In An Era Marked By Movement, Lillard Insists On Staying

by Casey Holdahl
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LAS VEGAS -- It was 2012 when a 21-year-old named Damian Lillard out of a little-known Weber State introduced himself to Trail Blazers fans with a number of impressive performances that would ultimately result in the 6-3 point guard being named Most Valuable Player of the Las Vegas Summer League.

Seven years later, Lillard was once again on the campus of UNLV to sign a “super max” contract, reportedly worth upwards of $190 million, in an effort to make sure those same fans never have to say goodbye to the four-time All-Star until he retires.

“Seven years ago we were upstairs and Game One of summer league against New Orleans he started out 1-for-10,” recounted president of basketball operations Neil Olshey during the press conference to announce the signing. “He’s come a long way since then. Obviously since Dame was drafted, we handed him the ball Day One, he was our franchise point guard, now he’s our franchise player and we hope that this contract leads him to finish his career as a Portland Trail Blazer.”

In an era where players of his caliber are leaving successful teams, either via free agency or by demanding trades, for grasses presumed greener, Lillard has done the exact opposite. When he was the only starter left on the team after the roster turned over in 2016, Lillard signed an extension of his rookie contract. When the team was swept out of the postseason in consecutive years, Lillard remained loyal to the Trail Blazers, even as many argued he’d be better off asking for a trade.

And now, he’s signed a “super max” extension, which he qualified for by way of All-Star appearances and All-NBA honors, two years before his current deal expires. All together, he’s now under contract with the Trail Blazers through the 2023-24 season, and potentially through the 2024-25 season if he chooses to exercise his player option.

“This being the place that I started, the team that drafted me and just so much has been invested with our team, with Coach Stotts, with Neil, I think we’ve built something special,” said Lillard. “It’s been built genuine and the environment that we’ve created is something that I’ve been a part of and it’s something I want to continue to be a part of. Having my family in Portland, everything is set up. I’ve kind of gotten comfortable and it feel like things are the way that it needs to be, that it should be. Everybody around me is happy with that. Aside from the personal stuff, even my career, I feel like it’s only right that this is where I continue to play.”

While he never said it directly — at least not publicly — Lillard made no secret of his desire to be offered a contract extension at the first opportunity. He could have waited another season, which would have resulted in a larger payout at the end of the deal. Or he could have been coy about his long term plans to stay in Portland in an effort to influence the makeup of the roster. Instead, he told the team in no uncertain terms to offer up an extension on the first day of the July moratorium, a request team owner Jody Allen and the Trail Blazers were more than happy to fulfill.

“This is a no-brainer,” said Neil Olshey, who met Lillard in Oakland at a family reunion to come to contract terms. “Again, we’re very lucky to have Jody (Allen). She saw the success we had, she knows it would not have taken place without Dame. I think he’s a very unique person beyond being a player that — I’ve said this before when we did he and CJ — I never lost a moments sleep, ever. The numbers we’re taking about now across the league are astronomical and you see guys that sign them and I don’t know that ownership and front office and the business division and the coaches sleep well at night with some of those contracts, but we never lost a minute of sleep.”

The case for Lillard’s super max extension from an on-court perspective is all but ironclad. He is one of three players in NBA history to record at least 1,500 points and 400 assists in each of his first seven NBA seasons. He's the first player in Trail Blazers history to score at least 2,000 points and hand out 500 assists in a season. He's one of just two players in franchise history to be named All-NBA four times and he's one of just three to make First-Team. He hold career averages of 23.5 points, 6.3 assists, 4.2 rebounds and has missed just 25 games in his career. Given the stats, it's easy to understand Portland's willingness to extend a contract despite the significant financial commitment.

But Lillard's importance goes well beyond the numbers he puts up. His skills alone would make him a foundational piece, but his character and who he is at the core of his being comprises a combination that few in any any field possess.

"I’ve been in the league a long time and it’s a players league and the best organizations are a reflecting of the best player," said Terry Stotts, the only head coach in the NBA Lillard has known. "Throughout my time in the league and even before that, if you’re fortunate enough to have a great leader as your best player, it just makes everything that much better for the coaches, the players, the franchise, the city, whatever.

"So Dame has embodied that... A guy who is an all-NBA player and does the things that he does on the court, you can’t win without that, but to have sustained success, to have the culture that we’ve developed, you don’t have it without his ability to lead by example, to lead with his voice."

Now signed for at least the next four season, Lillard's play on the court and leadership both on and off it will continue well into the next decade. He's on his way to becoming the greatest player in franchise history, a moniker he would immediately earn outright if, after leading the team to the Western Conference Finals for the first time in nearly 20 years last season, he's able to bring a second title to Rip City. But even if that never happens, the partnership between Lillard and the Trail Blazers has already proven to be worth the cost.

"I’ve said also in the past that I want to do it here," said Lillard. "Haven’t won a championship since ’77, the one and only, and it would just feel so much better to know that I just kept it solid and I did the work. We’ve been through sweeps and had all this stuff... We made it a step further and a step closer to what the ultimate goal is and in the end I know that if it gets done, it’ll feel much better to know that I did it in a solid way. I didn’t have to go and play with the best player just to get it done. For me, this is the way I want to do it and I know that if it don’t happen, I can live with it because I know the route that I chose, I accepted it a long time ago."

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