Damian Lillard, Scoot Henderson and the NBA Circle of Life in Small Markets

You are the Portland Trail Blazers. Your star player Damian Lillard has stuck with milling to build an NBA title contender in a small market, only help never came, because you are the Portland Trail Blazers.

LaMarcus Aldridge left when unrestricted free agency first opened an outlet in 2015. You built as best you could around Lillard. You first developed CJ McCollum and then Anfernee Simons as high-profile (if incongruous) backcourt scoring partners. You acquired Jusuf Nurkić to fill the center position. You’ve gone through every complementary wing you could find, a list that includes Jerami Grant, Matisse Thybulle, Josh Hart, Norman Powell, Robert Covington, Gary Trent Jr., Trevor Ariza and 35-year-old Carmelo Anthony.

They’re good players, good enough to help Lillard reach the 2019 Western Conference Finals in a group that featured arguably the greatest team in NBA history. The fringe moves may have improved you slightly, but Kevin Durant never considered you in 2016. You had to overwhelm Evan Turner and Festus Ezeli just to lure them to Portland. There’s no sense in creating salary cap space when you can’t attract stars, and every trade should be made knowing that the acquisition could be launched at the first opportunity.

Take Jimmy Butler, for example. He was available from the Minnesota Timberwolves in 2018, but that would have required trading McCollum with no assurance that Butler would re-sign to Portland the following summer. Maybe a season of Lillard and Butler would have been worth it. More likely, Butler is still forcing his way to Miami, and you’ve gone from McCollum to Hassan Whiteside or Josh Richardson in the span of a year.

Now, 11 seasons into his quest for a championship, a 32-year-old Lillard wants to quit your team and join Butler’s Heat in a deal that only makes it harder for you to build a winner in a media market of the last 10. He wants what he once refused, to join other stars in a glamorous market, because the system has exhausted him.

It has been the circle of life for teams in Minnesota, Orlando, Sacramento, Charlotte, Indiana, Utah, Oklahoma City, New Orleans and Memphis, among others, during their whole existence. It could hit Portland particularly hard, since Lillard’s request comes at the end of the empowerment era, when a player with four years and $216 million remaining on his contract can name his next team, just before a new collective agreement designed to combat a similar freedom of movement. complicates the life of each front office.

The Pelicans are on their third trip around that circle since the league expanded in 2002. They drafted Chris Paul in 2005 and rode on his success until his refusal to re-sign to Nova Scotia. Orléans forced him to trade in 2011, a year before his unrestricted freedom. agency. The Pelicans drafted Anthony Davis in 2012 and walked the same loop until 2019, when they handed him over to the only team he would re-sign with in his next free agency. That same year, they drafted Zion Williamson, who is now four years away from entering the final year of his contract.

The cycle was so common that you could set your clocks on when a star might seek trade from his small market to a glamorous city. There’s even a name for it: pre-agency. It can go many ways and most lead to Los Angeles. Only one – the riskiest route for a non-destination – led to a championship.

The Lakers and Clippers were reluctant to empty their caches of assets to acquire a then-injured Kawhi Leonard in 2018, knowing they had an inside line to sign him in free agency a year later when everyone would know. more on a chronic injury to his right quadriceps. Meanwhile, the Toronto Raptors stepped up with an offer of DeMar DeRozan, Jakob Poeltl and a first-round pick in the top-20 protected. Toronto is a big market but operates much like a small one in Canada, where they’ve paid the luxury tax once since 2004 – for the 2018-19 season, when Leonard led the Raptors to their only title before heading to Los Angeles.

The risk earned them a ring. A number of factors could have made us look back on Leonard’s trade and the four years since he left free agency — a playoff win and two lottery appearances — in a different light. Leonard has appeared in all of the Raptors’ playoff games, which he’s only done once since 2016. His Game 7 buzzer-beater in the Eastern Conference Semifinals bounced four times before to find the bottom of the basket. Durant and Klay Thompson both suffered series-ending injuries in the 2019 NBA Finals against Toronto. Everything had to go well for Toronto, and it happened.

The Thunder’s attempt to thread that same needle backfired. After trading future MVP James Harden to cut costs in 2012 and losing Durant to free agency in 2016, they took a hit on Paul George in 2017, trading future All-Stars Victor Oladipo and Domantas Sabonis to the Indiana Pacers, knowing that George preferred to play in Los Angeles. Oklahoma City even signed George to a maximum contract extension a year later, believing the gamble paid off, only to lose him to his trade request to join Leonard on the Clippers in 2019.

