With one starter already traded and three others drawing significant outside interest in free agency, the Blazers nailed down one foundational piece for as long as possible.
Two-time All-Star point guard Damian Lillard has agreed to a five-year, $125 million maximum rookie contract extension, according to USA Today and Yahoo Sports. The deal, which kicks in for the 2016-17 season and runs through 2020-21, reportedly doesn't include any options. This marks the second nine-figure deal of Lillard's career, as he inked an endorsement deal with Adidas worth a reported $100-plus million last year.
"I play the game out of love and it's inspiring to be rewarded for doing things the right way and being a high character person, Lillard said in a statement to Yahoo Sports. "It's also comforting knowing that none of what I've accomplished has been handed to me."
Lillard, 24, made a seamless transition to the NBA after spending four years at Weber State, stepping in as Portland's starting point guard from Day One and wining 2013 Rookie of the Year honors. The No. 6 pick in 2012 averaged a career-high 21 points, 6.2 assists and 4.6 rebounds last season, teaming with All-Star power forward LaMarcus Aldridge to lead the Blazers to the postseason for the second straight year. The 2014 playoffs produced the highlight of Lillard's career to date, as he hit a series-clinching buzzer beater to eliminate the Rockets and send the Blazers to the second round of the playoffs for the first time in 14 years.
The agreement comes as the Blazers look headed for a possible rebuilding process. Blazers president Neil Olshey traded starting small forward Nicolas Batum to the Hornets last month, and Aldridge, starting two guard Wesley Matthews and starting center Robin Lopez are all drawing interest as unrestricted free agents. Olshey has also added a number of younger pieces via trade and free agency in recent weeks, including Noah Vonleh (age 19), Mason Plumlee (age 25), Ed Davis (age 26) and Al-Farouq Aminu (age 24). If Aldridge does depart, as has been widely speculated, Portland looks poised to reshape its roster around Lillard, a talented scorer and high-volume three-point shooter. Other younger members of Portland's potential next-generation core include Meyers Leonard (age 23) and C.J .McCollum (age 23), who are both lottery picks made by Olshey.
Lillard's game is predicated on his shooting ability: he's a skilled shot-creator off the dribble and his functional range extends way beyond the free-throw line. As his pro career has progressed, Lillard has improved as a finisher in the basket area and he's done a better job the last two seasons of drawing contact and getting to the line, even though his supporters often feel he doesn't get as many calls as he deserves. His other chief virtue is his durability: Lillard has yet to miss a single game in his three-year career, even though he's averaged nearly 37 minutes per game along the way. Compared to Brandon Roy, Portland's most recent max rookie extension signing, his doctor's report is significantly less complicated.
Of course, no third-year player is perfect. Lillard's defensive abilities have taken a beating since he entered the league, and he's made that area a point of emphasis in his development for years. Nevertheless, his -0.37 Defensive Real-Plus Minus ranked 29th among point guards last year, the Blazers' defensive rating was 5.2 points worse when he was on the court, and he was even named the "No-Defense Player of the Year" for 2015 by the San Jose Mercury News. Lillard is also prone to streakiness, as he shot a career-low 34.3% on threes last season, the worst percentage of any player with at least 450 attempts.
Even the nitpickers and naysayers will agree that Lillard is near the very top of the 2012 class when it comes to production. He trails only No. 1 overall pick Anthony Davis when it comes to career Win Shares, and his 20.8 Player Efficiency Rating ranked No. 5 among point guards with at least 50 games played, trailing only certified stars like Russell Westbrook, Stephen Curry, Chris Paul, and Kyrie Irving.
Portland's interest in getting a deal done is obvious. The small-market franchise's primary method for adding talented players has been the draft, and Lillard is on track to become one of the Blazers' most productive draft picks ever. He has embraced the local community, delivered in the postseason, and welcomed leadership responsibility. Even if Aldridge and company were all returning and Portland's status quo was continuing, retaining Lillard would be a top off-season priority. In light of all that uncertainty, however, securing Lillard gives Olshey a face for the future if the defections start to add up.
Lillard's life on the court will get significantly more difficult should Aldridge, Matthews and Lopez leave: He would become Portland's No. 1 scoring option, he would likely be without a proven No. 2 guy, would likely find himself facing lots of trapping defenses looking to take the ball out of his hands, would no longer have the defensive cover provided by his four veteran teammates, and would need to carry a team emotionally through a much tougher test than Portland's back-to-back 50-win seasons. Lillard, who takes great pride in his underdog, small-school story, has welcomed and conquered a number of previous obstacles, but this would clearly represent new territory for his professional career.
Unlike Davis, who took a player option on the final year of his extension, Lillard has reportedly committed to a deal that doesn't include any options. While that might not seem like a big deal now, it will likely be welcome news for the Blazers in July 2020, as it delays a potential storm of free agency rumors for an extra year. Thunder All-Star forward Kevin Durant took the same approach on his rookie extension, a move that saved Oklahoma City a lot of headaches this summer.
Long story short, Portland had no reason to hesitate, and every reason to hurry, with this deal. Lillard had every reason to take the full boat and, in a goodwill gesture, he made the Blazers' life easier at the end of the contract. Done and done.