It finally happened. Damian Lillard has officially been traded away by the Portland Trail Blazers. ESPN reported that Lillard was headed to the Milwaukee Bucks as part of a three-team deal.
It’s the end of a brilliant era for the all-time leading scorer in franchise history. Fans will remember the buzzer beaters and Lillard’s incredible presence on the court. But he meant so much more to Portland.
OPB’s Paul Marshall talked with former NPR sports correspondent Tom Goldman about Lillard’s departure means for fans, the Blazers and the NBA.
Paul Marshall: It’s been months of speculation but it finally happened. What was your reaction to the trade?
Tom Goldman: I had a similar reaction probably to many Blazer fans and Damian Lillard fans.
The first one is shock that it did happen. We’ve been waiting for this since July 1 when he said he wanted to be traded — and then the shock of going to a team in Milwaukee that we hadn’t heard anything about. We certainly had heard about Miami. We had heard lately about even Chicago and Toronto, but Milwaukee was a surprise.
And then sadness, because Damian Lillard isn’t going be in a Blazer jersey anymore, and that was worth the price of admission for 11 years, and he usually delivered.
And then there was happiness, because for him this is what he wanted. This is what he wanted so badly when he was in Portland, but Portland was never able to build around him sufficiently. He goes to a team — Milwaukee — which suddenly is now the odds-on favorite to win not only the Eastern Conference, but the NBA championship.
Also finally, relieved. The last couple of years, if you’re a Blazers fan, it’s been an anxious time because the team has been spinning its wheels and we wanted to do right by Dame, but they also were trying to build a young team and those things just weren’t working together and it was obvious.
And so, finally, that’s over, we can all exhale after we mourn Dame’s loss. We can get excited about what should be a very exciting team this year, but certainly in the next five to 10 years,
Marshall: Players come and go in pro sports. But Lillard is a special kind of player and you wrote pretty personally about that this year. Why?
Goldman: As a journalist, you’re supposed to maintain distance and objectivity. But I think it was after Dame’s 71-point outburst against Houston last season where that was the highest point total that a Blazer had ever had — and I just said that this is my one indulgence — I can’t be objective about this man.
He is too good on the court. He is genuine off the court. And I think that’s what tied him to this community for so long.
You hear stories — certainly we saw him doing what a lot of professional athletes do: They have public appearances, they do a lot of charity work. But if you listen to people who were around him a lot more than I was, he did little personal things without the cameras rolling, without microphones in his face.
He would show up at a party for a Blazer employee and give them flowers. He would tell his teammates, and he would also do this — to pick up after yourself in the locker room so the clubhouse assistants don’t have to deal with as much of a mess every time.
One of the press conferences I watched from last season, I went to a Blazer game and Dame was asked a question and he got snippy at the reporter. The reporter asked him whether his patience was wearing thin, which was a valid question, but Dame snapped and that was a rarity to see him snap. The reporter later said that he ran into Dame in the hallway outside the locker room and Dame apologized. He said, “I didn’t mean anything personally.” You don’t see that a lot with athletes, all of whom have pretty sizable egos on the court and off. He was a pretty unique guy.
Marshall: Damian is traded to another smaller-market team. It’s not a rival, it’s not the Lakers. When you do trades like that, you want to send them outside of your division and preferably outside of the conference. Do you suspect there’s a bunch of new Bucks fans in Portland?
Goldman: You’re talking to one, Paul. I think anyone who’s been a Damian Lillard fan is now a Milwaukee Bucks fan as well, if they weren’t already, because it’s no skin off our teeth, because they’re in the Eastern Conference.
We can go ahead and root for Dame. We’ll get to see his games because we’re on the West Coast and it’s not too late for us.
You may be seeing some people wearing Milwaukee Bucks, Damian Lillard, letter O jerseys pretty soon.
Marshall: Some aspects of the trade are still unfolding. But what do you make of Deandre Ayton?
Goldman: There is a great potential and right now, we’re thinking about the great potential.
Portland got big. That was one of the many problems with this team. They can’t play defense and Jusuf Nurkić — who went off to Phoenix — that’s another interesting part of this, where we lost Nurk. He was their biggest guy and Deandre Ayton is a seven-footer, incredibly athletic. He’s the kind of player who they say can get you 20 points, 10 rebounds a night. He can be really exciting.
Marshall: What can Blazer fans expect? There’s a new era, there’s no Dame and a rookie point guard, Scoot Henderson. What should Blazer fans look forward to?
Goldman: Excitement. Scoot Henderson, by all accounts, is a tremendous talent.
Chauncey Billups, Portland’s head coach, and general manager Joe Cronin talk about this guy as a freak of nature and could be another Damian. And in fact, could be even more than Damian Lillard. He’s only 19 years old. So when you put your team in the hands of a 19-year-old point guard, not always good things are gonna happen all the time.
You’ve got Shaedon Sharpe coming back, you’ve got Anfernee Simons and you’ve got Deandre Ayton. Those four players range in ages from 19 to 25. If that’s gonna be our core, four players, that’s very exciting.
Portland is gonna have to play defense finally. Let’s hope that Chauncy Billups can hammer that into these guys. While they’re not gonna challenge the Denvers, Lakers , Bucks and the Celtics, they could provide some excitement.
Marshall: As I think about this question, so many different moments probably pop up in my head as well as yours. But Damian Lillard’s legacy in Portland?
Goldman: Greatest player ever, with apologies to Clyde Drexler and Bill Walton.
He’s the all-time scoring leader. He has like the top seven scoring performances, including top by the 71 points from last year. A guy who connected so much with the community. He was just the whole package. He loved being a Blazer and he was a loyal guy.
I think his legacy is intact. I think someday there will be a statue. There will be a letter O hanging from the rafters at the Moda Center or whatever it’s called then. When Milwaukee travels back here, for the first time you are gonna see a lovefest unlike any other. Damian’s legacy is quite secure in Portland.