Let’s be clear here: Damian Lillard has not requested a trade, and the Trail Blazers have shown no interest in moving one of the best players in franchise history. Everything points to Lillard starting the 2021-22 NBA season in a Portland jersey.
With that said, it’s also worth noting that Lillard hasn’t hidden his frustration with how the previous campaign played out. The Trail Blazers fell to a short-handed Nuggets squad in the first round of the 2021 NBA playoffs, marking the fourth time in the past five seasons that they failed to escape the first round.
So when Lillard, a six-time All-Star who has played nearly a decade in Portland, throws out comments like he did during an Instagram Live stream this week, ears tend to perk up.
“I’m not leaving [Portland] — not right now at least,” Lillard said.
It must be nice for Trail Blazers fans to hear that Lillard isn’t leaving, but that “right now” caveat has to be slightly concerning, especially when putting it in the context of Portland’s offseason. Following the disappointing playoff elimination, the 31-year-old made it clear that the Trail Blazers needed to improve in order to be considered a legitimate title contender.
“Everybody in this organization must look in the mirror because we’ve constantly come up short,” Lillard told Yahoo Sports’ Chris Haynes in July. “We have to look in the mirror and say I have to be better because whatever it is we’re doing is not working and it’s not giving us the shot to compete on the level that we want to compete on.”
Trail Blazers general manager Neil Olshey responded by replacing longtime coach Terry Stotts with Chauncey Billups, though that hire brought on a lot of controversy and unanswered questions. In terms of the roster, Olshey re-signed Norman Powell to a five-year, $90 million deal and snagged a few role players (Ben McLemore, Tony Snell and Cody Zeller), but nothing really seemed to move the needle.
“When you go into free agency and things like this, you never know what happens,” Lillard said earlier this month while participating in the 2021 Olympic Games. “You never know where guys are going to end up and why they go there. You just try to have conversations and convince guys to be a part of our team.
“And obviously, this go around, we wasn’t able to go out there and just get some of the guys that we would have liked, and you go down the list and you go through the guys that are out there that you like who haven’t committed to a team or was a part of your plans in free agency and you get the ones that want to be a part of what you’re doing. And I think that’s what we did.”
Again, Lillard hasn’t asked Olshey to trade him. He wants to win a championship in Portland, and his commitment and passion for the franchise and city has never been in doubt.
But if the Trail Blazers run into the same wall under Billups, perhaps Lillard will be forced to reconsider his stance. The door isn’t fully open, but Lillard hasn’t completely shut it, either.
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