Canzano: Trail Blazers should free Damian Lillard
Franchise plan to build around star is stale.
Victor Wembanyama would have looked stunning in a Trail Blazers uniform. And for a few minutes on Tuesday night — one lovely NBA Draft Lottery commercial break — that thought made basketball feel fun again in Portland.
All that evaporated when the Blazers left Chicago with the No. 3 pick in next month’s draft. Portland will either trade the pick or draft a player two spots after Wembanyama is off the board. Not long after the lottery, the franchise blasted a marketing email, announcing that the master plan is to build around Damian Lillard this summer.
Was that message for fans?
Or for Lillard?
Who are the Blazers trying to keep happy here?
Wembanyama would have been the great equalizer for Portland. Landing a generational 7-foot-5 star prospect would have made building a contender with Lillard a plausible thought. No marketing messages needed. Just suit the guy up and let the intrigue sell season tickets and sponsorships.
If you haven’t heard yet, ‘Wemby’ walks on water. He jumps into his basketball shorts — two legs at a time. He’s so gifted that ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski announced during the broadcast that Wembanyama may never play in front of an empty seat during his NBA career, home or away. The four-letter network even dispatched NBA reporter Brian Windhorst to Paris for a 70-second interview with the kid at 2:30 a.m. local time.
I hope Windhorst got frequent-flyer miles and a warm croissant for his trouble.
Build a winner? Around Lillard? Hmmm… where have we heard that before?
The current basketball operations team led by general manager Joe Cronin has little proof of performance, limited relationships with agents, few tangible assets and a shortage of cap space. That’s not a winning hand. The Blazers must know that the move that needs to be made is a pivot toward the franchise’s future.
I’m also certain that the organization doesn’t have the stomach to do what’s necessary — trade Lillard and set up the franchise’s next act. It will leave Lillard to do the dirty work.
Lillard turns 33 in July. The Blazers hold the No. 3 and 23 picks. The roster has some promising talent under the age of 25. Yet, the Blazers spun out of Tuesday night’s lottery selling the notion that it’s determined to once again try to build a winner around Lillard. How exactly? By mortgaging part of the future to cling to dying past?
I hope the whole plan is a head fake. I also wonder how much longer Lillard is willing to stick around and get his teeth kicked in. He’s been loyal. The franchise has made him wealthy in return. But Portland needs to start all the way over. This is not a franchise that can reboot while playing a tired game of charades.
It’s time to free Dame.
Lillard will make $45.6 million next season. He’ll be paid $48.8 million in 2024-25 and $58.5 million in 2025-26. Maybe he’ll age well and remain an All-NBA player in those final years. But he’s an eroding asset and his contract should be utilized to position the franchise for a brighter future.
The new plan sounds suspiciously like the old plan.
It’s a bag of day-old bread.
The Trail Blazers used to be bold, fun and innovative. Harry Glickman founded the NBA franchise with a dream and a raincoat. Broadcaster Bill Schonely coined the “RIP CITY” catch phrase. And front-office executive Jon Spoelstra was a well-documented genius. Those years feel so far away.
Remember Trader Bob?
Remember how late owner Paul Allen played the role of Wizard of Oz?
It was fun watching the franchise go for it. But Portland is stuck now. Stuck in the middle. Stuck in ownership hell. Stuck in the decade-old spring tradition of declaring, “We’re building around Lillard.”
It’s why Wembanyama and that four-minute commercial break felt so intriguing. For a few minutes, hope ruled. The possibilities felt endless. If you closed your eyes, you could almost see Wembanyama in a Portland jersey.
Had the Blazers landed the No. 1 pick on Tuesday, this would have been a very different column. Like you, I’d have loved to see Lillard with another star draft pick by his side for the next few years. Now, I’m wondering whether this franchise knows what must be done.
Successful sports franchises know when to pivot.
Someone needs to tell the Trail Blazers before Lillard does that himself.
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They'll keep Lillard for as long as he's willing to stay, and do what little they can to convince him and everyone else they're building a contender around him. They'll do this because Lillard sells tickets, and money is all that matters. So get ready to see the #3 pick traded for some random good-but-not-great veteran, similar to Jerami Grant, then squint at the roster and try to conjure thoughts of how a rag-tag bunch could get hot at just the right time next spring. Then get ready for the third straight season of tanking next February, when the inevitable mediocrity becomes reality and the "injuries" pile up. Rinse. Repeat.
Let Damian go.
It gives him a better shot at rewarding his prodigious talent. The team hasn't done that. By contrast, Damian's departure rewards the Blazers with players in trade. Do it now.