Lillard Rolling With His Trail Blazers, Not Opponents
The NBA has undoubtedly entered a new era in which players are taking a more prominent role in dictating the personnel of their respective teams. It's not necessarily a new phenomenon, as there have been various instances throughout the years where players on different teams have colluded for various reasons, be it out of a desire to improve their collective chances of winning a championship or simply out of friendship and a mutual interest in playing alongside each other.
However, the formation of Miami's "Big Three" has rapidly accelerated the trend, resulting in a new NBA landscape in which top-level players act as de facto general managers, using their influence, often times derived by the threat of leaving their current team when given the opportunity through free agency, to dictate personnel decisions.
Even players who don't hold that kind of sway over their front offices' are getting in the act by unabashedly recruiting free agents, either of their own volition or at the request of their respective teams. Sure, engaging in everything up to and including publicly begging and/or bribing a player to join your team may come off as desperate and something more befitting a fan than a professional, but desperate times do call for desperate measures, as the saying goes.
But don't expect Damian Lillard to be following that course of action any time soon. Even though he's enjoyed playing alongside the best young players in the NBA over the course of four days at the Team USA mini-camp in Las Vegas, he's not about to disrespect his current teammates by trying to recruit their eventual replacements, even if it would result in more victories.
"I like my teammates. People that's on my team right now, that's who I'm rolling with," said Lillard of his fellow Trail Blazers. "I'm not going to come out here and say 'I really like this guy' and all that. I like all these guys (at the Team USA mini-camp). Off the court, they're all cool. They all cool on the court. It's fun to play with them, they're talented guys. But at the end of the day, in October, they're going to be on the other end for me.
"I'm happy with my team. I'm happy playing with those guys. That's who I go to war with, and (players at the Team USA mini-camp) are trying to beat on my team. So that's all it's ever going to be is me enjoying and competing against them. It's fun when we're all on the same team but I'm not here to say 'Oh, I like playing with him' and 'I like this guy!' and this and that. It's a good story, but that's not what we're really here for."
Numerous times during the course of the Team USA mini-camp, Lillard has been asked, in one form or another, the question: Which players are you most excited to play with? And invariably, his reply has been that he's more looking forward to competing against the players in attendance rather than being giddy at the prospect of playing alongside them. The fact that the question is posed so often is indicative of the change that has taken place when it comes to how players on different teams internalize their relationships with each other.
Again, it would be revisionist to claim that players of previous eras didn't have friendly relationships off the court, and there were probably occasions in which a few players did everything they could to end up on the same NBA team, though it inarguably happened much less frequently than that it does today. But no one assumed Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, Larry Bird and Isaih Thomas were waiting breathlessly for the opportunity to join forces. They united in the interest of a common goal (at least that was a case for Jordan, Johnson and Bird), but once that goal was achieved, they all went back to being enemies, not pen pals hellbent on finding ways to end up playing together come the start of the NBA season.
Lillard is quick to point out that he's not casting judgement on other players who are going out of their way to call their own shots when it comes to who they'll eventually line up alongside of. And he's not saying using friendships to influence decisions about where sought-after free agents will sign is necessarily wrong. All he's saying is he's not about that life. He's a basketball player, not an NBA version of a political lobbyist.
"You're going to bring in guys to better your team," said Lillard, "but I'm not going to go out and try to force it. That's not my job. That's up to Neil (Olshey) and Coach (Stotts) and all those guys to better the team. My job is to play basketball. I'll let them do that. They asked me about recruitment when the season ended and I said, if guys ask me about Portland, I'll tell them my opinion of it but I'm not going to be reaching out and doing all that stuff."