Lillard and the Blazers Are at Another Crossroads

Mar 19, 2023; Portland, Oregon, USA; Portland Trail Blazers guard Damian Lillard (0) drives the lane past LA Clippers center Mason Plumlee (44) in the second half at Moda Center. Mandatory Credit: Jaime Valdez-USA TODAY Sports

Despite franchise superstar Damian Lillard having an MVP-caliber year, it’s made little difference to the Portland Trailblazers in the standings. Currently, they sit 13th in the West, only one spot above the tanking Spurs, and almost certainly out of the play-in race. It’s hard to believe considering the season Lillard has produced for the Blazers. His scoring feats this year haven’t been seen since Kobe Bryant in 2005. His 40, 50, 60, and 70-point games are right there with Kobe. Yet it’s barely put a dent in their win column. Once again, largely because of roster construction issues. Lillard and the Blazers are at another crossroads.

Lillard and the Blazers Are at Another Crossroads

A crossroads in which they must decide whether to sit Lillard for the rest of the season to save his legs. Alternatively, whether to go all-out and hope to win every game for their loyal fanbase.

After their recent defeat, with the 10th seed all but impossible, Lillard was asked about shutting it down: “I love to play, I love the competition, and I haven’t been ready to give that up. But it does come to a point in time when do you stop putting your competitive nature out front.” It feels from this quote that these two parties are at another crossroads. A competitive crossroads this season, and also, more pertinently- how will they be able to quickly rebuild the roster before the end of Lillard’s prime?

A Look at Lillard’s season

Statistically, Dame is having an MVP- caliber year and a career year. Averaging 32 points per game, a career-high, and top-3 in the league. Lillard’s also averaging the highest field goal percentage of his career.

He’s been scolding hot since the New Year- achieving 12 games of at least 40+ points. His heroics kept them afloat.

However, scarily, if you’re a Blazer fan- if he doesn’t score at least 40 every night, they have little chance of winning. They are 2-8 in their last ten games, with Lillard averaging 32 points, seven rebounds, and seven assists. Plus a 6-16 record since January if he scores less than 40 points. Frankly, he deserves better from his organization. What more can he do at 32 years old? Once again, it seems due to the lack of talent around him, Lillard and the Blazers are at another crossroads.

Lillard and the Blazers are at another crossroads- a case of misplaced loyalty?

It’s admirable in a way, Lillard has publically underlined how much he loves the community in Portland. He isn’t driven to ‘ring-chase,’ which is a common theme in the NBA and one he has no interest in partaking in. He’s often doubled down on his commitment to see his career out in Portland- openly saying that their fans are the best in the league. In return, they certainly adore him- he’s already the greatest player in their franchise history. Their love story is definitely a two-way street.

However, in terms of the front office approach to building around him-  it reminds me of that famous saying regarding loyalty; Loyalty is a wonderful thing, but loyalty one way…well, we know what the rest of that saying is.

Arguably, the current front office approach has done Lillard’s prime years no favors. It appears that Portland is in desperate need to rebuild. Yet, how will they be able to successfully do that whilst trying to win for Dame in the final years of his prime? It’s difficult to win and rebuild at the same time, few organizations have done that successfully. To that end, Lillard has since said he’s not interested in a rebuild in his latest interview:”…that’s not what I’m here to do, not at this stage of my career.” It’s quite obvious they are at a crossroads. Lillard has to seriously consider what is best for his future and his legacy. Plus, on the other side, the Blazers have to consider what is best for their future.

The Blazers’ front office has let him down

GM Joe Cronin has done patchy work so far since replacing Neil Olshey, fired in December 2021. He hasn’t necessarily picked a vision. They certainly haven’t gone all in around Lillard this year.

Cronin traded super-utility player, elite defender, and rebounder Josh Hart to the Knicks for Cam Reddish and a first-round pick. The Knicks have made out like bandits in this deal early. Hart is playing out of his mind for them, and they’ve barely lost since acquiring him. On the other hand, Cam Reddish is an inconsistent talent. He’s got all the ability to be a scorer in multiple ways, but there’s a reason he hasn’t found a home in the league to this point. He remains inefficient and an inconsistent defender. Going scoreless in his last game against the Clippers in 19 minutes and scoring just two points against the Knicks last week. The first-round pick they acquired may pay dividends for them down the line, but it doesn’t help Lillard this season.

Cronin also failed to acquire size at the deadline after Nurkic’s injury, making them desperately short in size and rebounding. Also, as of now, the Thybulle trade deal hasn’t paid dividends.

This resulted in the Blazers having the worst defensive record in the league since the All-Star break.

This also combined with the Blazers trading valuable players such as CJ McCollum to the Pelicans last season. In return, they got Josh Hart, recently traded to NY, Tomas Satoransky also traded, and Nickeil Alexander-Walker, also no longer a Blazer.

In other words, they haven’t put enough of a roster around Lillard to compete. When they dealt McCollum, an effective sidekick for Dame, they’d have hoped to acquire at least one building block in return. It hasn’t worked out in that aspect. A key reason why Lillard and the Blazers are at another crossroads- what exactly is their plan and direction to build around him? It hasn’t been apparent to this point.

Blazers’ Roster Concerns Have Led to the Lillard and Blazers Crossroads

The Blazers can score- They’ve developed an exciting combo guard in Anfernee Simons. Jerian Grant has had an excellent year offensively, also. When Nurkic is healthy, he’s still a force in the paint. However, they lack serious depth with one of the least productive benches in the NBA, and they lack defense in the starting unit outside of Thybulle.

They are hoping that top-10 pick Shaedon Sharpe continues to progress and take a step forward next season. Outside of Drew Eubanks as a backup center, they don’t have much talent coming off the bench.

Head Coach Chauncey Billups retains support from his players and the front office. He’s tried very hard to push the right buttons, yet they remain one of the least efficient teams in the NBA. 15th in points per game, 19th in opposition points, 26th in rebounds and 22nd in assists. Considering the roster issues, it’s hard to pin too much blame on Billups. Yet the whole organization has to take responsibility for not taking advantage of Lillard’s great season.

This Offseason Is Vital for Both Sides

It’s getting to the point if Lillard does indeed wish to win, it may be best for both parties to move on. After helping them to 8-straight winning seasons without a championship, they finished 13th last year and are on course to repeat that this season.

Logistically, with Grant and Simons due extensions, and they desperately need to do both, there will be tax concerns. Raising the question of whether ownership will be willing to go over the tax. That’s a key component of the Lillard question. Time is running out for Portland to make a decision- sacrifice future draft assets to upgrade talent- or embrace a full rebuild? I don’t envisage a scenario where they can do both and succeed. It appears their best chance to boost this team short and long-term would be landing a top three pick in the draft lottery.

As for Lillard, he’s got a wonderful relationship with the organization and the fanbase. It’s obvious by now he would do whatever it took to bring playoff basketball back to Portland. However, there comes a time when organizational goals don’t match up with the player’s career timeline. It looks quite clear that this is where it’s headed. This offseason will likely decide how Lillard and the Blazer’s crossroads play out.