Maybe it’s just the natural order of the NBA. Either the trade works or it doesn’t. Your star is good enough to lead you to a championship, or it isn’t. Giannis Antetokounmpo and Nikola Jokić have led the small-market Milwaukee Bucks and Denver Nuggets to titles in two of the past three years. Lillard is not on their level, and that’s NBA life. Except the natural order makes NBA life a little easier in destination cities, where you don’t need a winning lottery ticket to craft a ring. You only need perpetual sunshine.

Damian Lillard has made seven All-NBA appearances in 11 seasons for the Portland Trail Blazers.  (Abbie Parr/Getty Images)

Damian Lillard has made seven All-NBA appearances in 11 seasons for the Portland Trail Blazers. (Abbie Parr/Getty Images)

The Lakers pulled a title from years of mismanagement, simply because LeBron James wanted to live in Los Angeles, and his agent persuaded Davis to join him. The Heat rebounded from a downturn because Butler wanted to play in Miami, and the Philadelphia 76ers inexplicably forced him. That doesn’t happen for a team like the Blazers, who can’t attract stars and can’t get equal value when their own want to leave.

At least the smaller market teams were being rewarded when the empowerment era was in full swing. OKC received Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Danilo Gallinari, five first-round picks (four unprotected) and two pick trades in exchange for George. The Thunder had leverage, knowing that Leonard was threatening to join the Lakers if the Clippers didn’t land George. Why the Lakers traded so many for Davis — Brandon Ingram, Lonzo Ball, Hart, three first-round picks and a trade — is beyond me, since his agent (like Lillard’s) made it clear he only wanted to play for one. only team, but the Pelicans have had a boost for their next round of rebuilding.

Small market teams reacted with trading stars before all leverage was removed. The San Antonio Spurs treated Dejounte Murray with two years remaining on his contract, and the Utah Jazz dumped Donovan Mitchell with three years remaining on his, understanding that the return would soon dwindle as they get closer to free agency. .

Team owners also slipped a poison pill into the new CBA, severely limiting a star’s ability to get their max contract and choose their next destination. Starting next summer, second-board teams (half the league has pledged to spend more than the current figure of $179.5 million) must send 100% of incoming wages but cannot stack outgoing contracts or signing and trading an outgoing player to do so.

In other words, the Heat may not be able to acquire Lillard in a year, so we’re seeing a star rush for single-destination trades. Everyone understands the stakes, except everyone who assumes that this Lillard precedent – asking a trade to the team of his choice with four years remaining on his contract – is the next step in the age of empowerment and not the last gasp. The teams are particularly sensitive to this.

In exchange for Bradley Beal, the Washington Wizards – another big market that operates like a small market (a worrying trend for players) – accepted what amounted to Jordan Poole, Landry Shamet, a protected first-round pick among the 20 first, four trades and seven second-round picks. Beal had a no-trade clause and the Wizards wanted to terminate his contract, which includes a $57.1 million player option for the 2026-27 season.

The Blazers aren’t just trying to lose Lillard’s salary, just like the Sixers aren’t willing to deal Harden in exchange for anything the Clippers can cobble together. They want maximum value — the type of deal the Pelicans and Thunder received for Davis and George, respectively — except that Miami and LA are taking advantage of this last gasp before the new, highly restrictive CBA. Who else will part with significant assets for a well-paid 33-year-old at this point and when else will a title contender be able to trade for him?

If Lillard doesn’t change Miami’s championship fortunes, they could pay him $58.5 million at age 35 with no recourse but to wait until his contract expires in 2027. There’s a risk to that too, and for all its flaws, the new ABC might have achieved something good by making life harder for everyone, not just small markets.

It’s an unfortunate time for the Blazers, and they’ll likely be forced to accept a few first-round picks, maybe trades and whatever else they can get from a third team for Tyler Herro in exchange for Lillard. It’s easier to swallow with Scoot Henderson. The hope is that Henderson gets to the level of Jokić or Antetokounmpo, and that the ABC levels the playing field so you can build a better roster around him.

You are the Portland Trail Blazers, and your NBA life circle begins again, only the future is better.

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