September 30, 2023

Damian Lillard, Scoot Henderson and the circle of NBA life in small markets

You are the Portland Trail Blazers. Your star player, Damian Lillard, has stayed true to the grind from building an NBA title contender in a small market, it just didn’t help because you guys are the Portland Trail Blazers.

LaMarcus Aldridge left when unlimited free agency first opened an exit in 2015. You built around Lillard as best you could. You first developed CJ McCollum and then Anfernee Simons as high-level scoring partners (albeit incongruously). You bought Jusuf Nurkić to man the central position. You cycled through every complementary wing you could find, a list that included Jerami Grant, Matisse Thybulle, Josh Hart, Norman Powell, Robert Covington, Gary Trent Jr., Trevor Ariza, and a 35-year-old Carmelo Anthony.

These are good players, good enough to help Lillard reach the 2019 Western Conference Finals in a streak that has arguably the greatest team in NBA history. Moves in the margins may have made you slightly better, but Kevin Durant never considered you in 2016. You had to overwhelm Evan Turner and Festus Ezeli to lure them to Portland. There is little point in creating room for a salary cap if you cannot draw stars, and any transaction should be made with the understanding that the acquisition can fly at the first opportunity.

Take Jimmy Butler for example. He was available from the Minnesota Timberwolves in 2018, but that would require a trade of McCollum with no assurance that Butler would re-sign in Portland the following summer. Perhaps one season of Lillard and Butler would have been worth it. It’s more likely that Butler is still making his way to Miami, and you’ll have switched back from McCollum to Hassan Whiteside or Josh Richardson within a year.

Now, 11 seasons into his championship quest, a 32-year-old Lillard wants off your team and into Butler’s Heat in a deal that will only make it harder for you to build a winner in a bottom 10 media market. He wants what he once refused, to join other stars in a glamor market, because the system was exhausting him.

This has been the circle of life for teams in Minnesota, Orlando, Sacramento, Charlotte, Indiana, Utah, Oklahoma City, New Orleans and Memphis throughout their existence. It could hit Portland particularly hard, as Lillard’s request comes at the endgame of the empowerment era, when a player with four years and $216 million left on his contract can name his next team just before a new collective bargaining agreement comes into force. is designed to combat similar freedom of movement. makes the life of any front office more difficult.

The Pelicans are on their third trip around this circle since the league expanded in 2002. They drafted Chris Paul in 2005 and achieved his success until his refusal to re-sign in New Orleans forced him to trade in 2011, one year ahead of his unlimited free agency. The Pelicans drafted Anthony Davis in 2012 and rode the same loop until 2019, when they shared him with the only team he would re-sign with in his upcoming free shift. That same year, they drafted Zion Williamson, who is now four years away from entering the final year of his contract.

The cycle was so common that you could set your clocks for when a star would seek a trade from his small market to a glamor town. There’s even a name for it: pre-agency. This can go many ways and most lead to Los Angeles. Only one – the riskiest road for a non-destination – has led to a championship.

The Lakers and Clippers hesitated to empty their caches of assets to acquire the then-injured Kawhi Leonard in 2018, knowing they had an inside line to recruit him into free service a year later, when everyone would know more about a chronic injury to his right hand quadriceps. Meanwhile, the Toronto Raptors stepped out with a bid from DeMar DeRozan, Jakob Poeltl and a top-20 protected first-round draft pick. Toronto is a big market, but operates somewhat like a small one in Canada, having paid the luxury tax once since 2004 – for the 2018-19 season, when Leonard led the Raptors to their only title before fleeing to LA.

Risk won them a ring. A number of factors could make us look back in a different light on the trade for Leonard and the four years since his departure as a free agent — one playoff series win and two lottery appearances. Leonard appeared in every playoff game for the Raptors, something he has done only once since 2016. His Game 7 buzzer-beater in the Eastern Conference semifinals bounced four times before reaching the bottom of the basket. Both Durant and Klay Thompson suffered injuries in the 2019 NBA Finals against Toronto. Everything had to be right for Toronto, and it did.

