Mateo’s Hoop Diary: Damian Lillard’s rep is not on the line

Damian Lillard’s reputation as one of the top leaders in the NBA should be unassailable. He’s also one of the three players in Trail Blazers history with the World’s Most Famous Deadhead and the Glide, and a deserving member of the league’s Top 75 (76 really) ballers list.  Yet these days, he’s besmirched by outside fans and media for wanting to play for the Eastern Conference champs while his commitment to Portland hasn’t ended. Naturally, most of the lot is siding with management over labor. 


Some whine, “He has four years on his contract, plus he said he wouldn’t run from the grind…” But teams try to get off bad deals when players aren’t living up to them.  When those moves are made, writers, broadcasters and fans applaud the machinations of the exec(s) who got it done.


And the lickspittles also cry that Portland shouldn’t send him to Miami, his chosen destination, because it can’t offer the most lucrative deal for him. They confuse Lillard with an imbecile and are wrong about Miami’s potential package.


Yet I care not for their observations because the Blazers drafted his successor instead of honoring the agreement with Dame to build a contender around him. Scoot Henderson will likely turn into a fine player, but he’s an understudy for the foreseeable future. Unless his impact is like Magic Johnson’s or that of Larry Legend as a novice, his addition doesn’t move the pendulum in the short term for conference supremacy. Had the team traded the pick before Draft night, everyone would have known they were for real about competing. 


Lillard did say he envisioned himself having a chance to win a championship in Portland before last season, but he’s changed his mind. His agent Aaron Goodwin is throwing his weight around by contacting suitors not named the Heat and telling them to buzz off; this makes Dame a “villain” because he is fixing the market for himself, which will probably work.


In a rose-covered world, Lillard stays in Portland and delivers its first title since Walton led the ‘77 outfit over the 76ers for the jewels.  But in the real one, he wants out because what he desires today is not what he craved in the past.  And likely because the Trail Blazers’ average 42 wins a year in the regular season since drafting Lillard, and he has appeared in 87% of those games.  


Maybe ring culture got to him, or like many people, he doesn’t want to spend all his years in the same sandbox. Perhaps both, but it doesn’t matter.  People at the peak of their professions should be skilled enough to decide where they want to work.  Lillard’s been at the top for a long time.  


I’d prefer he doesn’t waste away as a stud mentor to a group with a first-round ceiling. Last season was his 11th in the NBA, and Dame logged the highest scoring average of his career (32.2).  He turns 33 on July 15.


When the front office’s anxiety and desperation levels rise because no deal is percolating, props to Goodwin, aside from the one left simmering on the stove top with Miami, the figurative stare down with Lillard will end. Trying to hightail his wagon out of town with years still committed while leaving the only organization he’s played for in this fashion still isn’t enough to taint his fame.  


It’s important to remember the league is a business first, and labor will not hesitate to use that card against management.

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