After an 11-year partnership between Damian Lillard and the Trail Blazers, the two sides moved on this offseason with a trade that sent one of the franchise’s all-time best players to the Bucks. Now, following years of attempts to compete, Portland looks completely different, with players like Scoot Henderson, Deandre Ayton and Shaedon Sharpe heading up its young core.
While Lillard occupied most of the spotlight, general manager Joe Cronin made plenty of headlines during the time in which Lillard’s request seemed in limbo, The Washington Post’s Ben Golliver writes. Media members and fans alike drew different conclusions regarding Cronin, Golliver details, with some accusing Cronin of not sending Lillard to his then-preferred destination of Miami “out of spite” and others calling him a “liar” for drafting Henderson instead of trading the draft pick for a contender. To add fuel to the fire, Lillard didn’t thank Cronin in his lengthy farewell letter to Portland.
“[Lillard] and I went through it this summer,” Cronin said. “It wasn’t always amicable and perfect. To be omitted from that [letter], I didn’t take as anything more than it being a hard summer that we had both gone through. I wasn’t one to be thanked at that moment. … Our directions didn’t line up. Things didn’t work out. We had pure intentions in our desire to build a winner around him. We were just unable to pull it off. I don’t think that was a lie. We just couldn’t get it done.”
One of the most overlooked aspects of the Lillard trade is how it affected local marketing, Golliver explains. Season ticket holders had to make decisions to renew or not and promoters had to make the decision on which players on the team to highlight. Even before Lillard was traded, the Blazers began to turn the page, Golliver writes, moving to feature Henderson and the young core and removing Lillard entirely from promo material.
“We really need to move on,” Trail Blazers president of business operations Dewayne Hankins said in a Zoom call. “We’ve got great young talent. We’re not like other rebuilding teams who don’t have a strong core of young players. It’s time to turn the page.”
Fans came around to Lillard’s exit, according to Golliver, and season ticket holders renewed at a 93% rate, up six percentage points last year.
“We wanted to honor Dame’s trade request,” Hankins said. “If we promote him, are we being true to our fans? That was the moment when we started saying that this was a new era. It’s really hard to lose a legend like Damian whose number will go in the rafters as soon as possible. At the same time, I think we’re prepared. Our next step is getting our fans to fall in love with these guys.”
Even though Cronin didn’t trade Lillard to the Heat, he believes he did right by the star guard by sending him to a contender, according to Golliver. Hankins said his staff is still mulling the right way to honor the guard, Golliver writes, including the possibility of a statue outside Portland’s arena, Moda Center.
“We’ve retired a lot of numbers,” Hankins said. “We’ve had the conversation: Is there another level of honor that we need to create for him?”
The Blazers still have work to do in completing their rebuild, but they’re as high as possible on Henderson, Anfernee Simons and Sharpe taking the reins left by Lillard at the guard spot, according to Golliver. I highly recommend reading Golliver’s piece in full, as there’s some fascinating perspective and quotes from high-ranking Blazers officials inside.