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Damian Lillard, a rare star, wants to stick it out and win in small-market Portland

Damian Lillard (right) wants to be considered among the NBA's elite guards, as James Harden (right) is.
Damian Lillard (right) wants to be considered among the NBA's elite guards, as James Harden (right) is.Kevin C. Cox/Getty

Those who got a glimpse of Damian Lillard at the NBA All-Star Game in Atlanta saw a player who would be considered a top-5 talent if he played in a bigger market. Lillard has spent his entire career in Portland, playing home games around the time when NBA fans on the East Coast are prepping for bed.

Can the Trail Blazers attract a major free agent? Can Lillard win with CJ McCollum and a bunch of complements? Does Lillard need to get out of Portland to realize his dream of winning a championship? His answers are yes, yes and heck no.

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Lillard is dedicated to Portland, which is refreshing in this generation of small-market athletes flocking for bigger stages.

“For every person that says I want to see him on the bigger stage and I want to see him go to a bigger market, of course those places have pros but nobody ever wants to talk about the cons,” Lillard said. “If you take that step and you go somewhere and it’s not where it seems to be and it doesn’t work out … or an injury happens and you haven’t established as much rapport with that team and they choose one guy over the next guy and now you’re traded to a third team.”

Lillard is an all-time franchise great and Blazers general manager Neil Olshey has attempted to build a solid core around him despite not having the luxury of a desirable city for premium free agents. Lillard and McCollum were drafted, but most of the other core were acquired through trades or signed to moderate free-agent deals.

Lillard said he has embraced the Portland community, and he watches as other stars who lobbied to get out of undesired situations have had mixed results with their new teams.

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“It’s a lot of things you can’t control so you have to consider both sides,” he said. “But for me, it would have to come down to my team saying, ‘Look, we’re going in a different direction. We don’t want to hold you hostage basically and what route do you want to go?’ I’m saying if everybody doesn’t think I can do it in Portland or we can’t win in Portland, what does it mean and what happens when we do? If we actually go and do it, where does that put me? Where does that put my legacy and where does that put my career?”

Lillard was the sixth overall pick in 2012 and set the standard for smaller-school players — Weber State — to achieve NBA success. The Trail Blazers haven’t won an NBA title in 44 years and last reached the Finals in 1992, when Lillard was 2 years old.

“My whole career everybody’s been saying, ‘He should go to this team or he should go to that team.’ If we just go and win it, where does that put me?” he said. “That’s how I see it. I want that day to come.

“Anytime in your life when you become invested in something, you care a lot. It means a lot to be considered one of the best players to play in this organization. To win a championship would be the best ending for me. If we could bring that feeling back from ’77, that would be everything to me.”

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Lillard continues to have a major chip on his shoulder, a semblance of disrespect he feels when his name isn’t mentioned among the elite NBA guards such as Stephen Curry and James Harden. Those two are playing on bigger stages, with more eyes and attention. Lillard, in many ways, is still that mid-major player flourishing under a small spotlight, still trying to prove his worth. He’s accomplished that goal, averaging 24.5 points per game for his career with six All-Star selections.

“When I was coming out of college, I came from a small school; nobody really knew who I was,” he said. “My trainer and all the people around me were giving me the speech like you might be in the G League for two years, and that was the route I was kind of expecting. Coming from a small school, I thought that I would come in and have a journeyman, grind-it-out kind of career but I knew I was going to earn my way, I was going to stick and find a way to help a team. When I got here, it wasn’t what I thought it was going to be. It wasn’t as difficult to get in because I was picked high, so I started from Day One.”

QUESTION OF AGE

One-and-dones not yet priority for the league

The Timberwolves' Karl-Anthony Towns has been an example of a successful one-and-done player.
The Timberwolves' Karl-Anthony Towns has been an example of a successful one-and-done player.Hannah Foslien/Getty

While commissioner Adam Silver has had several other pressing issues to deal with, there has been no decision when or if the league plans to eliminate the one-and-done rule and allow high school players to enter the draft.

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The NBA doesn’t necessarily want a flood of not-quite-ready high schoolers jumping into the draft with potentially low success rates. But the one-and-done rule is proving to be a failure in terms of having players more polished after the college experience. The fact is, kids are going to find their ways into the draft and the NBA created the G League Ignite development team to accommodate players who had no interest in college.

Many NCAA head coaches don’t want players with no interest in attending college.

“There have been discussions with the Players Association; former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, in essence, brought Michele [Roberts] and I together on that issue because she chaired a commission on behalf of the NCAA to look at the issue,” Silver said. “As it is well-known now, she made a recommendation that we return to 18 as our minimum age.

