As the opening round of the NBA playoffs draws to a close, more and more teams are begrudgingly entering the next phase of their basketball year — the offseason.
And while it remains to be seen if the Clippers will fall into that category — Game 7 against the Mavericks tips off in a few hours (much to the dismay of fingernails across Southern California) — there’s no doubt about the Portland Trail Blazers, who were eliminated from contention on Thursday by a Denver Nuggets team missing superstar Jamal Murray.
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It was the fifth time in eight seasons that Portland has been shown the door in the first round, and already significant changes are afoot in Rip City. On Friday, the Blazers and long-time head coach Terry Stotts agreed to part ways after eight exciting albeit fruitless years — the first move in what promises to be a fitful offseason for a Blazers organization looking to maintain possession of several players, first and foremost, point guard extraordinaire Damian Lillard, who expressed frustration following Thursday’s loss and subsequent elimination:
“We didn’t win a championship, so obviously where we are now isn’t good enough. I don’t know what a shakeup looks like, or what changes will be made or could be made, but obviously, as it is wasn’t good enough.
“We came up a 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 win a championship if it’s not good enough to get out of a first-round series with two of their best three, four players not on the floor.’’
Lillard, who was drafted sixth overall by Portland in 2012 and has only worn one team’s jersey his entire career, signed a 4-year, $176 million extension in 2019, theoretically keeping him in Portland through 2024-25. But his comments have helped birth and/or bolster rumors of teams looking to score the 30-year-old point guard in a trade, including the Clippers.
SAS Says Clippers Have Interest in Lillard
On Friday morning, before it was reported that Stotts would be stepping down as coach, Stephen A. Smith mentioned on ESPN’s First Take that the Clippers are amongst several teams showing interest in acquiring one of the league’s top scorers.
“When Damian Lillard got eliminated last night, several calls have come [Portland’s] way,” said Smith. “About six or seven different teams believe they can get their hands on him. They think they’ve got a shot. One of them includes the Knicks, who are 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. Stay tuned.”
Smith, of course, makes his living creating news surrounding the NBA, but he is also undoubtedly privy to inside information, so it’s not completely outside the realm of possibility that the Clippers could and would have an interest in Lillard, but it’s unlikely they have the assets to get him without parting ways with one of their superstars.
Clippers forward Paul George signed a 4-year, $176 million maximum contract extension in December of 2020, and Kawhi Leonard, though a free agent this summer, has reportedly expressed interest in staying in his hometown of Los Angeles.
Leonard, however, might think differently if the Clippers don’t make a deep run in the playoffs this time around, just one season after blowing a 3-1 series lead to the Nuggets in last year’s bubbled second round. The Clippers could be compelled to deal George if that means keeping Leonard.
Lillard Might Not Want to Leave
That a Lillard-Leonard combo would do any better than the current George-Leonard dynamic is not guaranteed, though. The 6-foot-8 George is undoubtedly a more versatile defender than the 6-foot-3 Lillard, and it’s not like George, who averaged 23.3 points and 5.2 assists this season, can’t fill it up when hot.
But very few players in the history of the league have been more dangerous than Lillard when it comes to putting the ball in the basket, as most recently evidenced by his dazzling 55-point outburst in a double-overtime loss in Game 5 to Denver, and he would certainly fill the Clippers years-long void at point guard ever since Chris Paul departed in 2017.
That said, it’s unclear to begin with if Lillard has any interest in leaving Portland, where he has become a pillar of the community and is far and away the most well-regarded player in franchise history. Lillard could instead look for the organization to add pieces around him, possibly by dealing shooting guard CJ McCollum or center Jusuf Nurkic, and by bringing in a new head coach that gets Lillard’s seal of approval.
Jason Kidd and Chauncey Billups have both been mentioned as top candidates, and the fact that Lillard stated his preference to Yahoo! Sports on Friday evening is perhaps a tell that he plans to stay in Portland.
“Jason Kidd is the guy I want,” Lillard said.