The Thunder’s attempt to thread that same needle failed. After trading future MVP James Harden to cut costs in 2012 and losing Durant to a free agency in 2016, they took a swipe at Paul George in 2017, trading future All-Stars Victor Oladipo and Domantas Sabonis for the Indiana Pacers, knowing that George preferred to play in Los Angeles. Oklahoma City even signed George to a maximum contract extension a year later, believing the gamble paid off, but lost him to his trade request to join Leonard on the Clippers in 2019.

Maybe this is just the natural order of the NBA. Whether the trade works or not. Your star is good enough to carry you to a championship, or not. Giannis Antetokounmpo and Nikola Jokić led the smaller Milwaukee Bucks and Denver Nuggets to titles in two of the past three years. Lillard is not on their level, and that is NBA life. Except the natural order makes NBA life a little easier in destination cities, where you don’t need a winning lottery ticket to make a ring. You just need eternal sunshine.

Damian Lillard has made seven All-NBA appearances in 11 seasons with the Portland Trail Blazers.  (Abbie Parr/Getty Images)

Damian Lillard has made seven All-NBA appearances in 11 seasons with the Portland Trail Blazers. (Abbie Parr/Getty Images)

The Lakers pulled a title out of years of mismanagement simply because LeBron James wanted to live in Los Angeles and persuaded his agent Davis to join him. The Heat bounced back from a recession because Butler wanted to play in Miami, and the Philadelphia 76ers inexplicably obliged him. This doesn’t happen for a team like the Blazers, who can’t attract stars and get equal value if theirs wants to leave.

In any case, small market teams were rewarded when the empowerment era was in full swing. OKC received Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Danilo Gallinari, five first-round draft picks (four unprotected), and two pick swaps in exchange for George. The Thunder had leverage, knowing that Leonard was threatening to join the Lakers if the Clippers did not land George. Why the Lakers traded so many times for Davis — Brandon Ingram, Lonzo Ball, Hart, three first-round picks, and a trade — is beyond me, since his agent (like Lillard’s) made it clear he only wanted one team play, but the Pelicans got off to a flying start in their next rebu
ilding cycle.

Small market teams responded by trading stars before all leverage was removed. The San Antonio Spurs dealt with Dejounte Murray with two years left on his deal, and the Utah Jazz jettisoned Donovan Mitchell with three years left, knowing that the return would quickly dwindle as they moved closer to free service.

Team owners have also smuggled a poison pill into the new CBA, severely limiting a star’s ability to both get their maximum contract and choose their next destination. Starting next summer, teams above the second platform (half the league has committed to spend more than the current figure of $179.5 million) must pay 100% of incoming salaries, but cannot merge outgoing contracts or a departing player sign and trade to do that So.

In other words, the Heat may not be able to acquire Lillard a year from now, so we’re seeing a stampede of stars pushing trades to a single destination. Everyone understands what’s at stake, except everyone going by this Lillard precedent – requesting a trade from the team of their choice with four years left on their contract – is the next phase of the empowerment era and not the last gasp of it. Teams in particular are aware of this.

In exchange for Bradley Beal, the Washington Wizards – another big market that works like a small (a worrying trend for players) – accepted what amounted to Jordan Poole, Landry Shamet, a top-20 protected first-round pick, four swaps and seven picks in the second round. Beal possessed a no-trade clause and the Wizards wanted to get rid of his contract, which included a $57.1 million player option for the 2026-27 season.

The Blazers aren’t just trying to get rid of Lillard’s salary, just as the Sixers don’t want to trade Harden in exchange for anything the Clippers can put together. They want maximum value — the kind of deal the Pelicans and Thunder got for Davis and George, respectively — except Miami and LA benefit from this last gasp before the very restrictive new CBA. Who else is going to part with significant assets for a well-paid 33-year-old right now and when can another title contender trade for him?

If Lillard doesn’t change Miami’s championship fortunes, they could pay him $58.5 million at age 35 with no option but to wait for his contract to expire in 2027. have done something right by making life harder for everyone, not just smaller markets.

It’s unfortunate timing for the Blazers, and they’ll likely be forced to accept a few first-round draft picks, maybe some swaps, and whatever they can get from a third team for Tyler Herro in exchange for Lillard. That’s easier to swallow with Scoot Henderson. The hope is that Henderson will rise to the level of Jokić or Antetokounmpo, and the CBA will level the playing field so you can build a better roster around him.

You are the Portland Trail Blazers and your NBA circle of life is beginning again, only the future looks brighter.

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