There are a couple of ways to parse the report from ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski and Zach Lowe that the Trail Blazers are not willing to discuss trading Damian Lillard, “one of the Sixers’ top targets” in a potential Ben Simmons deal.
One possibility is that the Trail Blazers really do intend to keep Lillard, the six-time All-Star who has played his entire career in Portland and is signed through 2025.
Perhaps, though, it is the case that interim general manager Joe Cronin might want to trade Lillard, and knows that saying he’s untouchable will drive Philadelphia or suitors to sweeten their offers as we get closer to Dec. 15, when players who signed as free agents over the summer become eligible to be traded — something that doesn’t affect Ben Simmons’ situation with the 76ers, but does make it much easier to put together trades that work under league rules.
There’s one more scenario where the Blazers are putting it out there that Lillard is untouchable because everyone is looking at $48.7 million that he’ll be paid in the last year of his contract, then looking at the fact that Lillard is 31 now, and quickly losing interest. The ESPN report only says that “the Sixers have long targeted Lillard,” not that they’re actively pursuing him now. In fact, they say, “Philadelphia has been aggressively trying to assemble two- and three-team deal structures to land a package that would include a top 25-level player, sources said.”
It’s probably not that last one, because for as rough of a season as Lillard has had so far, shooting just 30% on three-pointers and down to 21.5 points per game from his average of 28.8 last season, he’s still been an All-Star the past four years and still averaging 7.8 assists per game. If you think that Lillard is the guy who makes you a championship team this year, you don’t worry about the bill coming due in three more years.
The Blazers are not a championship team this year with Lillard, probably won’t be for the life of the contract, and this season represents the best opportunity Portland will ever have to trade him. When else will there be multiple players — Simmons, Kyrie Irving — possibly available to make trading your franchise player something better than the usual cap fodder and picks package that winds up being a pennies on the dollar return?
It’s because such trades so rarely go well for the team dumping its star that Cronin would ordinarily be just fine saying Lillard is untouchable. There’s also something admirable about having a player, signing him long-term, and actually keeping him. It’s certainly more fun (however much fun it is) to be a Blazers fan and watch your team lose with Lillard than to watch your team lose with a bunch of scrubs.
This situation is different. CJ McCollum isn’t Lillard, but he’s a damn good player who’s one year younger and signed for one fewer year at slightly less money. There’s no reason that with a star-level player in place of Lillard, and other pieces from a Lillard trade, Portland couldn’t return to being competitive.
The Blazers would be better off trading Lillard and keeping McCollum, another guy who has played his entire career in Portland. They’re at least posturing like they intend to do the exact opposite. Whether that’s just posturing, or honesty, will tell a lot about whether Cronin is the right man for the GM job.