NBA Draft

NBA Urges Teams To Disregard Damian Lillard’s Threats

The Portland Trail Blazers are on the cusp of what they hope will be a relatively brief, relatively painless project to rebuild the team’s competitive core. They spent most of the past decade retooling each season for another push into the playoffs in a deep and unforgiving Western Conference, but excepting one flukey run to the conference finals in 2019 it’s mostly been a fruitless exercise, and they no longer have the talent or depth to keep at it. They recently had a resource of great value—a top-three pick in the top-heavy 2023 draft—they could’ve used to barter for more veteran help, but they opted instead to use the pick to add a hotshot teenager with big-time potential. All normal.

Damian Lillard, who has been the face of the franchise for 11 years and around whom the Blazers have tried and tried and failed and failed to build a contender, would prefer not to participate in what the Blazers hope but obviously cannot guarantee will be a short rebuilding process. He’s entering his age-33 season; soon the talents that have made him an organizational centerpiece will erode, and his chances to play a main role on a championship contender will narrow and then vanish. When the Blazers finally signaled that they intend to reorient their priorities toward restocking for the long-term, Lillard requested a trade. This is also normal. As part of his trade request, Lillard indicated that he would prefer to go to the Miami Heat, who have participated in two NBA Finals in four years. We know this because, for approximately the one jillionth time in NBA history, a superstar’s preferred landing spot made the leap from private request to national news item, via the usual channels. Still all very normal, so far.

The NBA sent around a memo Friday alerting teams to some stern words the league communicated recently to Lillard and his agent. This is less normal. The NBA contends that Lillard’s agent, Aaron Goodwin, has been a little bit too explicit in communicating Lillard’s preferences. Goodwin reportedly recently made a series of phone calls, warning teams not to trade for Lillard unless they are presently the Miami Heat, as Lillard intends to play only for the Heat. This behavior is too forward, says the league: “We have advised Goodwin and Lillard that any future comments, made privately to teams or publicly, suggesting Lillard will not fully perform the services called for under his player contract in the event of a trade will subject Lillard to discipline by the NBA.” To express a preference in private conversations with the Blazers is fine, so long as the Blazers are not bound to do much more than take it under advisement. This method of expediting matters—calling around to make sure teams don’t work too hard to top an offer from the Miami Heat—is out of bounds.

Recent media reports stated that Damian Lillard’s agent, Aaron Goodwin, called multiple NBA teams to warn them against trading for Lillard because Lillard’s only desired trade destination is Miami. Goodwin also made public comments indicating that Lillard would not fully perform the services called for under his player contract if traded to another team.

We interviewed Goodwin and Lillard and also spoke with several NBA teams to whom Goodwin spoke. Goodwin denied stating or indicating to any team that Lillard would refuse to play for them. Goodwin and Lillard affirmed to us that Lillard would fully perform the services called for under his player contract in any trade scenario. The relevant teams provided descriptions of their communications with Goodwin that were mostly, though not entirely, consistent with Goodwin’s statements to us.

We have advised Goodwin and Lillard that any future comments, made privately to teams or publicly, suggesting Lillard will not fully perform the services called for under his player contract in the event of a trade will subject Lillard to discipline by the NBA. We also have advised the Players Association that any similar comments by players or their agents will be subject to discipline going forward.

NBA memo to teams, per The Athletic

It’s sort of funny that this memo was sent to teams, since its nominal purpose is to put a shot across the bow of players and player agents for another excess of player empowerment. It’s not that anyone in particular objects to Lillard stating a preference for one team or another, or even that his preference made its inevitable way to the NBA’s scoopsters. It’s also not that teams are powerless to deal with a player who doesn’t want to play for them, and require direct league-level intervention. As was established during the Ben Simmons saga in Philadelphia, the NBA will give its blessings to a team that withholds salary from a player who holds out for a trade while under contract. For that matter, Goodwin and Lillard assured the NBA that they have not threatened to hold out, and the memo confirms that this is at least mostly true. And It would not be unprecedented for a franchise to trade for a player after he has sent word around that he would prefer to play someplace else, rolling the dice that the player will avoid the conflict and cost of a holdout while continuing to work behind the scenes toward his preferred destination. Lillard, at his age, is not likely to sit out a season should the Blazers trade him to, say, the Toronto Raptors. Everyone involved understands this.

The real effect of Goodwin calling around to warn teams not to trade for Lillard is a cooling of Lillard’s trade market. The Timberwolves, for example, might still consider trading for Lillard, but they are certainly not going to make their best offer for an aging superstar who at best will be a grim-faced rental in Championship-or-Trade mode from the moment he steps off the plane. This is what Goodwin, and by extension Lillard, want: For other Lillard suitors to proceed cautiously, so that it is easier for the Heat to make the strongest offer. The Blazers are prepared to drag this out as long as possible, but Lillard, Goodwin, and the Heat are all hoping to avoid a protracted bidding war. Their interests are aligned: All of them want the Heat to be reasonably strong after trading for Lillard, so that they can spend the next few years in the thick of the title hunt. All of them want the Blazers to be without any real leverage or better trade offers.

Waving off the handful of other realistic suitors is about hurrying Portland general manager Joe Cronin to the point of defeat.The NBA’s memo is about restoring Portland’s leverage, and retaining for future teams as much power as possible in player movement.

Cronin has been hoping to drag this out for as long as possible, to gin up competing offers. “I think what I’ve learned more than anything is patience is critical. Don’t be reactive. Don’t jump at things just to seemingly solve a problem,” Cronin said during the NBA’s Summer League in Las Vegas. “We’re going to be patient. We’re going to do what’s best for our team. We’re going to see how this lands. And if it takes months, it takes months.” It’s icky to remember that the opportunity Cronin is hoping to maximize arises from his organization taking its foot off the gas and pulling the competitive rug out from under one of the best and most beloved players in its history, even if that shift ultimately came after a decade of earnestly working to build a contender. The Blazers have been good to Lillard, but they’ve also gained a lot of latitude for organizational missteps by borrowing from the personal goodwill Lillard has earned as the face of the franchise. It’s been a mutually profitable partnership, but the team and the player now have goals that are simply at odds. For all the noise about player empowerment, short of whatever miracles a superstar can perform with the team hauled onto his back, there’s not very much a guy in this situation can do when a team decides to pull the plug on a title hunt.

Portland’s new priorities, shuffled just a year after signing Lillard to a five-year contract extension, aren’t exactly a betrayal, but they left their sunsetting superstar in the lurch all the same. Lillard has only a limited set of tools available to influence the next and possibly final chapter of his career. With Friday’s memo, the NBA is saying that the telephone should not be one of them.

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