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Canzano: Damian Lillard puts Trail Blazers on notice
Star guard sat quietly for too long.
I don’t know if you caught Stephen A. Smith’s interview with Trail Blazers’ star Damian Lillard on Wednesday, but it has me wanting to hear more from Lillard.
Lillard said of his NBA employer, “They know how important it is to just be on a competitive team, on a level that we can make a run in the playoffs. That just has to happen. I think we all know that.”
Smith followed up: “Is that your way of saying the Portland Trail Blazers are on the clock? They’ve got to show a level of urgency or else?”
What Lillard wants, he gets. Nobody’s voice carries more weight at One Center Court. For a while now, I’ve wondered if Lillard has enabled the sputtering and struggling franchise by sitting quietly when he should be shouting from the arena rafters.
An “or else” moment from Lillard?
“It ain’t a threat,” Lillard told Smith. “I ain’t gonna say I’m putting them on a clock. I’m just saying if those things can’t be done, (if) we can’t do something significant like that then you know we won’t have a chance to compete on that level. And then not only will I have a decision to make. I think the organization will too.
“At that point, it’s like, you know, are you going to go young or are we going to get something done? I think we’ve just kind of not fully committed to either one. I just think we’re at that point now where everybody wants to win. They believe that I deserve that opportunity.”
Lillard is a talent. His back has to be sore from carrying the roster for the last several years. For crying out loud, he scored 71 points in a game this season. But lately, I’ve been wondering if Lillard played a crippling role in Portland’s chronic futility.
He has juice.
Why hasn’t Lillard used it more often?
The Blazers have made a series of underwhelming moves in recent years. It’s no accident that the franchise finds itself in the NBA Draft Lottery for the second-straight season. The roster is broken. The head coach is inexperienced. So is the general manager. Ownership is absent. There are some big-picture problems that will be difficult to overcome in the next 90 days. But that’s exactly the task after Lillard issued Wednesday night’s “code red” to his employer.
I was delighted to see Lillard go public with his thoughts. He could help stop the current slide into oblivion by going stronger — a lot stronger — with his feelings in the coming weeks.
The Blazers organizational DNA is part of the problem here. The franchise is reactive vs. proactive. It doesn’t make big plans or take risks. Trail Blazers, Inc. stalled on the side of the road a while ago. It desperately needs accountability to get started again. The organization was overdue for an “or else” moment.
Smith teed Lillard up for it on Wednesday. The Blazers’ guard used it to set the stage for a “get something done” summer. But I hope he follows up in the coming days with more pointed words.
Stay on message.
Last summer, Portland gave Lillard a two-year, $121.77 million contract extension. It runs through 2026-27. The guaranteed money and security are nice. But on Wednesday it didn’t sound like Lillard was interested in sticking around much longer to continue to get his teeth kicked in.
“If things can’t be done…”
“If we can’t do something significant…”
“I have a decision to make…”
The franchise does, too. There’s a strong possibility that the only way out of this mess is to trade the best player on the roster and start over with a pile of draft picks and assets. But first, the team must explore every alternate avenue.
Lillard wasn’t talking like a guy who is wishing and hoping. Landing the No. 1 pick in the NBA Draft (Victor Wembanyama) would be a gift. But Lillard knows there’s a 90 percent chance that doesn’t happen. He was talking instead about making bold moves involving proven NBA players. It should have been the franchise’s singular mission all along.
Lillard has been a resident of Oregon long enough to know that July is a wonderful month with sunny skies and plenty to do, but this summer for the first time in decades, it needs to rain NBA talent.
Portland doesn’t have a bunch of cap space for a major free-agent signing. It would have to pay luxury tax like the Suns, Warriors, Lakers, Celtics, Clippers, Nuggets and Bucks will this season. Portland has a lottery pick and a few young players that might be used in a trade. Also, it has a star player finally speaking his mind.
Lillard essentially said to the Blazers on Wednesday, “get your s**t together.”
It was about Dame time if you ask me.
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