorter Portland's head start becomes when the cheetah starts chasing it.
It would require a boldness Portland's front office has never displayed. There's an argument to be made against even allowing general manager Neil Olshey to make such a colossal trade after the part he played in necessitating it in the first place. But regardless of how they've gotten here, the Blazers are here nonetheless. They are a bottom-rung playoff team with no immediate path to anything greater, and even if their best player isn't quite ready to call it quits, it is already in their best interests to hit the reset button. They can face reality themselves, or they can wait until that player forces them. Neither option is good, but one is almost certainly better than the other.