Stay battered or to betray: How long is too long to stay with a franchise without major success?
Updated: Jun 6, 2021
by Cole Blenner
Immediately after The Portland Trail Blazers lost to the Denver Nuggets in the game six of a first round series in the 2021 playoffs, superstar Point Guard Damian Lilliard got bombarded with an all to familiar question. "What does your future hold?""Do you think you can win a title in Portland?" "What needs to change?" In the past, Lilliard has been adamant about his loyalty to Portland and the Blazers franchise. That night, June 3rd 2021 to be exact, he took a different tone. His energy was that of defeat more than resilience, something the man has shown in spades. Mentions of "going back to the drawing board." Dame was quoted saying "Obviously were we are now isn't good enough." I take a partial quote out of context, but still. As a lone superstar in a small market he starts to ponder what stars like Dirk Nowitzki and Kevin Garnett had pondered before. "How long is 'too long'?"
The question is different for every player. For the two examples used above, we can envision a fork in the road that is the seperate, but shockingly similiar careers that almost paralleled each other in an odd way. Let's start with Dirk, one of the first prep to pro Euro-prospects. He was drafted by the Milwaukee Bucks in the 1998 NBA Draft, but a draft night trade immediately sent him to a larger market team in the Dallas Mavericks. Dirk would never done another teams jersey as he spent all of legendary 21 year career with the Mavericks, an NBA record. Garnett, whose career also spanned 21 years, however chose to trek a different path. The high school phenom was selected fifth in the 1995 NBA draft by the Minnesota Timberwolves, and would play for the franchise for 12 years before leaving. Garnett right off the bat featured heavily for the small market team, who had only been a franchise for 6 years before that. Garnett was a perennial MVP candidate for the majority of his time in Minnesota and even led some impressive teams to the playoffs. None were more notable than the the 2003-2004 team that finished with a 58-24 record and secured the top seed in the Western Conference. The happiness however, would be short lived. After wins in the first two rounds against the Denver Nuggets and Sacramento Kings (the latter of which went to seven games), the Wolves were primed for a matchup against defending three time champions, The Los Angeles Lakers. They fell in six games, but even then the series never seemed close. Garnett and star center Shaquille O'Neal were a great matchup, but second star Kobe Bryant proved too much for the rest of the Wolves.
Garnett never again was able to reach such success in the Land of a Thousand Lakes. Three short years later he would demand a trade and be shipped off to Boston, reigniting a historic, but recently struggling Celtics franchise. Garnett teamed with Paul Pierce and Ray Allen to lead the modern day 'Big 3' era push with a superstar team up that would eventually bear fruit in a 2008 NBA championship win. That title, however, would be Garnett's only one. A failed late career run in Brooklyn eventually led Garnett back to the Timberwolves in the twilight of his career for more of a mentorship role, but long gone were his days of playing a meaningful part on a title contender. So who was right in the end? The loyal star or star who left?
Let's flip back to Damian Lilliard one short second, because he now faces the big question. How long is too long to stay on one team and when is the right time to jump ship? We talked about Kevin's journey, now, let's jump back to Dirk. Dirk started coming into his own in the early 2000's, running with a 'Big 3' of his own with teammates Michael Finley and Steve Nash. That team never went to the NBA Finals though. In 2006 we thought we saw Dirk's greatest chance. After finishing second in the western conference with 60 wins, Dirk and the Mavericks ran through the Western Conference playoffs to set up a matchup against a young Miami Heat squad that featured a blossoming Dwayne Wade and established star in Shaquille O'Neal. Nowitzki's Mavericks squad couldn't quite cut the mustard, as Wade certified himself as a superstar en route to a legendary Finals MVP run in a 6 game series that never quite seemed that close(sound familiar?) 2007 saw the Mavericks once again finish among the leagues best, before a shocking first round upset to the eighth seeded Golden State Warriors, led by Baron Davis. With the lose, it started bringing up the same questions as Garnett was facing. Can Dirk lead this team to an NBA title? Will he win a title in Dallas? Should he consider asking for a trade? Those questions would be answered as he stayed with the team. Leading them to a 2011 shock title win over the Miami Heat, the team that beat him 5 years prior. That team though was much better than the 2006 squad, featuring the fabled 'Big 3' of LeBron James, Dwayne Wade and Chris Bosh. Nowitzki would win his title, the only of his career.
To be fair to Garnett though, Dirk had one major advantage over Garnett in his career, and that is the market. It has been known for a long time that athletes will always favor bigger cities due to the natural fan reach, media presence, and potential for endorsements and other monetary opportunities. There is a reason that cities like Los Angeles, Boston, New York, Chicago and Miami have been attractions over teams in cities like Minneapolis, Salt Lake City, Portland and New Orleans. Garnett's best teammates over the years were either past their prime(Sam Cassell), not quite good enough to be a second star(Wally Sczerbiak), or just didn't live up to the hype of before they came to town(Latrell Sprewell) . Nowitzki, fared better. Teaming with the aforementioned Nash and Finley, he still featured Jason Kidd, Caron Butler, Tyson Chandler and Shawn Marion on the 2011 title team and was routinely able to attract talent to Dallas, even if they were past their prime a smidge. Garnett went to Boston as one of those type of acquisitions to join Pierce, and Allen would soon follow suite. Players just want to play where the people are. Where the money is. Where a team has a legacy. What about when you want to build that legacy yourself though? It seemed as if early career Garnett was in it for the long haul, just as Damian Lilliard has been. However, as cracks in the pavement start to show, as the frustrations start to seep out, we wonder which route the embattled superstar will take.
