Protecting our star

Why the Blazers should rebuild around, not without, Damian Lillard

Damian Lillard, seven time all-star, has been pushed for a trade by sports experts and fans alike after a disappointing string of seasons for the Portland Trail Blazers.

Erik_Drost photo courtesy of Creative Commons

Damian Lillard, seven time all-star, has been pushed for a trade by sports experts and fans alike after a disappointing string of seasons for the Portland Trail Blazers.

The 2022—2023 season began with hope for the Portland Trail Blazers. The team’s franchise player, Damian Lillard, missed 53 games the season before, and had traded Lillard’s star backcourt mate CJ McCollum at the trade deadline. After a disappointing 2022, some promising off-season moves offered hope for Trail Blazers fans in 2023. The Trail Blazers drafted Shaedon Sharpe with the seventh pick in the draft, the number one recruit in the country out of highschool before missing his freshman year at Kentucky due to injury. Among other notable offseason additions was a trade that acquired Jerami Grant from the Detroit Pistons, a star forward who averaged 22.3 points per game (PPG) just two seasons ago. With all this, many predicted a career year for Lillard and for the Trail Blazers to go far. 

Unfortunately for fans, only one of those things happened. Lillard averaged a career-high 32.2 PPG this season, with a career-high 64.5% true shooting percentage. However, the team finished 13 out of 15 in the western conference, the same place they ended last season. 

Fans of the team have been in uproar over the lack of success in the last two seasons. Attempts to build around the aging Lillard have proved futile, and many fans have offered up the unthinkable— trading Lillard. 

The thought is intriguing, based on possible assets they would get for Lillard. But this is not the best way to proceed for the Trail Blazers. 

Lillard has spoken many times about his loyalty to the team. This past summer, he signed a two-year contract extension, keeping him with the team until 2027. Last April, Lillard had an interview with CNBC.

“I have no plans of not being a Portland Trail Blazer,” Lillard said. “I want to be here, and I think they want me here.” 

This is just one of many times Lillard has stated his loyalty to his team. In January 2016, Lillard became the first Trail Blazer ever to have 40 points and 10 assists at the Moda Center, where the team plays their home games. 

“It’s always good to be the first one to do something,” Lillard said in an interview with NBC Sports. Especially being part of an organization I plan on being a part of for my entire career”. 

Even back in early 2016 Lillard was citing his loyalty to the franchise, a rare thing in a world where stars team up with other stars wherever they want, whenever they want. 

Not only would it be blatant disrespect to trade Lillard, it just wouldn’t be the best way to go about getting wins. Obviously, trading Lillard would mean a rebuild. If Lillard were to be traded, there would be no point in going and getting another star, since they’d just be in the same position as Lillard— a great player on a bad team. 

A rebuild means losses now in hope for wins later, but those wins aren’t guaranteed. The idea is nice, but realistically, it will be rare to come across another player of Lillard’s caliber. No free agent will want to come to small-market Portland over places like Phoenix and Los Angeles. The team doesn’t have enough trade pieces to get a true superstar. 

The hope would be to get lucky in the draft, and that whoever they draft has the same kind of loyalty, not to mention talent, that Lillard has. This is very unlikely to happen, so the Blazers need to take advantage of Lillard first and consider a rebuild second.  

There is no reason for the Trail Blazers to not give it one more shot with their franchise player. But if they want to get the most out of Lillard, they need to act quickly. He’s already 32 years old, with probably only a few years left of high performance. This makes this coming off-season absolutely essential for the future success of the Trail Blazers. As always, the team has three options to make some changes: the draft, free agency, and trades. 

In a perfect world, the Blazers can get a great young star in this coming draft. In the NBA, a draft lottery decides the order of the draft. The bottom three teams have the same odds at the number one pick, and the odds get lower from there. 

Victor Wembanyama is projected to be the number one pick in the 2023 NBA draft. (Courtesy of Creative Commons)

On lottery day, the Blazers will have the third best odds at the number one pick (10.5%). If they win the lottery and land the number one pick, they get the opportunity to draft who many experts consider to be the best NBA prospect since LeBron James: Victor Wembanyama, the 7 feet tall center from France. This season for the Metropolitans 92, a professional basketball team in France, Wembanyama is averaging 21.0 PPG, 9.7 rebounds per game (RPG) and 3.2 blocks per game (BPG), while shooting 31% on three-pointers. 

The idea of a 7-foot-plus center being able to score, shoot, and play defense has NBA teams doing all they can to get a chance at the future star. There are other good options in this draft if the Blazers don’t get the first overall pick, too: shooting guard Scoot Henderson and combo guard Brandon Miller are both great prospects, and would be serious number one pick candidates if it weren’t for Wembanyama. They are projected as picks two and three, respectively. 

Sadly, this is all just wishful thinking. The Blazers will get a solid player out of the draft, but the chances that it will be a star are slim. Not only this, but gambling on a young player may not be the right move. If Lillard is aging and the team has a win-now mindset, why draft a 20 year old knowing he will take multiple years to develop? Wembenyama is a generational talent that would be hard to pass up on, but for everyone else this is a risk that must be considered. 

Unfortunately, this off-season’s free agency doesn’t have nearly as intriguing players as the draft, so that leaves trades. There are a few players that the Blazers should look at acquiring, and many of them depend on how the playoffs end up playing out. A player that could be hot on the market this offseason is Jaylen Brown, the Boston Celtics’ All-Star shooting guard. 

Two-time All-Star Jaylen Brown could be a trade option for the Trail Blazers if the Celtics suffer an early exit in the playoffs. (Erik_Drost photo courtesy of Creative Commons)

Brown is one of the top shooting guards in the league, averaging 26.6 PPG, but he is still the second option on his team behind All-Star teammate Jayson Tatum. The Celtics are serious title contenders, but if they get eliminated in the second or third round, it’s certainly a possibility that a distraught Jaylen Brown might want out.  

There are a couple other options the Blazers could pursue. Chicago Bulls shooting guard Zach Lavine would be another good option if Brown doesn’t work out. The two-time All-Star is a prolific scorer, leading his team with 24.8 PPG. Toronto Raptors’ rising star OG Anunoby would be a great young forward to put alongside Grant, as would Anunoby’s teammate Pascal Siakam. Anunoby is a defensive juggernaut, leading the league in steals per game (SPG) with 1.9 and is third at his position in BPG with 0.7. Siakam is a former All-Star and two-time All-NBA third team member who averaged 24.2 PPG and 7.8 RPG this season. 

In order to get these players, however, the Blazers will need to give up some of their players and/or picks. The Blazers’ top two trade pieces are shooting guard Anfernee Simons and rookie forward Shaedon Sharpe. Both are young rising stars with a lot of potential, so it would be great to keep at least one of them, but getting a star should take priority. Other players on the trade block would be center Jusuf Nurkić, forward Nassir Little, and any future draft picks. Any of these guys would be fine to get rid of, especially if the Trail Blazers can keep either Sharpe or Simons by doing so. 

Lillard is a star. He wants to be in Portland. He can be the best player on a championship team, the Blazers’ front office just needs to pull out all the stops this off-season. A championship team won’t be made in one summer, but some big moves can result in more wins next year. More wins next year will grow momentum, and maybe even attract some future free agents to the pacific northwest. The Trail Blazers have a bright future, and Lillard needs to be a part of it.