The recent trade demand by Dame Lillard has definitely got me thinking about some of the ancillary issues raised by this kerfuffle. Dame was seemingly happy in Portland and signed a huge extension in June 2022, at which time, he professed his love for the town and the organization. After another disappointing season and Portland’s decision to draft his replacement, Scoot Henderson, Dame is not only demanding a trade but has demanded that the only trade partner be Miami. Let’s review the situation, FAQ-style:
What is the current state of Dame?
Lillard will be 33 this season and had a great year (31.9 ppg, 7.3 apg, 26.7 PER, .205 WS48, 7.1 BPM), which should be a huge value if he can put a team into title contention. On the other side of the ledger is the contract problem. Dame is owed over $216 million over the next four years (assuming he exercises his $63 million option (!) for 2026-27). The Blazers are reportedly underwhelmed by Miami’s current offer.
Does Dame have a legitimate beef with the Blazers?
It’s hard to feel too bad for a player who chose the security of a long-term deal for the supermax when the cost was his freedom to choose his destination. Affording Dame some benefit of the doubt, the situation on the ground has changed a little from last summer. The team was bad this season and Lillard wants to win. Perhaps the Blazers promised that the team would try to contend and, instead, Scoot’s presence indicates a rebuild is coming. The counterpoint, though, is that the Blazers haven’t been a favorite in a playoff series since 2019 and it was somewhat unrealistic of Dame to believe that they would be a legit contender through his extension years. Dame may have believed he could will the team back to contention or that he could deal with a few bad years. I get Lillard’s feelings but the situation we are in now was entirely foreseeable in June 2022.
Had Portland drafted Amen Thompson or traded the pick for vet help, would Dame have been happy?
Probably but, as good as Thompson looked in summer league, he doesn’t look like he would transform Portland back to contender status quickly either. Like nearly all rookies, Thompson will take some time to develop into an asset for a playoff team and time is not something that Dame has much left (as a superstar player that is).
Trading the third pick for vet help seems like it would’ve made Lillard much happier but this also seems like a limited upside decision. The third pick is only appealing to rebuilding teams, who usually don’t have the stars to offer for immediate help, unless the counterparty is trading a star under duress (see the trade of Anthony Davis to the Lakers for the fourth pick and other consideration).
Portland was inevitably headed towards a deep rebuild unless management was content to have a Wizards situation, where the team was on the fringe of the playoffs but never a real threat. Perhaps Dame was surprised at the rebuild or perhaps he figured he would lock in an extension and figure out the future when it came. Either way, this trade demand is not shocking.
Does having a one team list for a trade demand take some chutzpah?
Yes. Dame’s demands here are slightly off putting but are not so crazy. Dame has the right to demand whatever he wants but he should, at least, give Portland some leverage to shop him and this short list of trade partners (actually partner) hurts that effort. It is true that Dame probably wants Miami to keep as many assets as possible to help him when/if he is traded there but cutting out Portland’s legs is a bit rough and won’t speed up the process.
On top of that, I don’t think Dame’s gambit will work. The Blazers have indicated that they will not trade Dame at this time because the Miami offer isn’t good enough. They are gambling that Lillard won’t be too difficult if he returns to Portland, similar to the Kevin Durant aborted trade demand from last summer. If I had to guess, I would agree that Dame would be professional even if he was unhappy still being a Blazer. Even if Dame is a pain, it doesn’t really matter to Portland. The Blazers have no incentive to be good next season so who cares if Dame plays? With time on its side, Portland can force a better Miami offer or induce Dame to permit a few other competing bids from other teams eventually. Basically, the same playbook the Nets ran with Durant.
Dame v. Clyde
Lillard’s recent trade request started a mini debate as to whether he or Clyde Drexler is the greatest long term Blazer ever (Bill Walton has a strong case too, but his case is short term in nature while Dame and Clyde are long term Blazers and thus their cases are directly comparable). In my mind, Dame and Clyde are pretty close in value but let’s run the advanced stats for them as Blazers:
-Clyde: 867 games, 21.3 PER, .177 WS48, 5.7 BPM
-Dame: 769 games, 22.5 PER, .177 WS48, 4.9 BPM
-Clyde: 94 games, 20.1 PER, .136 WS48, 6.3 BPM
-Dame: 61 games, 19.8 PER, .114 WS48, 4.3 BPM
Drexler has a slight edge in both the regular season and playoffs stats and has done it in more games played (so far). Putting stats aside, Drexler also presided over a better sustained title contention run (1989-90 through 1991-92) as well.
