Mike Lupica: Damian Lillard doesn’t owe the Trail Blazers anything. He’s earned the right to leave

12 July 2023

If you are choosing up sides here between the Trail Blazers and Damian Lillard, you pick Lillard all day long. You do this unless you are a Knicks fan, because Knicks fans would rather Lillard go anywhere except to the Heat if he leaves Portland, including the moon.

Of course, you can go the other way on Lillard.

You can say that he has a contract, and a real good one, that nobody forced him to sign a two-year extension with the Trail Blazers last summer, one that runs through the 2026-27 season and will pay him around $120 millions over its final two years. He is one of the best players on the planet and he is being paid that way, one hundred percent. And because the Blazers are paying him that way, they had a right to assume that a year later he wouldn’t want to go play basketball somewhere else.

Somewhere else means old Coach Riley’s Heat, a team that a month ago was in the NBA Finals against the Jokic Nuggets. Lillard and his agent Aaron Goodwin have made it clear that they don’t just want to leave Portland, a week before Lillard’s 33rd birthday. They want the guy known as Dame to take his talents to South Beach and go play for Erik Spoelstra, the best coach going, and with Jimmy Butler and Bam.

Does that put Lillard in a box and his current employer into a box? It does. Box-and-one, and boy is Dame the one right now.

“Truthfully he wants to go to Miami,” Goodwins says. “Period.”

So why side with Lillard on this? Because he has earned the right to ask, and has earned the right to want to move at this stage of his career, even with the money he is making. He has earned the right even though he has never played in the NBA Finals, even though he has only made it as far as the Western Conference finals once. He has earned the right because he has been the second most important player in the history of Portland Trail Blazers. The only player more important was the great Bill Walton when Walton was young, and the most complete center to ever play professional basketball.

Walton delivered the championship that Lillard never came close to delivering, in the 1976-77 season. The year after that the Trail Blazers were 50-10 before Walton injured his foot. He had played 209 regular season games for the Trail Blazers at the time, and never played another one. Including playoffs, Lillard has played four times that many, as he has become one of the best players of his time.

Now Lillard sees that time he has left in his prime running out. He wants to leave, give himself the chance to win the championship that he’s never going to win in Portland. They keep saying in Portland that they are going to build a champion, or at least a real contender, around him. They never do, unless their idea of doing that is by using the third pick in the recent draft to take Scoot Henderson, a younger version of Dame Lillard, and a kid who plays the same position.

Watching the draft that night Lillard must have felt the way Aaron Rodgers did that year when the Packers, who had a lot of other championship needs at the time, drafted a quarterback named Jordan Love. There you have it. The people who run the Trail Blazers keep saying how much they love Lillard. Then they turn around and Jordan Love him instead.

Lillard has earned the right. He just has. He doesn’t have the titles that Steph Curry has won with the Warriors. But he has been the face of the Blazers for almost as long as Steph has been the face of the Warriors. He has mattered as much in Portland to Trail Blazers’ fans as much as Giannis, another with the title that Lillard is still chasing, has mattered in Milwaukee.

He has done everything great athletes are supposed to do. He has played 11 seasons and averaged 25 points per game and been one of the top guards anywhere and will end up in the Hall of Fame someday. He has carried his team, and did make it as far as the conference finals once. When he did, the sides weren’t remotely even against the Warriors and the Trail Blazers got swept. Now he is looking at his 33rd birthday. You know who else is 33? Jimmy Butler. He went to Miami and now he’s made it to the NBA Finals twice and if he’d made a jumper at the end of Game 7 against the Celtics a year ago, we’d be talking about Butler being in three Finals in four years.

You know what Lillard wants? That.

Are the Heat the only team who can give him his title shot? They’re not. You know who get better if Lillard replaces Jaylen Brown in Boston? The Celtics do. You know who can probably put together a better package than the Heat can for Lillard? The Knicks probably can if they offer up RJ Barrett and all those draft choices that Leon Rose carries around in his pocket.

This one isn’t about the letter of the law, which absolutely has Lillard still under contract to the Trail Blazers. This is about the spirit of the law, and the spirit of the law in this case says that Lillard has done a lot better by the Portland Trail Blazers than they have done by him. He has given them everything he can give them and they haven’t delivered by putting enough good players around him. And he doesn’t want to give them however much of his prime he has left.

A friend of mine, a guy who’s very smart about sports, said the other day that maybe Lillard should win something before acting as if the league owes him something. This isn’t about the whole league owing him a thing. This is about the Trail Blazers owing this particular player something more than money.

Is this going to be a good divorce if it happens? Very few divorces are, and not just in sports. Clearly Lillard wants an even better deal than he already has, because he wants to go play for a much better team, and that means better than he’s ever had in the 11 seasons he’s played in Portland. He was the sixth player taken in the 2012 draft, out of Weber State. Anthony Davis went first, to New Orleans, and ended up leaving New Orleans because he wanted to win.

Bradley Beal as the third player taken. He went to Washington. Now he’s on his way to go play with Kevin Durant and Devin Booker in Phoenix. He gets a big chance to win. Damian Lillard wants to go play with Jimmy and Bam and get his own chance to win. He’s earned the right. The people he works for know that best of all.


Here is the Yankee batting order that got waxed by the Orioles on Thursday night:

Volpe: .220.

Torres: .245.

Rizzo: .261.

Bader: .264.

Donaldson: .144.

McKinney: .246.

LeMahieu: .219.

Kiner-Falefa: .258.

Trevino: .215.

You know what that is?

What the Yankees are when they aren’t the New York Judges.

And I don’t mean Supreme Court judges.

We talk all the time about how the Mets have under-delivered with their payroll.

Tell me where Hal Steinbrenner is getting a bang for his buck.

What, we aren’t even allowed to dream around here what it would be like watching Shohei Ohtani play for one of our teams?

Is that so wrong?

One of these days, by the way, Mike Trout is going to catch a break that’s not a bad one, like the break he just suffered in his left wrist.

Unless the Angels manage to hang in the wild card race in the American League without him, this will be nine seasons since they played the only three postseason games of his career.

Three games.

One hit.

A homer.

The new season of “Lincoln Lawyer” is merely terrific.

It means that Michael Connelly’s Mickey Haller keeps playing himself into Harry Bosch’s weight class.

Which is saying plenty, believe me.

My pal Stanton is a big Saquon guy, which is why his position right now is that no news is bad news.

Leon Rose ought to have the chops and savvy to sit in a room with the media the way Steve Cohen did and answer some questions.

Because guess what, whether it’s his call or Dolan’s call for him to act as if he’s under some kind of gag order, it’s not the way guys with big jobs are supposed to do it in the big city.

Julius Randle probably isn’t going anywhere.

And Randle has been a really good player here in the regular season.

You just wonder if Knick fans are ever going to forgive him for not showing up against the Hawks in the first round a couple of years ago and not showing up against the Heat in the second round this time.

The Red Sox, who have way more stick than the Yankees do, came into the weekend a grand total of three games behind the Yankees in the loss column.

Which meant the Yankees came into the weekend three games out of last place in the American League East.

I’m just wondering if all the people screaming that David Robertson should have been in that 8th inning against the Phillies checked their outrage a few days later when Robertson coughed it up in an 8th inning against the Giants.

You know who’s going to win a Super Bowl before the Cowboys win another one?


I’m calling that a flop on Britney Spears.


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