Hindsight is 20/20. But even then, sometimes people just don’t want to see what’s right in front of them.
On Sunday night, the Portland Trail Blazers dropped to 6-8 after falling to the Nuggets in Denver by 29 points, as they were without the services of Damian Lillard who was out with an ab injury.
Getting off to a slow start under a rookie head coach — Chauncey Billups — isn’t the issue here, and neither is the fact that Lillard was held out due to precaution. The 29-point loss isn’t some huge abnormality, either. This is the NBA — blowouts happen. However, when you put it all together and add the fact that the Trail Blazers front office is a complete mess, it starts to become clear that maybe this isn’t the franchise that Lillard should have committed to.
“I’m not leaving Portland,” Lillard told reporters last month. “Adversity is going to hit, there’s going to be tough times. So if it starts off rocky or if it starts out as a struggle I won’t be happy about it, nobody would. But I’m not going to jump ship and bail out when that happens.”
It’s been an interesting year for Lillard.
First, Portland lost in the first round of the playoffs last season to the Nuggets despite Lillard averaging 34.3 points, 10.2 assists, and 4.3 rebounds per game. This was also the series in which Lillard had 55 points, 10 assists, and six rebounds while shooting 17-of-24 from the field and 12-of-17 from three in a Game 5 double-overtime win in Denver.
Second, Lillard got caught up in the franchise’s decision to hire Billups, whose past rape allegations came up during the process. The team did a really bad job at handling that situation, wouldn’t allow Billups to answer questions about it at his introductory press conference, and according to reports, didn’t contact his accuser.
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Third, Lillard won a Gold medal in the Olympics on a team that was one of the most forgettable squads we’ve sent to the Games since pros were allowed to compete, given the games the team lost in exhibitions and during pool play.
Lastly, in the wake of the racist and misogynistic allegations against Suns owner Robert Sarver, earlier this month Portland launched an investigation into the president of basketball operations and general manager Neil Olshey, who is alleged to have created a toxic workplace environment full of bullying and intimidation. Since then, team president Chris McGowan has resigned, as players are being interviewed in the investigation.
Oh yeah, and while all this is going on, Lillard is having his worst scoring season since his rookie year. His 20 points per game average hasn’t been this low since he put up 19 a game as a rookie and 20.7 during his second season.
“I feel like the way the game is being officiated is unacceptable,” Lillard said last week. Due to new rule changes, several stars aren’t happy about the officiating because it’s affected the way that they get to the free-throw line. “I don’t want to go too deep into it so they make a big deal out of it, but the explanations, the sh*t that’s getting missed, I mean, come on. I felt like coming in, the rule change wouldn’t affect me, because I don’t do the trick the referees, I don’t do the trick plays, and it’s just unacceptable. Then the explanations and the remarks in return when you tell them is just like [Lillard shrugs]. I don’t even have nothin’ else to say about it.”
Earlier this month, Lillard spoke publicly about a meeting he had with LeBron James and Anthony Davis over the summer as they discussed what it might “look like” if they played together. Ultimately, nothing came of it. The Lakers got Russell Westbrook and Lillard chose to stay in Portland.
Well, that was then and this is now. And right now, Lillard is the face of a franchise that looks like they have a corrupt front office, due to the men in charge who also hired a coach that won’t discuss his past.
Kevin Garnett once said, “loyalty is something that hurts you at times because you can’t get youth back.” Damian Lillard is 31 years old, in his ninth season, three years removed from the pinnacle of his team’s success under his reign — getting swept in the Western Conference Finals. We may never know if he’s happy where he’s at, or if he regrets not forcing a trade out of Portland. But, what we do know is that everything points to his current situation not being the place that can get him to where he ultimately wants to be.