The non-trade of Damian Lillard to the Miami Heat is a significant triumph for NBA teams across the board. It appeared almost inevitable that Lillard would make the move to Miami during the majority of the offseason.
His agent, Aaron Goodwin, went to great lengths to deter other potential suitors, even prompting the NBA to intervene and issue a warning against such tactics. It took months for a suitable trade market to materialize, but the Portland Trail Blazers stood firm, with most reports indicating that they hadn’t engaged in trade discussions with the Heat for an extended period.
However, Lillard eventually relented. According to ESPN’s Marc Spears, Goodwin informed the Milwaukee Bucks and Brooklyn Nets approximately ten days ago that Lillard was open to playing for them. The rest is history, as Lillard is now a Buck. The long-term implications of this move are profound, extending beyond the immediate championship race.
The player empowerment movement has evolved gradually since Kobe Bryant’s trade request was denied in 2007. It began with stars moving through free agency, notably led by LeBron James in 2010. Carmelo Anthony took it a step further in 2011 when he forced a trade just months before his free agency.
The trend continued with Chris Paul, Dwight Howard, Anthony Davis, Paul George, and Kevin Durant, all pushing for trades with varying degrees of time remaining on their contracts. Teams occasionally won these standoffs, but the victories were usually bittersweet, with minimal returns or delayed exits for the star players.
What sets Lillard apart is his explicit demand for a specific team, which he didn’t ultimately land with. Even though he signaled his willingness to consider other teams like Milwaukee and Brooklyn, this level of determination is relatively rare.
Lillard’s approach may serve as a unique case, as he wasn’t willing to escalate the situation with a holdout or show up out of shape. This could potentially establish a new boundary for player empowerment.
Kevin Durant, for instance, eventually secured his trade to the Phoenix Suns, but it took half a season to happen. The Brooklyn Nets were in good form before his injury, and without Kyrie Irving forcing a trade, they might have kept their star trio intact and aimed for a championship.
So, waiting out the contract might be a strategy, and three years could be the magic number to ward off the threat of free agency.
This development could hold symbolic significance. If player empowerment has reached its limits, teams might start pushing back. With the reduced prevalence of max cap space on competitive teams, the threat of free agency has diminished. No reigning All-NBA player has switched teams via free agency since 2019, mainly because few competitive teams have the cap space. The Philadelphia 76ers, for example, tried this approach with James Harden, refusing to offer a long-term contract and limiting his options.
However, it’s essential to remember that there’s no equilibrium in the NBA, and teams are always challenging conventions.
Despite the ever-changing landscape, Lillard’s non-trade stands as one of the most significant team victories in the era of player empowerment. The Miami Heat persisted in low-balling the Blazers, assuming Lillard would eventually get his way. His failure to do so, while the full impact remains uncertain, is undoubtedly a substantial win for NBA teams as a whole.