Damian Lillard wants to play.
It feels important to say that at the top, given the public backlash Lillard has faced in the aftermath of telling Yahoo Sports that he had no interest in playing in a resumed season that does not offer Portland—3 ½ games back of the final playoff spot in the Western Conference, with 16 games to play when COVID-19, the coronavirus, made the sports world stand still in mid-March—a “true opportunity” to make the postseason. On ESPN, NFL analyst turned temporary NBA pundit Dan Orlovsky branded Lillard “a spoiled and entitled brat” for suggesting he wouldn’t play. On FS1, Lillard was called an egomaniac.
Lillard is none of those things, of course. He is one of the NBA’s most respected stars. For eight seasons, Lillard has represented the Blazers as well as any player could. He’s a fixture in the Portland community, a past winner of the NBA’s monthly community assist award and a nominee for its annual honor. He has poured millions to the Oakland, Calif. area he grew up in, including refurbishing his high school gym. He once convinced his teammates to donate their playoff shares to team staffers, and when the current pandemic hit Lillard chipped in $100,000 to the Blazers relief fund.
Spoiled? Hard to call an underrecruited, mid-major player who turned himself into one of the NBA’s preeminent scorers that.
Lillard attempted to clean up his comments in a pair of interviews with the league’s television partner. He reiterated that it was important to “play for something,” adding that coming back to play just to play is “not what anyone wants.” And he’s right—few players want to come back to play in glorified scrimmages, much less stars on Lillard’s level.
But what if it comes to that?
If it does, Damian Lillard should play.
As the calendar turned to Friday and with June right around the corner, NBA officials continued sift through different scenarios for bringing back the season. A call with top team executives on Thursday was productive, per sources briefed on it, though there continues to be differences of opinion on how the league should come back. Officials within some individual teams have different priorities, with the basketball side and business side not necessarily needing the same things out of a resumed season. A Board of Governors call will take place on Friday, with Bucks owner Marc Lasry telling CNBC a vote on any league proposal could happen as early as next week.
“I think at the end of the day, we’ll be in Orlando at Disney,” Lasry said. “The question is going to be will we have all 30 teams there or will we have 24; whatever the number will end up being. But hopefully, by the middle of July, we start playing again.”
But how? There are things we know. We know the NBA prefers to have each round of the postseason be best of seven, something Adam Silver brought up in a call with player reps earlier this month. We know the league isn’t attached to a specific start date to next season, with league officials believing that the later the 2020-21 season starts, the better chance all or some of it can be played with fans in the stands. Some 40% of the NBA’s revenue, per Silver, comes from money built around game nights in arenas.
Here’s what else we know: There will be a financial consequence if the NBA doesn’t fulfill obligations to its local television partners. For most teams, there are a certain number of games guaranteed on its contract; 70 is a magic number, though it can vary by team depending on its contract. For playoff teams, a loss of regular season games is less significant, as local affiliates carry first round postseason games. But for non-playoff teams, not fulfilling that contract could lead to a significant loss of revenue.
That’s important, because as NBA teams hemorrhage cash, jobs could become more at risk. The NBA—with a big assist from players—have supported full and part time staffers during this pandemic. But if there is any kind of shortfall on television revenue, which is effectively the league’s only source of income right now, who knows how teams will react? With the NBA facing an uncertain economic future, how many teams will shed staff to meet it?
Look: Chances are it won’t come to this, a situation where Lillard and other top stars are asked to put on uniforms and act like sparring partners for teams gearing up for the playoffs. Silver, as player-friendly a commissioner as there is in sports, likely won’t put them in that situation. A play-in tournament is still on the table, sources familiar with league discussions told SI.com, a compromise that would satisfy Lillard’s desire to play in meaningful games.
But if it did come down to Portland, New Orleans and Sacramento—three teams still in the playoff hunt when the NBA shut down—having to play meaningless games, Lillard should suit up for them. Baseball is fighting a losing p.r. battle right now, with billionaire owners getting (rightfully) crucified for refusing to pay minor leaguers and millionaire players getting flogged for pushing back on further pay cuts during this pandemic. NBA players should want none of that. Lillard is scheduled to make nearly $30 million this season, with a four-year, $196 million extension kicking in after next season. For most teams, a resumed season will amount to a matter of weeks. For the greater good, every player should be a part of it.