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Damian Lillard's Future Cloudier Than Ever Heading into Tokyo Olympics

Sean Highkin@highkinFeatured ColumnistJuly 10, 2021

Portland Trail Blazers guard Damian Lillard plays during the first half of an NBA basketball game, Wednesday, March 31, 2021, in Detroit. (AP Photo/Carlos Osorio)
Carlos Osorio/Associated Press

Damian Lillard knew the questions were coming. Questions about his involvement, or lack thereof, in the Portland Trail Blazers' coaching search that led to the controversial hiring of Chauncey Billups. Questions about the various reports hinting at his unhappiness in Portland and desire to be traded.

Thursday, following a practice in Las Vegas with the U.S. men's national team ahead of the upcoming Olympics in Tokyo, Lillard addressed the media on Zoom for the first time since the night the Blazers' season ended in a first-round loss to the Denver Nuggets in early June. And he addressed all of it.

What he actually said, or didn't say, and what any of it means, is all open to interpretation. It's going to stay that way for a while, ahead of what promises to be the most uncertain offseason the Blazers have had since he entered the league nine years ago.

Lillard was asked, of course, about the June 27 report from Yahoo Sports' Chris Haynes that suggested he might, for the first time, be looking around at other teams. And while he didn't say he's unhappy in Portland, or that he wants to be traded, neither did he shoot down talk of leaving the Blazers as forcefully as he consistently has for years when the question has come up.

John Locher/Associated Press

"At this point, it's a lot of things being said and sometimes words being put in my mouth and I've never said anything," Lillard said Thursday. "All the people who have covered me since I've been in the NBA should know that if there's something to be said, or I think something or have something to say, then I'm gonna say it and stand on it. 

"Nobody's heard me say any of these things. But anything that I have to say, I'm gonna say it directly to [Blazers president of basketball operations] Neil [Olshey] and I'm gonna address it directly with my team. I don't really have nothing to say to you guys about it. Everything I have to say, has been said to Neil. There's really nothing else that I have to say about it."

Lillard continued to distance himself from the coaching search that led Olshey to hire Billups despite concerns about a 1997 rape allegation that Billups and former teammate Ron Mercer settled out of court in 2000. He again said he was unaware of the allegation when he originally endorsed him and added it's "not my decision or my job" to stop the hire from happening once he learned of it.

At one point, he referred to the Blazers organization as "they," then quickly caught himself and corrected it to "we."

Even when talking about the task in front of him—preparing to play in the Olympics for the first time in his career—he couldn't help but bring up the disappointment of Portland's fourth first-round playoff exit in five seasons, at the hands of a Denver team missing star guard Jamal Murray and several other key players.

"It left a sour taste in my mouth, losing so early against a team that was beat up and I expected to win that series," he said in response to a question about why he's excited to play for Team USA. "It gave me that itch to jump back in and play and have a chance to win and not have to sit around for a full summer and think about how we exited the playoffs."

Jack Dempsey/Associated Press

Similarly, he spoke of his excitement about playing with other go-to scorers like Bradley Beal and Jayson Tatum, and said that advice from championship-winning national team coaches Gregg Popovich and Steve Kerr "hits a little bit different" because they've won "at the level I want to be on."

All of this can be read whichever way you want to read it. Blazers fans looking for reasons for optimism can point to his comments about his long-standing friendship with Billups and respect for the former Finals MVP's accomplishments as a player. Fans of other teams putting together their Trade Machine deals can take his continued frustration with the end of Portland's season and excitement about playing with other stars as signs he's starting to realize a championship with the team that drafted him is unlikely.

On Friday morning, ESPN's Brian Windhorst said on SportsCenter that Lillard's camp has been in touch with different teams as potential landing spots, before walking that report back and clarifying that other teams are simply preparing to make offers to the Blazers if he does in fact ask out. Between these reports and Lillard's lukewarm endorsement of Billups on Thursday, there's more smoke to the idea that he could change teams than there has ever been.

Don't expect it to happen this summer, though. Not when Lillard's four-year, $176 million super-max contract is only just kicking in. Lillard could walk into Olshey's office straight off the plane from Tokyo and ask for a trade, and Portland would have no reason to say yes.

The other telling comment from Lillard's Thursday session, in response to a question about his overall thoughts on the Billups hire:

"I'm prepared to go in and do my job every year like I always do. Hopefully we can make strides in a positive direction and become a better team with a new coach."

Meaning: If Lillard does ask for a trade and doesn't get one before the start of training camp in September, he isn't going to pull a James Harden and make it a distraction. He'll handle it like Chris Paul, who requested a trade from New Orleans in the summer of 2010, then didn't address the issue again during a season in which he led the Hornets to the playoffs. Paul ultimately got his wish and was traded to the Clippers—run at the time, coincidentally, by Olshey—following the 2011 lockout.

The next month with the national team may, as Lillard put it, clear his head and renew his focus on winning in Portland. It could also lead him to finally push for greener pastures. Reading the tea leaves, it's hard to deny things are trending in the latter direction. But tea leaves are all they are right now.

 

Sean Highkin covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. He is a graduate of the University of Oregon and lives in Portland. His work has been honored by the Pro Basketball Writers' Association. Follow him on Twitter, Instagram and in the B/R App.