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Is this the offseason, at long last, in which Damian Lillard pushes his way out of Portland?
This next week or so looms extremely large on that front.
For all the focus on the Trail Blazers’ draft on Thursday, with the widely held belief that he wanted them to trade the No. 3 pick in exchange for a star-level veteran as a way of dissuading him from asking for a trade, it’s clear now that it was never quite that simple. A path remains — however narrow it might be — for him to be content with the Trail Blazers’ state of affairs heading into next season. There is some time left, albeit not much, and some patience too. But the Blazers’ dire need to add elite talent remains.
Without it, these may be Lillard’s last days in the City of Roses.
As Trail Blazers general manager Joe Cronin shared with the local media on Saturday, Lillard is expected to meet with Blazers officials after he returns from his recent trip to Paris. According to a source briefed on the situation, the meeting to discuss the next steps of the roster-building process will likely be early this week. After all, free agency (officially) begins on Friday at 6 p.m. ET and there is much to ponder on that front.
Yet while there are all sorts of shared enthusiasm about the additions of Scoot Henderson (with the No. 3 pick), Kris Murray (at No. 23) and Rayan Rupert (at No. 43), the source said nothing has changed about Lillard’s strong desire to play with the kind of high-level players that would make the Blazers contenders again. The youth movement, impressive though it might be, isn’t enough.
So, what would it take to convince Lillard that Portland is still the place to be for the rest of his NBA days? Here’s one solution that is known to be a dream scenario from Lillard’s vantage point: Re-sign forward Jerami Grant and add four-time All-Star/four-time champion Draymond Green in free agency.
While Golden State is known to be extremely confident about Green re-signing, the price of his return is likely to be a point of contention. Enter the Blazers, who could make Green the unofficial savior in this sensitive Lillard situation while giving him a chance to add to his legacy in a different jersey after 11 seasons with the Warriors. Except for one (massive) problem: As is the case with so many of these scenarios, it would take some serious salary cap wizardry by Cronin to make this happen.
While the Blazers have Grant’s Bird rights and can thus re-sign him despite being over the salary cap, they currently have no room to sign someone of Green’s ilk. Especially considering he’s likely looking for a deal in the mid-$20 million range annually. There are sign-and-trade pathways to be explored, and likely with a third team needing to be involved, but it’s an implausible prospect to say the least. And again, all signs point to Green wanting to stay put.
There are other (unlikely) possibilities that would suffice, too, among them the addition of either Pascal Siakam or OG Anunoby from the Toronto Raptors. While league-wide interest remains high on both players, Raptors president of basketball operations Masai Ujiri has continued to rebuff the many suitors. The farther you go down this list of potential ways to calm the Lillard waters, the more likely it seems that he’ll be forced to face this stay-or-go fork in the road soon. In a holistic sense, the meeting between Lillard and the Blazers this week will have everything to do with what comes next between these two parties.
If Cronin and his staff are truly trying to scour the league for another star, following through on the messaging that sources say Lillard has received from both Cronin and owner Jody Allen, then Lillard likely won’t make a final decision on how to play this until the early stages of the free agency period have passed. But if they’re not, as a recent ESPN report seemed to suggest, then the prospect of Lillard asking out might be around the corner. Key questions like these will surely be at the heart of their meeting.
But if there isn’t a meeting of the Trail Blazers minds in Portland this week, and if the roster upgrades that are proving so difficult to pull off don’t come to fruition when the calendar turns to July and the crucial week that follows, it’s all eyes on Miami from there. Lillard indeed has serious interest in joining the Heat, who would surely love to pair him with Jimmy Butler and Bam Adebayo. If it reaches this point — and there’s still an “if” here considering all the times Lillard chose not to ask out before — Lillard’s wishes would matter a great deal because of the enormity of his contract.
With four seasons and a combined $216 million left on his deal (including a player option worth $63 million in the 2026-27 season), the prospect of a team trading for Lillard against his wishes is hard to fathom. So while he doesn’t have the kind of no-trade clause that played such a pivotal part in the recent Bradley Beal trade from Washington to Phoenix, his leverage in the situation is similar.
James Harden’s free agency situation is unique. (Bill Streicher / USA Today)
This James Harden free agency situation is one of the stranger ones I can remember.
