On Thursday night, another season came to a frustrating end for Damian Lillard and the Portland Trail Blazers.
With the team’s 126-115 loss to the Denver Nuggets in Game 6 of their NBA first-round playoff series, the Trail Blazers were eliminated from the postseason, despite another standout series from Lillard, the former Weber State star guard.
Lillard averaged a career-best 34.3 points per game in the series — including a 55-point night that featured a playoff record 12 3-pointers in a double-overtime Game 5 loss — while also averaging 10.2 assists and 4.3 rebounds per contest. Still, the six-time NBA All-Star’s efforts weren’t enough for Portland to avoid a scene all too familiar to Trail Blazers fans.
Despite making the playoffs each of the past eight seasons, Portland hasn’t made it past the first round in five of those years. The Trail Blazers advanced to the Western Conference Finals during the 2018-19 season, but that’s their only time getting out of the first round in the past five years.
What does all this mean for the 30-year-old Lillard?
Lillard on Trail Blazers: ‘Where we are isn’t good enough’
Following the game, Lillard told reporters it’s “back to the drawing board” for the Trail Blazers.
“I mean, we didn’t win a championship, so obviously where we are now isn’t good enough,” he said, per ESPN. “I don’t know what a shakeup looks like or what changes will be made or could be made, but obviously as is, it wasn’t good enough.”
Portland lost Thursday despite the Nuggets being shorthanded due to injury.
“We came up short against a team without their starting point guard and shooting guard (Will Barton and Jamal Murray),” Lillard said. “Obviously, where we are isn’t good enough to win a championship if it’s not good enough to get out of a first-round series with two of their best three or four players not on the floor.”
A cryptic Instagram post
In the aftermath of Game 6, Lillard shared an Instagram post that appeared to indicate a growing frustration for the nine-year pro.
The post quotes Nipsey Hussle’s “Dedication,” with the lyrics, “How long should I stay dedicated? How long til opportunity meet preparation.”
Damian Lillard’s contract status
Lillard’s average salary over the next four seasons is just over $44 million.
The latest early playoff exit, though, begged the question: What can Portland do to build around its All-Star guard, and will it be enough to not only create a championship caliber team but keep Lillard, who’s only ever played for the Trail Blazers, happy?
Are other teams going to come calling?
By Friday afternoon, there were already headlines about trade rumors surrounding Lillard.
They were sparked by ESPN’s Stephen A. Smith, who reported on “First Take” early Friday that six or seven teams have inquired about Lillard’s services, including the New York Knicks, Los Angeles Clippers and Miami Heat.
“You’ve got a lot of teams, about six or seven teams believe they can get their hands on (Lillard), they’ve got a shot,” Smith said. “One of them is the Knicks, who’s scheduled to have about $75 million in cap space, along with some picks. But also the Clippers, the Miami Heat and who knows what the Lakers may try to do.”
The New York Post highlighted a Utah connection that potentially help the Knicks, if Lillard could be traded for. New York assistant coach Johnnie Bryant, a former Jazz assistant and Utah Utes basketball player, is close with Lillard. Both grew up in Oakland.
“That’s my big brother,’’ Lillard said of Bryant, per the Post. “I remember barely being in the seventh grade, getting ready for an AAU tournament, and Johnnie was in college at Utah, and they would come back and scrimmage us on outside courts with no net.’’