The same thing has been happening in Portland for a while, it’s just that the noise takes a new form every few months. The top-line items remain the same: the team is not very good and Dame Lillard is unhappy. This year marks something of a bottoming out—that Blazer defense, never better than serviceably poor has been atrocious under Chauncey Billups, who is bumming everybody out—but it’s like gout flaring up, a 101-degree day as the climate warms. There are times when problems seem more or less severe, but without true resolution they endure, even as reality’s surface obscures or emphasizes them.
At their peak in 2019, the Blazers won 53 games and enjoyed a slightly serendipitous run to the Conference Finals. But they weren’t serious title contenders; they got smoked and swept by a Warriors squad that down Kevin Durant was still solidly superior. The Blazers were, much like their franchise player, estimable and heroic but destined to meet failure, in the end. Dame was 28 years old during those playoffs. The front office didn’t have many obvious paths toward improving the team, but there was hope they might figure something out. Dame is 31 now. In the intervening years, the front office has gotten most of their decisions wrong. The public reason given for Neil Olshey’s recent firing was that he created a miserable working environment, and while that’s an excellent reason to dismiss someone, you wonder if he had made more astute signings and trades, he might still have a job. Dame is no longer remotely optimistic. He’s been making discontented sounds for over a year.
If he hasn’t quite wrapped his lips around the words I would like a trade, it’s because he’s caught between two impulses. Dame likes being Portland’s franchise guy and has complained in the past about the formation of superteams in bigger markets. He sees himself and, crucially, wants to be seen as a noble counterpoint to the cynicism of other stars. But he’s also encountering the outset of his basketball mortality. He’s been banged up this season and doesn’t know how much longer he’ll maintain his current level. His prime is ticking toward late prime, and ultimate obsolescence.
It’s a familiar transition for an aging star: you want to win on your terms, and then when it starts to get late, you simply want to win. This requires the player to at least tacitly admit that he can’t get the job done in his current situation, which is a big ask for Dame, who’s one of the most prideful players in the league. So instead of a formal trade demand, we get annoyed post-game pressers and mind-bending Chris Haynes reports that categorize a recruiting session with LeBron James and Anthony Davis as an “information-gathering forum among respected peers.” Some of this is highwire PR nonsense, but it also seems to speak to a genuine conundrum Dame is working through. He doesn’t appear certain that he wants to leave Portland. All he knows for sure is that he’s deeply frustrated.
It’s not easy to empathize with him at this point, especially after he pretzeled himself trying to spin the controversy around the Chauncey Billups’s hiring—a hiring he almost definitely endorsed—into an excuse to leave town. (Not for nothing, Billups’s young coaching career is off to a miserable start.) Vacillation is fine, Dame should take all the time he needs to figure out what he wants to do, but the impression he gives is of wanting to be absolved of any blame for whatever conclusion he arrives at. And that’s not how any of this works. Dame’s a celebrity; the public is going to have opinions about what he does. There’s no eliding it. You can’t get a doctor’s note that says people aren’t allowed to get mad at you for joining the Lakers. You have to do what you think is best for you, and maybe avoid Twitter for a little while, until the story cools off.
Friend of the column Katie Heindl is a more elegant writer than this when she wants to be, but she crudely put it well after Olshey’s firing was announced: “sick of the Blazers, figure it out and leave the rest of us alone.” Dame is an irritatingly tentative star at the center of an irritatingly tentative organization. He’s the most charismatic figure in the drama, so we fixate on him, but the Blazers are indecisive all the way down. Dame’s wavering, holding up Chauncey’s hiring and then plowing through with it anyway, Olshey’s early season dismissal. The fact that the Dame-C.J. McCollum backcourt has never really worked, but has persisted for nearly a decade. They’re reportedly in the market for Ben Simmons, because the roster is apparently in need of more basketcases.
It’s a lot of mishegoss for a sub-.500 team that represents the end of a pretty fruitful era that’s past its sell-by date by at least two years. Everybody involved does indeed need to figure it out and leave the rest of us alone. Because we know what the Blazers are, even if they and their wanderlusting franchise player have no idea what they want to be.