Now that it’s over, where does the Damian Lillard saga rank in terms of drama in the list of superstars who have demanded trades before?
Marilyn Dubinski: Not that high, all things considered. As good of an individual player as Lillard is — and he has led Portland to some high moments — they haven’t done that much under him in the grand scheme of things, and at age 33 it’s not like he’ll be breaking up a promising young core or championship contender. This isn’t on the same level as Kawhi Leonard asking out of the Spurs, Carmelo Anthony leaving the Nuggets, Dwight Howard ditching the Magic, or even Anthony Davis and Pelicans. Maybe the shock of stars demanding trades has worn off, or maybe the fact that some were surprised Lillard even signed an extension with Portland in the first place means the writing had been on the wall for him, even if he didn’t realize it at the time.
Mark Barrington: It’s a little surprising to me, because I thought that Dame would finish out his career in Portland, but in the pantheon of star drama in the NBA, it hardly registers. You could say that he’s blowing up the team, but can you really blow up a team that’s already a post-apocalyptic hellscape? He was just asking out so he could be on a better team in the latter part of his career, which is a fairly common scenario among aging superstars. I rank this somewhere between Camelo Anthony’s exit from Denver and LaMarcus Aldridge’s exit from the Spurs. That’s a pretty wide gap, I know. because Carmelo left Denver at the peak of his abilities, but never was able to make another team a contender, and LaMarcus left the Spurs very near the end of his career. The similarity is that neither of them were able to have nearly as much impact on their new teams as people expected after the move.
Bruno Passos: I’m not sure of the best criteria for power ranking drama, but in my mind it should be fun or at least compelling, and I wouldn’t consider this one to be either. That may change soon considering a non-Heat team did indeed swoop in and traded for him, but I don’t see a lot of meat on the bone considering how long it drawn out and the relatively low stakes for Portland to maximize its return, with Scoot Henderson already on deck. Could the narrative not at least have some kind of uncle figure operating in the shadow?
Jesus Gomez: It ranks low because it doesn’t have any iconic moments or third parties involved, for the most part. The Melodrama trade request had the Nets and Knicks fighting for him and speculation that he hated George Karl. The Dwightmare gave us the Stan Van Gundy Pepsi moment and the weird opt-in. Kawhi’s situation had Uncle Dennis making everything weirder. There was just nothing unique or really all that interesting about this whole thing, which lasted longer than it probably should have. I’d put it in the Anthony Davis “yeah, this was probably bound to happen” category.
Is it good or bad for the league that Portland held strong and didn’t trade him to the Heat?
Dubinski: I’m not sure how much effect it’s having on the league, per se, but I do appreciate Portland holding out for what was best for them. Things have gone too far overboard for the last decade with players signing nearly untradeable extensions (at least in terms of getting fair value back), only to rebuff a year or two later and threaten to sit out. The league is trying to fight back against the sitting out part by not paying and fining players who are no-shows, but perhaps some kind of stipulation needs to be drawn up that if a player signs a max or at least supermax extension, they’re committed unless a mutual agreement to break up is met.
Barrington: I don’t think it has any impact on the league. Every situation with a superstar is unique, and doesn’t have a lot of relevance to the next time it happens. I don’t even know that ‘holding strong’ is a good description of what the Trail Blazers were doing. They were just asking for a bigger deal than anyone was willing to pay. Someone was going to eventually meet their demands or they would have been forced to accept less. That’s not holding strong, that just negotiating. The fact that Lillard threatened to refuse to play limited their leverage, but that’s part of the negotiation. Any team willing to make a deal with Portland knew that they would also have to deal with Lillard. I don’t think that he’s actually going to be able to refuse to play without consequences, and even though he wasn’t traded to his preferred team, he still landed on a contender.
Passos: From the league’s point of view, I consider it a great thing that a smaller market team didn’t capitulate to its homegrown star player demanding to go to a specific glamor market. Those moves already tend to alienate fans (and I don’t really enjoy how much NBA coverage is on potential transactions and off-the-court stuff), and it can be especially crushing if the nature of a player demand kneecaps the kind of return his team gets back — we saw what that did here. As we already are preparing for the next class of stars expected to ask out (namely, Embiid and Giannis), it’s good that those players don’t see the most specific of power plays as the way out.
Gomez: It’s probably not going to change anything, unfortunately. Superstars still have the power when they ask out and if Lillard had done it years ago, he probably would have been able to dictate where he ended up. Others, like Kawhi Leonard, tried the empty threat of not showing up to play in the past but it didn’t work then either. In the end, both superstars actually found themselves in a good spot after the dust had settled and their former teams had to face a rebuild. It’s just the way things work in a league that is trending more and more towards catering to only the best players and a handful of glamour teams.