Now to say that Lilliard has carried the Blazers, would be an understatement. Since his arrival, Dame has been the face of the Portland franchise and it's greatest player to ever don a jersey. His jaw-dropping, game-winning shots have become the stuff of legends. 'Dame Time' has become commonplace for when this man can take over games late in the fourth quarter or in overtime, and alongside Steph Curry, he popularized the deep 3. The phrase "in the gym range" was coined for his ability to shot well from anywhere on his half of the court. Still, Lilliard has not had the success you would imagine as you would expect from a top player. Portland has made the playoffs seven of Dame's eight seasons, but have only seen the second round twice, and the conference finals once (a sweep by the Golden State Warriors). His frustrations were understandable following yet another first round exit in 2021. With CJ McCollum and late career Carmelo Anthony not cutting it as second or third options, Lilliard feels like a man on an island. Stuck with one or two tool players around him, one wonders if he were to miss a whole season how bad the Blazers really would be. His comments could be taken as he is given up, but this is coming one day after their loss, so you can imagine that the heat is high right about now. Still, Lilliard's comment range more on the side of "Here is your warning, get me some stars....Or else." rather than actual trade demands in my opinion. Still, as a Miami Heat fan (whose team is just one star PG from a complete title-contending team), the interest is starting to pique on what it would take to pry the bonafide star from his long suffering relationship. If the past is any given indication, Portland is more likely to muck up any attempt at improving a team rather than give the man what he wants. History has proven that all too true
Portland has a long history of disappointment. After success in the early stages of Bill Walton's career, The great center caught the injury bug, and never let it go. They have also had the misfortune of such prospects such as Sam Bowie, Greg Oden, and as mentioned, Walton himself succumbing to injury. A running joke in the NBA is that big men go to Portland to die. Even Lamarcus Aldrige, the superstar before him, abandoned ship for greener pastures and a title shot in San Antonio towards the twilight of his career after years of middling success but not ever being considered a real threat. It is essentially purgatory to constantly be towards the bottom of the playoff, but never be bad enough to secure a top pick in the lottery. Unless you draft a gem, which Portland seems the least likely place to do so, then you are stuck there until you lose the talent that keeps you in that realm. Then it is back to the drawing board to change your fortunes. Those fortunes did change however when they selected Damian Lilliard with the sixth pick in the 2012 NBA draft. Suddenly Aldridge had a dynamic guard to pair with and the PDX area was lit a flame again. The hopes of bringing a title to the small Oregon city, it's first and only title coming in 1977, seemed bright. Those hopes though have faded with the exit of Aldridge, the inconsistent play of players not named Damian Lilliard, and Portlands refusal to go out and get him an adequate second star. Lamaracus left for that reason in kind, and Dame may be next. No longer a young man, turning thirty-one in July, he is still in the prime of his career so whether he stays or goes, the time to strike is now. It should of been two years with the emergence of CJ McCollum as an assumed second star, but nothing ever materialized. They tripped and fell into their third best player when signing Carmelo Anthony to a 10 day contract, during a time when the entire NBA was in belief that he was not league material. The Trail Blazers have not been able to get the star power or depth needed to win a title. Whether that reason is that nobody wanting to play there or the Blazers refusal to pay the price that comes with getting star players we may not know. What we do know is this, it will all come to a head soon.
My opinion, move on. Trade Damian to a title contender that needs him and collect the assets. CJ McCollum should fetch a fair price as well being he is twenty-nine and one of the better two guards in the league, but we have seen this before from Portland. They are more likely to fumble the situation in historic fashion than actually bring a roster around, in my opinion, the best Point Guard in the league(yes I am aware of the existence of one Stephen Curry). The battered legend in the making can receive his greatest gift from Portland and that is his freedom. There will be a long list of callers. Less than twenty four hours after the game there have been reports six or seven teams calling on him that would sell the farm of picks and prospects for him. Teams like the Boston Celtics, Miami Heat, and New York Knicks would get him far away from Portland and to the opposite side of the league. In any of those environments (Miami preferably) he would be teamed up with young, hungry rosters that would immediately be top title contenders. Boston has had a recent front office shake-up so we can't speak to leadership, but Tom Thibodeau and Erik Spoelstra are among the leagues top coaches who would match the mental IQ of Lilliard. Sure there are early rumors of Jason Kidd coming there to coach but.....Kidd hasn't impressed as a coach so far. There is still a chance that Portland does as Portland does and flips us(and Dame) the proverbial finger while adding middling pieces, and likely hiring Kidd to appease Lilliard, hoping he can lead them again in another year that will seem ill-fated from the start. Why run him through the ringer again? Let the man go and give him the Garnett route. Because, unfortunately, I don't see a world where he wins a ring in Portland. And that, Ladies and Gentlemen, is not a world I want to live in.