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Damian Lillard Wants 'Urgency', Puts Pressure Squarely on Blazers' Front Office

Sean Highkin@highkinFeatured ColumnistJuly 17, 2021

Portland Trail Blazers guard Damian Lillard brings the ball up court against the Golden State Warriors during the second half of an NBA basketball game in Portland, Ore., Wednesday, March 3, 2021. (AP Photo/Craig Mitchelldyer)
Craig Mitchelldyer/Associated Press

The one thing Damian Lillard didn't do Friday was actually ask for a trade.

Putting the most public pressure he's ever put on the Portland Trail Blazers to make real roster changes this offseason? Yes. Reiterating that he wants to retire with the organization that drafted him, but with heavy qualifiers about needing to win? Also yes. A non-committal stance about his future? Yes again.

Lillard's Zoom media session from Team USA training camp in Las Vegas came on the heels of a sit-down interview with Yahoo Sports' Chris Haynes in which he walked right up to the line of saying he wants out of Portland but stopped short of actually doing it.

What matters in the short term: Lillard said a Friday morning report from the website TrueHoop claiming he's preparing to request a trade soon is "not true." He also answered yes when asked directly whether he expects to still be in Portland at the start of next season.

Beyond that, it's not hard to see where this is headed if the team doesn't shake things up in a major way. More major than anything they've done since the departure of LaMarcus Aldridge in 2015.

"Right now, I'm not sure what I'm going to do," Lillard said. "What I can say is that my intention and my heart is on being in a Trail Blazers uniform for my entire career. But I think over time, you want to win it all. I want to win it all in a Trail Blazers uniform. But we all have to be making strides towards that."

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The "we all" there is undoubtedly a stand-in for one person: Blazers president of basketball operations Neil Olshey, the only other constant in the organization besides Lillard now that longtime head coach Terry Stotts is gone.

Olshey drafted Lillard in 2012 and C.J. McCollum in 2013. He retooled effectively around the two guards when Aldridge left, but later hamstrung the team with big contracts for the likes of Evan Turner, Meyers Leonard and Allen Crabbe. Since then, he has been content, almost defiant, in his desire to keep Lillard and McCollum together even as it's grown increasingly obvious that trading McCollum is the only way to make the kind of roster upgrades Lillard clearly wants.

Greg Wahl-Stephens/Associated Press

Olshey was also the driving force behind the team's badly mishandled coaching search, which ended in the hire of Chauncey Billups last month after what Olshey said was a "thorough" investigation into a 1997 rape allegation that Billups and then-Celtics teammate Ron Mercer settled out of court in 2000. Subsequent reporting from OPB and Defector suggests the investigation wasn't nearly as rigorous as he claimed it was. 

Some of the blowback for the hire has landed at the feet of Lillard, who has gone to great lengths to distance himself from the process. That was just the latest instance of others having to answer for problems Olshey created while he's enjoyed more or less complete autonomy since the death of governor Paul Allen in 2018. (Allen's sister, Jody, is the team's current acting governor and is considerably more hands-off in basketball operations.)

On June 7, in his end-of-season press conference following the decision to part ways with Stotts, Olshey said the team's first-round playoff exit was "not a product of the roster." He also hinted that the coaching change will likely be the biggest move he makes this summer.

Lillard made it clear on Friday that isn't going to do it for him. Olshey's usual modus operandi—running back the core of Lillard, McCollum and Jusuf Nurkic while changing out some supporting players on the margins—won't move Lillard to stop thinking about seeking a championship elsewhere. Lillard again brought up the Blazers' first-round loss to an injured, shorthanded Denver Nuggets team as a clarifying moment for him on the hard ceiling of that group.

"I don't disagree that maybe Chauncey can really change our team and make us a better team and get us going in that direction," Lillard said. "But I think if you look at our team as it is going into next season, I don't see how you can say, 'This is a championship team, we just need a new coach.'"

John Locher/Associated Press

Lillard was scheduled to meet with Billups and Olshey in Las Vegas later Friday. What he'll tell them will likely be the same as he told the world on Friday: He's not asking for a trade yet, but that's very much subject to change.

"I think the best way to put it is just to be more urgent," Lillard said. "Be more urgent about what our next step is and how we move forward. We have a lot of pride about, 'We've made the playoffs all these years.' We're not a bad team. We're a winning team. We've got a great environment. We have a great city. We have great fans. It's a lot of positives. 

"But I just think we've reached that point where we're like, 'OK, but it's not enough.' Do we want to win it all? Do we actually want to do that? Then we've got to do things to show that. Put action behind that desire to win at that level."

      

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.

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