Goldberg: While James Harden makes a mess, Damian Lillard handles his trade request with respect

Jan 30, 2023; Portland, Oregon, USA; Portland Trail Blazers guard Damian Lillard (0) takes a break during warm up before a game against the Atlanta Hawks at Moda Center. Mandatory Credit: Troy Wayrynen-USA TODAY Sports
Jan 30, 2023; Portland, Oregon, USA; Portland Trail Blazers guard Damian Lillard (0) takes a break during warm up before a game against the Atlanta Hawks at Moda Center. Mandatory Credit: Troy Wayrynen-USA TODAY Sports /

In his first interview since issuing his trade request in July, Damian Lillard confirmed that he asked the Portland Trail Blazers to trade him to the Miami Heat, but also made it clear he will take the high road on his way out of Portland.

Speaking with Andscape’s Marc Spears, Lillard refused to talk ill of the organization with which he spent the first 11 years of his career. Spears asked Lillard what specifically led to his trade request, and Lillard responded: “I’m not going to speak on the Blazers. It’s a lot of love and respect, but I won’t speak on the Blazers.”

This tells you everything you need to know about Lillard, and how he has and will go about handling this trade request. While James Harden publicly calls the general manager of his team a “liar,” Lillard opts to stay silent.

No, Lillard won’t accuse the Trail Blazers of rebuilding while he’s still in the room. He won’t say publicly that trading reliable vets (and friends) like CJ McCollum, Larry Nance Jr. and Josh Hart for prospects and draft picks over the last year or so helped push him out the door. He doesn’t need to predict that the Blazers are on their way to a third straight losing season.


Because it’s obvious.

Despite the public posturing by GM Joe Cronin, the Trail Blazers have done very little in terms of roster building to demonstrate they are motivated to compete in the near future.

Lillard, meanwhile, has made it clear that he does not want to be the older statesman on a rebuilding team. He’s 33, coming off one of the best statistical seasons of his career, and has dreams of winning his first championship. There was a time he thought it could be done in Portland, but that time has passed. Now he has to try to win a championship somewhere else.

"“I would say the desire for that now is as high as it’s probably going to be. That’s literally the thing at the top of my list. … You need something that you feel pretty strong about to stay committed the way I’ve been committed. It’s as high as it’s going to get. That’s ultimately what I want to experience and that’s what I want to get done.”"

Again, this arrives in stark comparison to Harden, who is currently on a contender but is upset about the nature of his contract negotiations. Lillard’s reasoning is much more admirable. It’s not about money (although, in fairness, he has a whole bunch of money coming his way over the next four years), it’s about winning. Lillard has done a whole bunch of winning throughout his career but has yet to win a championship. Sounds a lot like the Heat over the last four seasons, doesn’t it?

That’s why a marriage between Lillard and the Heat makes sense. Lillard has made a habit of doing things the hard way. He could have asked for a trade years ago, but he wanted to win in Portland. Now that organization has moved on. He could have added more teams to his list of preferred destinations, but who? Could he have made an earlier push to Phoenix before the Suns traded for Bradley Beal? Should he have tried to pair up with Joel Embiid and Harden in Philly? Or Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown in Boston? Or with Giannis in Milwaukee? All those teams are credible contenders without Lillard. They might not need him.

The Heat do.

Butler is 33, and it’s unclear how much longer he can play at this level. The Heat barely eked into the playoffs as the No. 8 seed before making a miraculous run to the Finals. They can’t count on such a miracle again.

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Some argue that Lillard’s single-minded attempt at playing in Miami is his way of forming a super team. Maybe it is — that much is up for debate. For however long, Lillard, Butler and Bam Adebayo is a heck of a trio. But in his view, he’d be another guy pushing a rock up a hill and could be the one to help them get it over the hump.

Players want to feel wanted. Put the millions of dollars and fame aside for a second, and that’s something everyone can relate to. The Heat, according to a recent Woj report, remain the team “most motivated” to trade for Lillard.

Lillard in this interview also made a point to discuss the city of Portland and his fans. He told Spears “I love the city of Portland,” and that, “Every initiative that I’ve started, I’ll continue and I’ll finish regardless of anything.”

Lillard wants to get traded from Portland, but he does not want to leave Portland forever. That, too, is relatable and admirable.

While Harden takes a torch to the bridges he’s built, Lillard is doing his best to maintain his while constructing new ones. No doubt there is selfishness in his desire to be traded, but at least he’s been transparent about the process. After the season, he said in a media session that he didn’t want to be part of a youth movement. When the Blazers got younger, he demanded a trade. He wants to get traded to Miami, nowhere else, even if adding a fake second team (as is often done when stars provide a list of preferred destinations) would have made outsiders happier.

The Blazers can’t say they’ve been as forthcoming. In interviews, the general manager says he wants to build around Lillard, but nothing about how he’s handled the roster over the last two seasons suggests they are going all-in for their franchise player. If anything, the Blazers have indicated they are ready to move on. They practically begged Lillard to ask for a trade. Now he has.

Regardless of what you think about his desire to be traded, no one can say he hasn’t handled himself with class. Stars demanding trades has become a common practice in the NBA, but not quite like this.