Damian Lillard and the problem with patience

The NBA revealed its 2022-23 All-NBA teams this week — honoring the best players from the regular season right in the middle of an intense stretch of the league’s postseason.

So while some All-NBA honorees like LeBron James, Stephen Curry, Jimmy Butler, and Joel Embiid were actively leading their squads in pursuit of a championship at the time of the announcement, a few All-NBA picks got their flowers long after their season was over because their teams didn’t make it to the playoffs.

One of those superstars sitting in the shadows during playoff time is Damian Lillard.

The Portland Trail Blazers point guard, coming off his 11th pro season, was voted to the All-NBA Third Team after averaging a career-high 32.2 points per game (third in the league) to go with 7.3 assists and tying a career-best 46.3 percent shooting from the field. The highlight of Lillard’s season was a 71-point performance against the Houston Rockets in which the reigning All-Star Weekend Three-Point Shootout king hit 13 treys. It was one of three games this season in which Lillard scored at least 50 points.

Lillard no doubt deserves the individual accolades, but his Trail Blazers aren’t getting any praise as a team. Portland went 33-49 this season, missing the playoffs for the second year in a row and finishing third from the bottom in the Western Conference.

The prevailing narrative here is that the Blazers’ organizational leadership is wasting Lillard’s prime years, failing to put the right roster pieces around their 32-year-old superstar to compete for a championship. Portland claimed its one and only NBA title in 1977, and last appeared in the NBA Finals in 1992. During Dame’s decade-long run as the face of the franchise, the Blazers have only gotten past the first round of the playoffs three times.

Along the way, Lillard — who was named to the NBA’s 75th anniversary team last year — has remained committed to Portland in a way that goes outside the norm in today’s basketball climate. Other NBA players have spent a long time with the team that drafted them and don’t appear as if they’ll ever leave. Steph Curry is one. Milwaukee Bucks phenom Giannis Antetokounmpo is another. All-Star guard Bradley Beal, who was drafted by the Washington Wizards the same year the Blazers picked Lillard, is still with his original team.

But Lillard is the main one who’s become the face of player loyalty. In part because Portland’s lack of success means Dame’s “through thick and thin” meter has been tested more than, say, Curry, who has celebrated four championships with the Golden State Warriors. Also because Lillard has taken it upon himself to be the spokesman for loyalty. He’s talked and posted publicly several times about his dedication to the Blazers, and how he definitely doesn’t want to be one of those star athletes who moves from one team to the next looking for the best opportunity to win.

For that, Lillard is both a sympathetic figure — he doesn’t get much, if any, blame for Portland’s annual shortcomings — and a folk hero among folks who pine for the good ol’ days when pro athletes commonly stayed with one team for their entire career, for better or worse.

Even in the history of the Blazers, their most beloved legends eventually left. Clyde Drexler played 11 and a half seasons in Portland (spearheading the ’92 Finals run) before joining his hometown Houston Rockets, with whom he won a championship. Bill Walton, the leader of Portland’s ’77 title team, also left the Blazers for his hometown squad, the San Diego Clippers. Walton later landed in Boston and won himself another championship with the Celtics. And so it went, from Terry Porter to Rasheed Wallace to LaMarcus Aldridge to Brandon Roy … the Blazers’ best had a habit of going to play elsewhere at some point. If Lillard never takes the team as far as Walton or Drexler did, he could still take the crown as the people’s choice for Portland’s most legendary athlete simply by going wire-to-wire and retiring with the franchise.

But, as this NBA offseason gets underway, it feels like there’s a real possibility that may not happen.

It’s nothing new for rumors and anonymous reports of Lillard’s frustration to surface near the end of each disappointing Blazers’ season. Each missed title opportunity could be the one that drives Dame to finally get fed up with the losing and lack of improvement. Lillard fueled this round of speculation himself, however, when after the team’s season finale he told reporters, “I don’t have much of an appetite for bringing in guys two and three years away from really going after it. This is not a secret. I want a chance to go for it. And if the route is to do that, then that’s not my route.”

Even if Lillard quietly requests or loudly forces his way out of Portland this summer — or if he bears down to give it at least one more go — he should be commended for his patience.

The way the business of basketball works now, with NBA players having shorter contracts and wielding more power within their organizations than ever before, it isn’t difficult for a superstar like Lillard to get himself onto a new team expeditiously, even if he’s under contract for a few more years with his current team. Players in positions similar to Lillard have grown tired of waiting for their franchises to build something successful and will find a new team that will produce a winning product. These are men with elite in-demand talent, for whom instant gratification is right at their fingertips if they choose to pursue it. Lillard, meanwhile, has endured all the front-office changes and coaching changes and roster upheavals and rebuilding projects Portland has undergone in the last 11 years, and he just continues to do his part by crafting a Hall of Fame career. (For what it’s worth, Lillard has been paid very well for his efforts. Last summer, he signed a $122 million contract extension that could see him earn over $63 million in the 2026-27 season.)

Lillard’s patience with the Blazers may prove costly, though. He’s missed significant time with injuries in each of the last two seasons, a trend that may not stop considering he’s already logged a lot of miles (Dame led the league in minutes per game in 2019-20) and he will be 33 when next season tips off. The window for Lillard to win a championship — or to lead a team to a championship as the No. 1 option, which matters to a lot of people — won’t be open for much longer. (Lillard could always do what many veterans have done and get his championship at the tail-end of his career, “ring-chasing” and taking a smaller role and/or less money on a well-established title contender.)

While I’ve consistently defended athletes who leave a team looking for another opportunity, I have no problem with those who want to stay in one spot for the long haul. Every person should do what they want to in their career and prioritize whatever is important to them without worrying about outside opinions and judgments. Athletes are no different. If a basketball player’s top priority is to make as much money as possible, they should go to whatever team offers the most coin. If the main goal is to win, go to the best team that has an opening on the roster. If being the No. 1 option or face of a franchise is the prime objective, find a team that’ll provide that green light to get buckets.

In my own career, I’m honestly closer to a Damian Lillard than a Kevin Durant, even though I’ve always defended Durant’s controversial moves from one team to another. I personally put a high priority on quality of life, plus stability for myself and my family. But I have a “regular” job that isn’t measured in championships and MVP trophies and people tying their local pride to my work, so I won’t face much criticism for my career decisions.

No athlete should be feel obligated to be loyal to a franchise or a fan base. Just look at Draymond Green. He’s given his entire decade-long career to the Warriors, helping them win four championships while doing a lot of the dirty work that allows guys like Curry and Klay Thompson to shine. And yet earlier this week, Green was being accused by Warriors fans on social media of tanking their playoff series with the L.A. Lakers because he’s friends with LeBron James off the court. Fans will demand loyalty from players, then turn on those players in a minute. Franchises will cut or trade players as soon as it makes business sense, or if someone better comes along who can fill that player’s role. In turn, athletes should be similarly self-centered and always do what’s best for them, no matter how the fans or the franchise feels about it.

Damian Lillard clearly wants to win, and as much as he might love Portland and wish to stick it out and complete his career with the Blazers, it might be time for him to venture out and find himself a winning franchise. He’s been patient. More patient than a lot of people in his position would be. The problem with patience in the business of sports is that sometimes the patient man waits and waits and waits until it’s too late.

***** *****

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