LAS VEGAS – The Trail Blazers spent some of Saturday making things official, tying up loose ends and taking care of business, as they say, now that the free-agent moratorium is over.
The supermax contract extension for Damian Lillard was announced. Rodney Hood’s re-signing was announced. Mario Hezonja and Anthony Tolliver signed their deals. Draft pick Nassir Little signed his contract. And the trade that brought Hassan Whiteside to Portland was officially announced.
What’s the record for most press releases sent out in the span of three hours?
Lillard was on hand for a media availability that announced his deal, a four-year extension that kicks in after two more seasons and is expected to pay him in the neighborhood of $196 million. Lillard earned that contract on the court, but he backs it up off the court.
“I’ve been in the league a long time,” said Portland Coach Terry Stotts. “It’s a players’ league and the best teams are a reflection of their best player. If you’re fortunate enough to have a great leader as your best player, it just makes everything that much better for the coaches, the players, the franchise, the city – whatever – Dame has embodied that.”
He’s become an icon in Portland, an honest face of a franchise that is trying to do things right on the court and off. Lillard is beloved in Portland and recognized wherever he goes in the city. And it’s fine by him. He understands and accepts that role.
“It doesn’t bother me because I am who I say I am,” Lillard said. “I didn’t pretend my way to my first extension and I didn’t pretend my way to this one. If I was pretending, then if I was doing anything out of the ordinary, I would be like, ‘Damn, people are going to notice.’ If they see me in public, I am who I say I am. So, it’s not an issue at all.”
His leadership is said to be among the best in basketball and he has become the guardian of the team’s well-regarded culture. And so when the Blazers swung a deal for Whiteside, whose reputation as a tough player for coaches to deal with is well known, Lillard didn’t bat an eye.
“Anytime you do something outside something that you typically do, it’s going to be a challenge,” Lillard said “I’ve played with Robin Lopez, Nurk, JJ Hickson and guys like that who just kind of are more on the laid-back side … they aren’t going to say a whole lot, just do what they do. Hassan is outspoken, people have said things like that about him, that he’s given them a hard time, things like that. But I think once you come to an environment where it’s just not like that, you look around and say, ‘Nobody else is causing problems. Everybody else is working hard.' It makes it more uncomfortable to be the one guy doing it. People have said those things but I think he’ll come to a place like this and those things can change.
“Maybe he comes here and realizes it’s a better situation for him. He may behave. I don’t see it being an issue, because I’ve known him for a while and we’ve known each other for a while. I’ve already had a conversation with him. When you’re mad when the game’s not going your way, if somebody did something, if the coach said something to you, we have to talk. We’ve pretty much had that conversation already.”
Hood also had a media availability after signing with Portland for the taxpayer mid-level exception. Hood likes the city, his teammates and the situation with the Trail Blazers and said he could have gotten more money from another team, but knew he’d be happy in Portland.
"I think I'm making pretty good money," he said. "Not Dame money, but good money. I'm happy."
He was a valuable player off the bench for the team last season but the starting forward spots are wide open this season, with the departure of Maurice Harkless and Al-Farouq Aminu. Does he expect his role to be different this season?
“I don’t personally know,” he said. “It may be bigger and it may be the same. I don’t expect any decrease. I haven’t talked to the coach about.it yet. Probably be a little bit more, but whether I start or come off the bench, I don’t know.”