At face value, it makes very little sense for the 10-time All-Star and former MVP to head back to Houston rather than re-sign in Philadelphia. He forced his way out of a Rockets uniform in 2020, in large part, because their title-contention window had been slammed shut. And even if he returns, and if another high-level player or two joins him by way of the Rockets’ $60 million in cap space, you won’t find any objective viewers predicting a reopening of said window anytime soon.
Meanwhile, the Sixers offer the complementary services of a reigning MVP in Joel Embiid, a longtime ally and friend in president of basketball operations Daryl Morey, and a new coach in Nick Nurse who has a championship resume and Rockets roots to boot (he was the franchise’s G League coach from 2011-13). And while their inability to break through to that next level on the playoff stage has surely sparked frustration, it’s indisputable that the Sixers would remain among the Eastern Conference elite if he remains. Yet as we chronicled back in early March, there is an undeniable connection between Harden and that region of Texas that might ultimately be the final factor in his decision.
But even beyond the vast contrast between the state of each franchise — an established Eastern Conference power vs. the rebuilding Rockets — it’s the leverage game that makes this all so compelling. Each team, it has seemed at times, views the other as nothing more than a pawn whose main role is to help Harden get the biggest and best deal possible. Only Harden and his inner circle truly know which way he is leaning, but a source close to him reconfirmed that the Rockets remain a serious possibility. And yes, as you may have wondered, that’s still the case with Houston deciding to add guard Amen Thompson out of the Overtime Elite program with the fourth pick (they added forward Cam Whitmore out of Villanova at No. 20 as well).
Can Chris Paul and Steph Curry put their contentious past behind them to succeed in the immediate future? (Cary Edmondson / USA Today)
Chris Paul-to-the-Warriors thoughts
I shared a few thoughts about the Beal-to-the-Suns move last week, among them a look at the calculated part that Chris Paul played in revealing Isiah Thomas’ unofficial role in the trade with the Suns. The point, both then and now, is that Paul is nothing if not political. And now that he’s part of the Warriors plans, with Steph Curry and Co. clearly greenlighting the addition of another future Hall of Famer as they try yet again to extend their dynasty window, this particular quality should serve him well.
At 38 years old, and with the late-career reality that he is about to play for his fifth team in the past eight seasons, Paul surely knows that he has to find a way to fit in with this Warriors core that once saw him as a top rival and is now welcoming him in (and yes, I’m assuming for the purposes of this section that Green returns). It won’t matter anymore that Curry threw that “this ain’t 2014 no mo” verbal jab his way during a game against the Suns in March, or that Green said in no uncertain terms in a March 2020 interview that he “don’t like CP at all” and that he “took it upon myself to create f-ing division” (between them).” Ditto for the controversial and contested shared history between them in 2011, when Paul’s refusal to agree to an extension with the Warriors was, as he has shared publicly, the only reason that Steph Curry and Klay Thompson weren’t sent to New Orleans (then-GM Larry Riley has denied that this ever happened).
This is a game-recognize-game sort of move, with a mutual desire to win the whole thing and all sorts of recent evidence that these Warriors could use the kind of skill set that Paul has been bringing to the table for nearly two decades now. At this late stage of their basketball lives, the present and their future matters a whole lot more than their past. And if Paul can somehow find a way to be a difference maker here — regardless of whether or not he wins his first title — it would be a late chapter worthy of mention when he finds himself entering the halls of Springfield, Mass.
It’s true that Father Time might get the best of him and render all of this moot — that’s the risk the Warriors have taken (while also shedding the Jordan Poole contract and cleaning up their books in a way that makes retaining Green a whole lot more palatable). But as our John Hollinger noted just a few weeks ago, when he highlighted Paul’s BORD$ projection for next season of $36.8 million, the predictions of Paul’s demise have perhaps been overstated. He led the league in assists just two seasons ago, and was just one of six players last season to average at least 13 points, eight assists and four rebounds.
None of that means this unexpected union will work, of course, but there’s certainly a chance that it does. And Paul, who has shown an ability to adjust that served him well in Houston, Oklahoma City, and Phoenix, is savvy enough to know he’ll have to do it more than ever this time around.
(Top photo of Damian Lillard: Sam Forencich / NBAE via Getty Images)