If you want to compare them by how they were perceived by the fans/voters, Clyde made five All-NBA teams to seven for Dame. Drexler has had better showings in MVP votes, with two top five finishes, including coming in second to Michael Jordan in 1991-92. Dame’s only top five MVP finish was fourth in 2017-18. Again, it is close but Clyde is slightly ahead. The difference is not big enough to definitively pronounce Drexler a clear winner but I lean Drexler as the better Blazer overall.
Another Comparison: Clyde’s End in Portland
The most interesting Dame-Drexler comparison, to me, is how they executed their exits from Portland. In February 1995, Drexler was famously traded to his hometown Houston Rockets to play with college teammate Hakeem Olajuwon, where they led the Rockets to a title that June. But let’s go back to the inflection point of Drexler’s trade demand and how Portland dealt with the demand.
In February 1995, Drexler was 32 years old and was making $1.6 million but had another year left on his deal for $9.8 million (this was back when the NBA permitted a large “balloon” payment that was essentially deferred income for a star being underpaid for years). The Blazers had been a legitimate title contender and made the Finals in 1989 and 1991 but were declining with age. Here’s the Blazers’ year-by-year records during those years:
1989-90: 59-23, 6.48 SRS (Lost in NBA Finals)
1990-91: 63-19, 8.47 SRS (Lost in Western Conference Finals)
1991-92: 57-25, 6.94 SRS (Lost in NBA Finals)
1992-93: 51-31, 2.92 SRS (Lost in First Round)
1993-94: 47-35, 2.60 SRS (Lost in First Round)
After the 1993-94 season, the Blazers fired coach Rick Adelman and restructured the front office. The Drexler Blazers hadn’t cratered like Dame’s current team but the trend line seemed to be heading downwards. In Drexler’s autobiography, “The Glide,” he wrote (with Kerry Eggers) that “I just wanted to get out at that point [after the change in management]. My role on the team had changed. I was no longer the do-everything guy. I had fewer opportunities to do things. It was probably for the best.“ (Hat tip to https://nbatrades.tumblr.com/ for sourcing much of this deal).
Drexler told management he wanted to be traded before the 1994-95 season but did not announce it to the public until January 1995. Ironically, the team was pretty good (25-20) and Drexler was playing great at the time of the trade. His advanced stats with Portland in 1994-95 were career highs in WS48 and BPM and his PER wasn’t too shabby either: 22.7 PER, .217 WS48, 7.9 BPM. (As a side note, the Blazers signed Arvydas Sabonis the next season and it is conceivable that, if they kept Drexler, with Sabonis, Rod Strickland and Cliff Robinson, they would’ve been very good).
In terms of trading Drexler, it was clear he wanted to go back home to Houston and Portland was willing to accommodate him. So, what was the return for a HOF guard playing at a prime(ish) level? Veteran power forward Otis Thorpe, the rights to European draftee Marcelo Nicola, and the Rockets first round pick in the 1995 draft (Houston was 29-17 at the time, which projected the pick to be in the low 20s). Portland also traded Tracy Murray, who was a deep bench player at the time. Digging deeper, here are the stats on the new Blazers:
Otis Thorpe: age 32, 13.3 ppg, 8.9 ppg, 14.7 PER, .094 WS48, -1.9 BPM, one year left on his contract at about $2.6 million
Marcelo Nicola: age 24, Argentine power forward, would never play in the NBA
Late first round pick in 1995
In addition, Portland assumed $7 million of the 1995-96 Drexler salary, making the trade cost neutral for Houston. Portland would finish 19-18 after the trade with Thorpe (and about a dozen other power forwards). Overall, they were 44-38 and were swept in the first round of the playoffs by the Suns.
After the season, the Blazers traded the spoils of the deal a bit. They had the Rocket 1995 pick (which ended up being 19th) and traded that around for other picks, ultimately landing rookie Gary Trent and a 1997 first rounder from Detroit for three 1995 picks. A few months later, Portland would trade Thorpe to Detroit and get back rookie Randolph Childress (who Detroit had picked 19th with that same Houston pick). The final tally on the haul for Drexler: a few months of Thorpe, Childress (who washed out), Trent (a solid back up power forward), and the 1997 20th pick (which was used in a package to acquire JR Rider).
The assets the Blazers got back (in the end, three late first round picks) were probably less than the value of Drexler but not as bad as it seemed at first glance. It appears that Portland management did Drexler a solid, sending him where he wanted to go for a merely decent return.
How does this compare to the current predicament for Portland?
The Blazers are still owned by the Allen family but sentimentality is harder to find this time. Both Portland and Dame are playing hardball. Would Portland have treated Lillard like Drexler if Dame had been less aggressive about his trade demands? Probably. In the end, Portland will get a decent haul (likely from Miami) but we could’ve gotten here without the public protestations.