Goldberg: It’s time for Damian Lillard to play dirty

Feb 10, 2023; Portland, Oregon, USA; Portland Trail Blazers point guard Damian Lillard (0) looks on during the first half against the Oklahoma City Thunder at Moda Center. Mandatory Credit: Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports
Feb 10, 2023; Portland, Oregon, USA; Portland Trail Blazers point guard Damian Lillard (0) looks on during the first half against the Oklahoma City Thunder at Moda Center. Mandatory Credit: Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports /

When LeBron James announced his intent to sign with the Miami Heat in 2010, what followed was an ugly display of fire, heartbreak and fandom.

Cavaliers fans burned their No. 23 jerseys in the streets as they turned on the 25-year-old local legend who had elevated their franchise to new heights and importance. The national media dragged LeBron for his decision and questioned his judgment. Later, LeBron sat on a stage in downtown Miami with his new teammates and smiled. Yes, LeBron went from hero to villain, from darling to distasteful, from beloved to hated by the NBA universe. But he also got exactly what he wanted.

Now Damian Lillard is faced with a similar decision.

It’s not exactly the same. LeBron was a free agent, free to sign with whatever team had enough cap space. Lillard is under contract for four more years with the only team he’s ever played for. LeBron was also in his mid-20s, the face of the NBA, and had yet to reach his full, GOAT-like potential. Lillard is 33, and his time atop the sport is ticking away.

But when it comes to their fans and the love they have for them, their importance to the franchise and to the community, and the potential to ruin all of that – Oh, that’s when their circumstances become much more alike.

Since issuing his trade request earlier this month, Lillard has tried to toe the line of getting what he wanted without hurting those who have cheered for him, his playoff buzzer-beaters and his seven All-Star appearances across his 11 seasons.

But the Trail Blazers have not relented to his ask of being traded to Miami. The Heat, knowing they have the only offer on the table, will not negotiate against themselves. So talks, according to multiple reports, have stalled. The market isn’t moving and the Blazers are calling Lillard’s bluff, with an understanding that he’s under contract and they are under no obligation to trade him where or when is best for him.

To get what he wants, Lillard needs to risk it all the way LeBron did 13 years ago. All of the love, the past glory, and goodwill he had hoped to hang onto. At least for now.

Dan Le Batard, who has been reporting on the Heat’s perspective, on his show Wednesday suggested that the next step for Lillard is to make the situation more uncomfortable for Portland.

“You have to be willing to risk the relationship with not only the people who love you most,” Le Batard started, “but then learn that they’re the ones who love you the most conditionally.”

Those would be the Blazers fans, who have already rallied against a common enemy in Pat Riley and the Heat, screaming from every social media platform that Miami’s offer isn’t good enough! Of which they are correct. But should that not-good-enough offer ultimately be accepted, they could blame Lillard, especially if Lillard makes it so the Blazers have to accept it.

More from Le Batard:

“Lillard doesn’t want to be there anymore and it’s hard to get these exits right when, what you get rewarded for, is you got to get out of there wrong,” Le Batard said. “Riley and the Heat are talking all the time about what you have to do to make this happen. Because now the partnership is no longer with Lillard and Portland. The partnership now is already Lillard and Miami.”

For someone like Lillard, who has been the face of loyalty among a capricious group of NBA stars, this is a jarring statement. Lillard’s whole thing, up until now, has been how he never quit on Portland. How in a league of superteams he always managed to win by himself – although never a championship, and not very much at all over the past two years. Eleven years of hard work went into that well-earned reputation. Forcing his way to Miami – at the cost of the Blazers – threatens all of it. Getting out “wrong” (to borrow Le Batard’s phrasing) is a lot to ask of someone who has prided himself in doing everything right.

Holding out of training camp or becoming a distraction in the way James Harden was when he forced his way out of Houston or when Kyrie Irving forced a midseason trade from Brooklyn would be a heel turn like no other we’ve seen. But it could also be the only way.

Blazers fans would throw away their jerseys, admonish Lillard for ruining their future and cheer against him for the first time.

But Lillard would also be in Miami, playing with the most talented teammates he’s ever had, for a Hall of Fame coach and Hall of Fame executive, in an arena hanging three banners with a real chance to add a fourth – and his first.

Then, four years from now when he’s a free agent, Lillard could return to Portland and bring all that he learned back to a budding star in Scoot Henderson. Fans would shuffle into the Rose Garden for his swan song and Lillard would end his career where it started. Perhaps by then all would be forgiven. That’s the best-case scenario, but it’s also possible.

Making things ugly to get his way would be the greatest risk in an otherwise safe career. It’s not an easy decision to make, but it’s all in Lillard’s control.

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