Damian Lillard Could Join Curry, Westbrook, Harden Contract Status This Season

Sean Highkin@highkinFeatured ColumnistOctober 2, 2018

Portland Trail Blazers' Damian Lillard poses for a photo during media day in Portland, Ore., Monday, Sept. 24, 2017. The Trail Blazers head into fall camp still stinging from last season’s first-round playoff sweep by New Orleans. Portland returns the nucleus of the team _  Lillard, CJ McCollum and Jusuf Nurkic _ that went 49-33 last season. (AP Photo/Steve Dykes)
Steve Dykes/Associated Press

PORTLAND, Ore. — Amid an offseason that's been defined by superstars changing teamsand a training camp already dominated by the standoff between Jimmy Butler and the Minnesota Timberwolvesthe Portland Trail Blazers have something rare for a small-market team: buy-in from the face of the franchise. And that loyalty could soon make Damian Lillard an even richer man.

In his sixth season in Portland, Lillard had the best year of his career, leading the Blazers to the third seed in the Western Conference (they were swept by New Orleans in the first round of the playoffs) and earning a First-Team All-NBA selection, his first such honor. That puts him halfway to achieving one of the benchmarks that could make him eligible for one of the most lucrative contracts in NBA history, one he can only sign in Portland.

Lillard signed a five-year, $140 million extension in 2015 that will keep him under contract through the 2020-21 season. In a rare move for a star of his caliber, he chose to forego a player option in the final year of his deal. It was a sign of his long-term commitment to seeing things through in Portland, a mindset he reiterated Monday at the team's media day.

"For me, I have never asked for a trade or been in a position where I was like, 'I'm going to tell them to trade me,' because I'm all about the challenge," Lillard said. "But there's also the other side: My family is happy here, I'm happy with my situation here. So if a situation was ever to come up, or if I felt disrespected, or I wasn't valued, or they felt like it was time for me to move on, then that would be the time. But I don't feel that way."

If Lillard continues to be happy and productive in Portland, it could pay off for him in a major way. The NBA's new collective bargaining agreement, which went into effect July 2017, created a new tier of max contracts called the "designated veteran player extension," which rewards only the elite of the elite and incentivizes them to stay with the team that drafted them.

Players who make an All-NBA team or win Defensive Player of the Year in two of the three years preceding the extension, or win MVP once, are entitled to a starting salary of 35 percent of the cap, rather than the normal 30 percent, as well as 8 percent annual raises. The extension is only available to players who sign it with the team that drafted them—or, in the case of James Harden, with a team that traded for them before their rookie contracts were up.

Lillard defending James Harden.
Lillard defending James Harden.Steve Dykes/Associated Press

If Lillard makes an All-NBA team in one of the next two seasons—a reasonable bet—he will be eligible to sign an extension that could be worth as much as $235 million over five years, based on the most recent cap projections.

Thus far, the success of the designated veteran player extension has been limited and in some cases had the opposite of the desired effect.

The Chicago Bulls had reservations about paying Butler that much money on a long-term extension for which he was on his way to becoming eligible, which led in part to their decision to trade him to Minnesota last summer and undertake a full rebuild.

The Sacramento Kings were similarly hesitant to give supermax money to DeMarcus Cousins, instead dealing him to New Orleans at the 2017 trade deadline.

Had he remained in San Antonio, Kawhi Leonard would have been eligible to sign a mega-extension this summer, but he lost out on that payday after his controversial trade to Toronto.

Four players have signed supermax extensions thus far: Harden with the Rockets, Stephen Curry with the Warriors, Russell Westbrook with the Thunder and John Wall with the Wizards. Lillard is part of a crop of stars who will soon be eligible for one of these deals, a group that also features Anthony Davis and Giannis Antetokounmpo.

In the cases of Wall and Westbrook, there are legitimate concerns about how well those contracts will age, as they pay upward of $40 million per year well into their mid-30s. But their teams aren't in markets that typically attract marquee free agents, so they're left with no choice but to pay up to keep the bankable stars they have and worry about the back end later.

John Wall and Russell Westbrook.
John Wall and Russell Westbrook.Sue Ogrocki/Associated Press

If and when the time comes, and Lillard's attitude about staying in Portland remains the same, that's a gamble the Blazers will happily take to keep him around for the foreseeable future. Through his first six seasons, Lillard has been everything you could ever want in a franchise player.

On the court, he's been productive, reliable and durable, never missing more than nine games in a season and making three All-Star teams and three All-NBA teams. Off the court, he has a track record of getting along well with teammates and coaches (he continues to advocate for Terry Stotts, the only coach he has ever known in the NBA), putting in work to recruit free agents to Portland, taking personal responsibility for losses and representing the organization admirably in the media and in his many highly visible marketing campaigns.

Not for nothing did the Blazers announce a jersey-patch sponsorship last week with the pain reliever Biofreeze on the same day the company also announced a multiyear endorsement deal with Lillard. It's a small gesture, but it tracks with everything Lillard has said over the past several years about his long-term commitment to staying in Portland. There should be no reservations on Blazers President Neil Olshey's end about offering him the longest, richest deal he can as soon as he can.

The Blazers enter the 2018-19 season in an uncertain place in a Western Conference that's even more loaded than it was last year. LeBron James' arrival in Los Angeles adds another contender into the mix, and Golden State, Houston, Utah and Oklahoma City aren't going anywhere.

The Blazers had a quiet offseason, letting big man Ed Davis (a Lillard favorite) walk in free agency and signing backup guards Seth Curry and Nik Stauskas. Their cap sheet is clogged with hefty contracts for underperforming role players like Evan Turner and Meyers Leonard. And outside of Lillard's backcourt running mate CJ McCollum, they don't have much that would be attractive to teams in a trade for another impact player.

CJ McCollum and Lillard.
CJ McCollum and Lillard.Craig Mitchelldyer/Associated Press

In the best-case scenario, the Blazers will be what they were last year: a good regular-season team that makes the playoffs without any serious hope of going far. In the worst case, they could be the odd team out in what figures to be a brutally tight race. Missing the playoffs could change Lillard's outlook on his future in Portland, and it could force Olshey to grapple with the long-term viability of this core.

For now, though, both sides are committed to continuing their partnership for the long haul, with work still to do toward their goal of a championship.

"I made another All-Star Game," Lillard said Monday. "I made First-Team All-NBA, which means I was one of the five best players last season. A lot went into it. And then you get into a playoff performance where I expected much better of myself."

Portland's road to the kind of success Lillard envisions will only get tougher. But he's hungry to prove the Blazers' doubters wrong, and it could lead to a huge payday for him with another good year. For Lillard and the Blazers, it's the best possible outcome, and it's one they both want to make happen.