The omnipresent bluster of Stephen A Smith is crystal clear even through a zoom call. Smith seems particularly nonplussed this morning as he waits for First Take host, Molly Querim Rose, to deliver the next talking point.
Querim, gets things started with a question: What would it take for Damian Lillard to win a championship?
In his signature style, Smith has an answer locked and loaded before the line of questioning is even completed:
“He needs to leave Portland”
While Smith’s statement seems alarmist, particularly for a squad that made a surprise western conference finals run last season, he isn’t the first media member who has questioned Portland’s end game. While Blazer management has done a fine job building around their star, the Blazers still feel a notch below the true contenders with little to no room for improvement.
Many point to the super teams of the past decade and question why the Blazers star doesn’t look for similarly fertile pastures. An exit from Portland would certainly be obtainable for a player of his stature.
Like Davis before him, Lillard would have many would-be contenders ready to move heaven and earth to slot him into their backcourt. All it would take was an indication from the Oakland native that his time in the Northwest had run its course.
Throughout it, all Lillard has remained unwilling to wield the hefty power his rising star provides him.
However, national emergencies have a funny way of challenging old habits.
As the NBA began to put together the bare bones of a plan to resume the season, the often reserved Lillard sought out Yahoo insider Chris Haynes to make a simple statement:
He had no intention of playing in games if his squad wasn’t going to be provided with a “true opportunity to make the playoffs”.
Lillard delivered his message on the 26th, followed it up with his full thoughts in an interview with ESPN’S Jalen Rose on the 27th, and the league intends to present owners with their return proposals on the 28th.
While a call for a play-in tournament, falling on the week the higher-ups intended to discuss it could be nothing more than happenstance, it feels much bigger than that.
It feels like the first stab at the player empowerment game, for a notoriously no-nonsense player.
Restarting the season comes with considerable risk. To convince all players to get on board the NBA needs to present a united front with its best players. Lillard knows that. The league knows that.
Meaning Damian’s value may never be higher in the eyes of the league office than it is at this very moment.
With this understanding in mind, he called his shot.
Time to see how the NBA responds.