Damian Lillard finally decided Saturday that he has run out of time in Portland. The Trail Blazers star requested a trade after 11 years of giving it all to the organization, but with the franchise not always fully returning the favor.
The Oakland native has made it clear where he wants to go next, and it’s hard to blame him on his preferred destination. Lillard wants to go to the Miami Heat, the reigning Eastern Conference champions who made it to the NBA Finals as a No. 8 seed, to contend for a title alongside Jimmy Butler and Bam Adebayo. Unlike Bradley Beal, though, Lillard doesn’t have a no-trade clause. He doesn’t exactly control his own destiny.
Do the Blazers owe it to Lillard to give him a new home he wants? Emotionally, yes. Of course. Lillard would be leaving as the best Blazer of all time. Ever. And that list has some strong candidates.
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He’s a seven-time All-NBA player and seven-time NBA All-Star in 11 seasons, earned an NBA 75 nod and has built himself into one of greatest shooters in history. But he’s also turning 33 years old in two weeks and still owed $204 million over the next four years. Lillard will make $63 million when he’s 36. The Blazers are building an exciting young core led by Scoot Henderson and Shaedon Sharpe.
They have to do what’s right by them, and the Heat don’t offer the best package. A team out West that could look to give the Blazers a deal that fits Portland’s timeline and helps in other ways would be a bigger worry to the Warriors, too.
Danny Ainge isn’t afraid to take major swings, and the Utah Jazz are said to he interested in adding Lillard. The Jazz have nearly $40 million of expiring contracts on their roster and have a ton of future draft picks and young assets to shed. Utah just had a quietly great draft, adding Taylor Hendricks, Keyontae George and Brice Sensabaugh.
Plus, Lillard already is familiar with Utah. He played college ball at Weber State in Ogden, which is about an hour north of Salt Lake City.
Golden State Warriors
The Jazz were supposed to be at the bottom of the barrel last season after trading All-Stars Donovan Mitchell and Rudy Gobert. They also struck gold in each trade, with Mitchell going to the Cleveland Cavaliers and Gobert to the Minnesota Timberwolves. Each move brought back a player who could now form a versatile Big Three with someone like Lillard.
Lauri Markkanen (Mitchell trade) broke out in his Age 25 season after being given a bigger scoring role, averaging 25.6 points, 8.6 rebounds and shooting 39.1 percent from 3-point range. He made the All-Star Game for the first time last season, is in his prime at 26 years old and is a 7-foot forward who would stretch the floor alongside Lillard.
Walker Kessler (Gobert trade) is a 7-foot-1 center who turns 22 years old in July and looks like a dynamic future Defensive Player of the Year on a rookie contract. Utah found him at No. 26 overall in last year’s draft thanks to being part of a five-player, five-draft-pick gift from the Timberwolves. Kessler averaged 2.3 blocks per game as a rookie in only 23 minutes per game.
Gobert, the former three-time Defensive Player of the Year, averaged 1.4 blocks in 30.7 minutes.
But the Jazz also traded for John Collins this offseason and are bringing back former Sixth Man of the Year Jordan Clarkson on a three-year contract. Clarkson scored a career-high 20.8 points last season, and while Collins’ 13.8 points per game were a career-low, he has averaged more than 15 points four times and averaged a 21.6-point, 10.1-rebound double-double in 2019-20.
Optimism in calling the Jazz favorites in the Western Conference if they land Lillard would likely still be relatively low. Adding him makes them contenders. It’s hard to argue that. Lillard’s decline will come eventually, but I wouldn’t bet on it being around the corner after a season where he averaged a career-high 32.2 points, as well as 7.3 assists and 4.8 rebounds, shooting 37.1 percent beyond the arc and tying his career high of a 46.3 field-goal percentage.
This roster would give Lillard the most versatile talent he has ever played with, and probably the most secondary scorers. Running through the West that has Lillard in a Jazz jersey makes it that much more of a battle for the Warriors and everybody else. Lillard wants South Beach, and the Warriors should hope his reality isn’t Salt Lake.