LAS VEGAS (AP) — To understand why Damian Lillard is still with the Portland Trail Blazers in 2022, examine why he enrolled at Weber State in 2008.
Weber State showed serious interest in Lillard before any other school. That resonated with Lillard, and when higher-profile schools came calling late in the recruiting process, he didn’t forget how Weber State was the first one to believe in him.
So, he went there. And he stayed there. Fast forward to now: Portland was the team that drafted him a decade ago, and Lillard hasn’t left there, either.
Lillard’s tale is a reminder: NBA players may be more empowered now than ever before. They can align with their friends and form superteams. They can force trades (even though asking for one publicly is against league rules). They can get coaches fired.
Or they can do what Lillard has done, decide to stay in one place and try to win a ring instead of bouncing around from team to team and chase one.
And with the NBA waiting to see how the latest bit of big drama — Kevin Durant’s request to be traded out of Brooklyn — plays out, Lillard hopes more will jump off the spinning carousel.
“It shows that there’s something there for being committed and having your heart in the right place and having your mind in the right place,” Lillard said. “Hopefully it’ll have the impact going forward on players seeing that it doesn’t have to be ‘Oh, the media says this’ or ‘Everybody is telling me this’ and you just get swayed into doing what everybody is trying to convince you to do, because nobody is going to have to live with those decisions like you will.”
It also should be noted that Lillard, by staying in place, has maximized his earning potential. He came to Las Vegas and hit a jackpot this past weekend: Lillard signed a two-year, $122 million extension with the Trail Blazers on Saturday, a deal that will keep him until contract through the 2026-27 season.
By the time that season ends, he will have been paid $452 million in his career.
“Superstars in our game today are different than in my generation, in the way that they’re taking ownership of their careers,” Blazers coach Chauncey Billups said. “And what I mean by that is there’s a lot of superstars that will want to be somewhere and they’ll find a way to get where they want to go.”
Here’s the full list of current players with at least 10 years in the NBA and have never changed teams: Miami’s Udonis Haslem, Golden State’s trio of Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green, Washington’s Bradley Beal, and Lillard. That’s it.
They’re doing it their way.
Others are choosing a different way and moving around when they think there’s something better to be had.
Durant, if he gets traded and doesn’t go back to Oklahoma City or Golden State, next season will be playing for a fourth different franchise. LeBron James has played with three franchises, winning titles with Miami, Cleveland and the Los Angeles Lakers.
Chris Paul has played for five teams. James Harden has played for four. Russell Westbrook has played for four and Kyrie Irving has played for three. And if Westbrook and Irving get traded for one another, it’ll be time to add another one to their totals.
That said, not every big name was filling out change-of-address cards this summer.
Zach LaVine returned to Chicago for more than $200 million over five years, a decision that made a ton of sense considering the Bulls could offer him $56 million more than any other team could. Beal got a new $251 million deal from Washington. Two-time reigning MVP Nikola Jokic signed an extension with Denver worth $270 million.
“We focus a lot on ensuring through a salary-cap system that teams, in essence, have the same fair opportunity to compete,” NBA Commissioner Adam Silver said. “And that is something we’re always looking at as part of our system, something we are constantly talking to the Players Association about. And to me, that should be not just a concern shared by fans of all 30 teams but for all players in the league, all 450 players, presumably want an equal chance to win championships and be part of championship teams.”
Lillard wants a ring. Everybody does. It would just mean more to him to win one in Portland than anyplace else.
So, he’s staying.
“Something that’s missing in our league is the character and the fight and the passion and pride about not just the name on the back, but the name on the front and how you impact the people you come into contact with,” Lillard said. “I think because of how much I’ve embraced that, and haven’t pretended to embrace it, this just shows the power in that.”
Tim Reynolds is a national basketball writer for The Associated Press. Write to him at treynolds(at)ap.org
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