“As a result, Michele and I did discuss it. We discussed it directly with Secretary Rice. We both agreed that as part of the process of looking at a new Collective Bargaining Agreement, we should discuss that issue.”

There is a consensus that 18 should be the chosen age for players entering the draft, but it looks as if it’s going to be shelved until the next collective bargaining agreement. There are several important issues the leagues and players will have to discuss for the next CBA, including player revenue shares, expansion, and how the NBA’s embrace of sports betting will affect the players financially.

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So the one-and-done rule isn’t a serious priority, although a high school scouting service called Overtime Elite has discussed starting a league for high school players from 16-18 years old, paying them until they are old enough to enter the draft.

“Twenty-five percent of the players in this league come from outside of the United States,” Silver said. “In most of their jurisdictions, they become professionals not at 18 but often at 14. It’s a whole different development cycle. It’s something that, of course, we pay a lot of attention to.

“I don’t have any fundamental opposition to paying younger people who have a unique skill where other people are benefiting from their services. So my reaction to the new league is that optionality is good.”

The NBA obviously wants to protect its interests. They don’t want a slew of unprepared players entering the league.

“We created Team Ignite in the G League as an opportunity for players who choose not to go to college and want to become professionals,” Silver said. “They can go directly into the G League and be well-compensated. Under the theory, too, in addition to being compensated for their services, they can focus full time on the potential opportunity to play in the NBA.

“We recognize that is not for everyone. There may be the player who is not at that skill level yet where he’s been identified as sort of a clear prospect. There are other young people who grow a lot at that age or whatever else, or want to go to college.”

The NBA wants to prevent fringe prospects from being convinced they are the next Zion Williamson or LaMelo Ball and making the plunge into the league, then being ushered out in a few years. The success rate of one-and-dones is lower than the NBA would prefer.

“I think for the younger high school player, if they can see an opportunity to play basketball and make money and get educated at the same time — I think for us right now, the NBA, we don’t want to be in the business of paying minors,” Silver said. “It doesn’t feel right for us right now, in part because it’s complicated in making sure that those young people, since they aren’t of the age of consent, are getting the proper guidance and the support to make those kinds of decisions, because it may mean giving up college eligibility, for example, at a young age to play professionally.”

Silver endorsed Overtime Elite’s quest to start a new league but does the NBA really want a system that is preparing 15- and 16-year-olds for the draft with less emphasis on education? Silver said the answer is no.

“I think it’s generally good for the community to have optionality, especially when very solid people, which appears to be the case in this league that’s just been announced, are backing it and behind it,” he said. “That’s one thing we will pay a lot of attention to because those young players are potentially the future of our league. We want to make sure that both on the court and off the court they’re getting the right mentoring and guidance.

“But overall, I think it’s good for the game. It’s more focus on the game. Especially all that’s happening now in digital media, social media, new streaming services, there’s definitely interest in this content. So we’re paying attention to that.”

ROONEY RULE?

Should NBA mandate hiring process for minorities?

Rockets coach Steve Silas is one of the few Black coaches in the NBA.
Rockets coach Steve Silas is one of the few Black coaches in the NBA.Steve Dykes/Associated Press

One of the bigger stories inside NBA front office and coaching circles was the hiring of Chris Finch by Minnesota Timberwolves general manager Gersson Rosas just hours after his firing of Ryan Saunders. AlthoughRosas passed up well-respected assistant David Vanterpool to hire Finch, there’s a perception that Black assistant coaches, especially those who did not play in the NBA, generally are bypassed for white counterparts.

Neither Saunders, who was hired at 32 by the previous management, or Finch, have NBA head coaching or playing experience. Meanwhile, assistants such as Phil Handy of the Lakers, Vanterpool, Jarron Collins, Adrian Griffin, Sam Cassell and Darvin Ham wait for interviews.

“First of all, there shouldn’t be an impediment, as we all know,” commissioner Adam Silver said. “I would say as a practical matter, what we’re seeing happen, and I think this is in part human nature, people tend to turn to the people who they know best and they’re most familiar with. I think in certain cases you have a network of relationships that go back many years. To the extent that people aren’t part of those networks, they’re clearly at a disadvantage in the process.”

The NBA may have to implement a “Rooney Rule” that mandates teams interview a person of color or women for a head coaching position.

“One of the things the league can do in working with our teams, therefore, is focus on a better process that ensures that everyone has an equal opportunity to sort of join the fraternity, so to speak,” Silver said. “You’re not going to get to be a head coach in this league unless you serve most likely as an assistant coach first or you’ve been a top player in the league.

