If you are the Portland Trail Blazers, it makes sense to listen to your franchise foundation because what he says is the plain, unvarnished truth.
“We didn’t win a championship, so obviously where we are now isn’t good enough,” Damian Lillard said not long after the Nuggets closed out their first-round series on Portland’s home court, winning 126-115 in Game 6. “I don’t know what a shake-up looks like, or what changes will be made or could be made, but obviously as it is wasn’t good enough.”
That was the first verse. This was the second verse:
“We came up short against a team without their starting point guard and their shooting guard. Will Barton didn’t play and Jamal Murray didn’t play and we came up short. Obviously, where we are isn’t good enough to get out of a first-round series.”
And this was the grand finale, later still, on Lillard’s Instagram feed, quoting rapper Nipsey Hussle: “How long should I stay dedicated? How long ’til opportunity meet preparation?”
The Blazers, in Lillard’s estimation, need to be broken up.
Portland’s first inclination, logic says, would be to break it up around Lillard, who reestablished himself this season as one of the game’s most electrifying talents. But the Blazers also had eight years to do this already. As Lillard said: “It wasn’t good enough.”
So Plan B is this: find the best deal you can for Lillard, start rebuilding that way. Plan B is painful. Plan B will alienate a lot of loyal Blazers fans. Plan B would contradict a steadfast loyalty already shown by Lillard, who has three more years and $140 million — plus a player option — due him and has been so committed to Portland that he bought five acres of land in Stafford, 20 minutes outside downtown, and began construction on a private basketball compound.
Plan B can be a bonanza for the Blazers, and there are teams eager to pry Lillard — who will turn 31 on July 15 — from the Pacific Northwest. The Heat are suitors. So are the Clippers.
And so are the Knicks.
And so should be the Knicks.
It’s simple, really: If Lillard’s available, the Knicks have to pursue him. They have assets. They have five first-round draft picks across the next three years. They ought to be willing to part with three of them to make Lillard happen, at least as a starting point. They have four young trade chips of various value — Obi Toppin, Mitchell Robinson, Immanuel Quickley, Kevin Knox — to strengthen the deal.
Losing Robinson would hurt, because the Hawks series showed how badly the Knicks need a rim-protecting presence (with at least a modicum of offensive skill). Toppin and Quickley both had their moments as rookies, and both would be fine pieces. Knox’s trade value may have been diminished to nil by entering Tom Thibodeau’s doghouse this year, the equivalent of witness protection, but maybe the Blazers feel differently.
Beyond that? Portland will surely at least ask about RJ Barrett. That one is tricky. Barrett turns 21 next week. He showed a strong upside and stronger work ethic with a capacity for improvement. He should be (along with Julius Randle) a building block for what the Knicks want to create here. That’s the one that could make Leon Rose sweat a little.
But you have to at least think about that, too.
Because you have to start thinking about the Knicks in different terms. They expedited the clock by making the playoffs. Now they need more. More means stars, and in a year lacking no-brainer franchise targets in free agency — unless Kawhi Leonard unexpectedly decides to bolt from the Clippers — it’ll take a trade to land that first outside star.
What the Knicks yearn for — cry for — is a star guard. It would be wonderful if Derrick Rose could stay and play the backup role in which he shone for much of the season. And it would be spectacular if the spine around which the Knicks build from here is Lillard, who was 28.8 points and 7.5 assists per game this year on 45/40/93 percent shooting, who is 24.7 points and 6.6 assists for his career, who is at the peak of his game — and whose mere presence would certainly help recruit whoever the next star target would be.
The Knicks have the cap space to pay him. They have Johnnie Bryant on Thibodeau’s staff, and Bryant and Lillard are so close Lillard calls Bryant his “big brother.” The two share ties both as Oakland, Calif., natives and from Lillard’s days at Weber State, when Bryant was operating a sports academy in Salt Lake City.
The Knicks hung a shingle back in front of the Garden this season. If they add Lillard to the team photo next year, they can officially declare themselves open for business. If the Blazers opt for Plan B, that has to be the Knicks’ Plan A — and B, C and D, too.