“I realize a lot of these things don’t happen automatically, that it requires real focus and intentionality. That’s one thing the league has learned over the years, that you have to be vigilant, you have to constantly be talking about these things, you have to keep looking at the data.”

Several NBA executives and coaches expressed concern about the lack of minority hiring or what has been perceived as an unfair promotion system among general managers.

Grand statements aren’t all that helpful, from me or others. It comes down to specific tactics. Seven of the league’s 30 coaches are Black and teams such as the Indiana Pacers, Oklahoma City Thunder, and Timberwolves tabbed assistants with no coaching experience. Houston’s Stephen Silas, now assigned a major rebuilding program, was the lone Black hired with no head coaching experience.

“Like with most things in life, there are no real magic bullets here,” Silver said. “I just want to make sure we’re respecting everyone as part of the process, too. Lastly, I’ll say I don’t want to create a process in which people are checking the boxes, and that someone becomes the Black candidate who got interviewed but didn’t get the job. Everyone knows that person wasn’t really going to get the job, but somebody went through a process to appease the league office or somebody else. It requires real engagement. That’s just how I’ll conclude.”

WHAT’S NEXT?

Aldridge done with Spurs; Portland return in cards?

LaMarcus Aldridge is averaging 13.7 points per game for the Spurs this season. He played for the Trail Blazers from 2006-2015.
LaMarcus Aldridge is averaging 13.7 points per game for the Spurs this season. He played for the Trail Blazers from 2006-2015.Eric Gay/Associated Press

Matter-of-factly, Spurs coach Gregg Popovich announced former All-Star forward LaMarcus Aldridge would not play again with the team as the Spurs look for a trade partner. It’s the ending to a marriage that never quite worked out. Aldridge never took the Spurs to new heights and he never really appeared happy playing under Popovich.

Two years ago, Aldridge had a long conversation with Popovich about his role prior to signing a contract extension. He was admittedly unhappy but things never got better. Aldridge is declining in skills and the Spurs are going through a youth movement.

Aldridge can help a team and the Spurs certainly would love to get some assets for their aging veteran, but that may not happen. Aldridge got off to a slow start this season but his play has picked up recently. He’s actually a 36 percent shooter from the 3-point line in limited attempts this season and has always been a knockdown shooter from midrange.

The Spurs just weren’t successful with Aldridge on the floor. He was a minus-2.8 on the floor this season and San Antonio is a better club with its youth and potential.

So where does he go? Portland is a possibility. His breakup with the Blazers was ugly. Aldridge felt as if the organization chose Damian Lillard over him although he had been there longer. The Blazers are in desperate need of frontcourt help and Aldridge was never the player in San Antonio he was in Portland.

The Lakers and Heat are also options, and those teams could be getting a quality player for the stretch run. The Celtics likely wouldn’t have interest because of Aldridge’s expiring contract and an already crowded frontcourt.

Layups

Meyers Leonard’s anti-Semitic slur in the midst of losing in a video game is a testament there is work to be done in terms of education among NBA players and team employees dealing with racism and sensitivity issues. Leonard, a member of the Heat, was fined $50,000 and banned from the team for one week. The Heat could move Leonard’s expiring salary at the trade deadline but it’s difficult to see another team attempting to employ Leonard because of his issues and limited skill set. … The NBA approved players on two-way contracts not being limited to game appearances and being eligible for the playoffs. Celtics coach Brad Stevens had been lobbying for such a move after the NBA allowed those players to be placed on the active list during the playoffs in the bubble. Stevens has been able to use Tacko Fall and Tremont Waters in spot appearances … It seems the Nets are taking a cautious approach with Kevin Durant, who remains out indefinitely with hamstring issues. Durant has missed more than a month — including the All-Star Game — because the team wants to ensure he is completely healthy. It’s a long-term approach to Durant, who makes the Nets the favorite to reach the NBA Finals when joining James Harden and Kyrie Irving. The goal of the Nets is not to nab the No. 1 seed. Brooklyn appears comfortable with any first division playoff seed with the talent it has. And that includes recently signed Blake Griffin, who opted for the Nets after being bought out by the Pistons. Griffin was signed with Detroit through next year, including a $36 million salary for 2021-22. Griffin, despite dealing with physical ailments the past few years and losing his athleticism, is still not yet 32 … Paul Pierce will be announced as a Hall of Famer the same weekend Kevin Garnett will be inducted with the Class of 2020. That class, which includes the late Kobe Bryant and ex-Spurs great Tim Duncan, will be inducted May 15 in Springfield. The class of 2021 will be inducted in September, but the Hall of Fame class will be announced May 16.


Gary Washburn can be reached at gary.washburn@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GwashburnGlobe.