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Did Damian Lillard Just Announce a New Era of NBA Player Power?

Last Updated: July 22, 2021
Damian Lillard naming Jason Kidd as his pick for Blazers head coach could signal a major shift for the league.

Whether he intended to or not, superstar Portland Trail Blazers guard Damian Lillard may have initiated a revolution of player empowerment in basketball.

On June 4, just two hours after Portland fired head coach Terry Stotts following nine years — Lillard’s entire career to this point — a rare and unprecedented story dropped on Yahoo Sports. Written by insider, Turner sideline reporter, and resident Dame whisperer Chris Haynes, Lillard made it crystal clear as to who he wanted leading the Blazers going forward.

“Jason Kidd is the guy I want,” Lillard told Haynes.

No ambiguity. No uncertainty. No floating of preferred options through backchannels. Out in the open, Dame made it known that he wanted the current Los Angeles Lakers assistant coach and Hall of Fame point guard. That level of sheer directness from a player is something we’ve never seen in the NBA coaching carousel before.

Kidd’s reaction was rather swift. And ultimately, it was predictable.

“Portland’s a first-class organization and will have great candidates for its head coaching job, but I’ve decided not to be one of them,” Kidd told ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski, who also broke the news of Stotts’ ouster following the Blazers’ fourth exit in the first round of the NBA Playoffs the last five seasons. “Whoever they choose will have big shoes to fill from Terry.”

Kidd, Woj said, was uncomfortable with going after the Portland job given Lillard’s public endorsement. The underlying reason? He would’ve been Dame’s guy, so to speak. Dame’s hire. As a result, his arrival would put both Lillard and the Blazers organization “in an awkward position,” the reporter told colleague Maria Taylor.

The Blazers, per ESPN’s report, intend to reach out to Clippers assistant Chauncey Billups, Jeff Van Gundy, Nets assistant Mike D’Antoni, and Michigan head coach Juwan Howard for initial interviews.

But how close are we to getting to the point where the NBA’s superstar players not only have an open and outright say in coaching and personnel decisions, but that those public pronouncements lead to successful hires?

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We all know this is happening behind the scenes anyway. Just look at the Milwaukee Bucks’ ill-fated offseason pursuit of then-restricted free agent guard Bogdan Bogdanovic back in November.

Bleacher Report’s Jake Fischer reported that Giannis Antetokounmpo and his brother Thanasis kept in regular contact with the former Sacramento Kings sharpshooter. Then, on the same night that the Bucks acquired point guard Jrue Holiday in a blockbuster deal with New Orleans, reports surfaced that Milwaukee had orchestrated a sign-and-trade deal to bring Bogie to Wisconsin four days before free agency officially began.

This was viewed as a huge coup in an effort to convince the Greek Freak, who had just one year left on his contract at the time, to sign a supermax contract extension with the team.

After at least one team reportedly complained about this sign-and-trade agreement violating the league’s anti-tampering rules, however, Milwaukee’s deal for Bogdanovic quickly fell apart and the player ultimately signed a $72 million offer sheet with the Atlanta Hawks that Sacramento declined to match.

The NBA ruled that Milwaukee’s overzealousness qualified as tampering, and they lost a second-round pick as a result.

Bogdanovic is now playing a key role in Atlanta’s wildly successful playoff run, effectively confirming Giannis’ intuition with regards to personnel. For what it’s worth, Antetonkounmpo was sufficiently satisfied with the Bucks’ short and long-term prospects and ended up signing a five-year, $228 million extension with Milwaukee, the largest contract in NBA history to date.

There will always be rumors and speculation about players having or wanting real decision-making power, with Antetokounmpo being a recent but far-from-isolated example. But the Lillard-Kidd drama is the first time a personnel maneuver like this was so publicly, explicitly, out in the open rather than of behind the scenes (or in the shadows, as instances of tampering tend to be).

It’s unfortunate that the Lillard-Kidd situation played out uncomfortably, as a franchise superstar was simply trying to have a say in who his next head coach would be; the first one to be hired since his 2012 NBA debut. It didn’t work, but what if the next time a superstar tries this — perhaps inspired by Dame himself — it does?

What if a franchise player expresses his desire to hire either a head coach or acquire a player through the media or on his own social channels and the team actually grants this wish?

That would truly signal the next and newest phase and iteration of the current NBA player empowerment era. And it would seem to be just a matter of time.

How many team presidents and general managers around the league would be okay with this dramatic shift in the balance of personnel power toward the game’s preeminent players? How many would have pause, bristle, or push back on it? Right on cue, we’re already seeing this change behind the scenes, with former player agents like the Lakers’ Rob Pelinka, Golden State’s Bob Myers, and the Knicks’ Leon Rose and William Wesley getting more prominent executive jobs around the league.

Once a player like Lillard calls his shot and someone like Kidd really does become the Blazers’ head coach, how long before a new collective bargaining agreement permits players to hold formal executive titles with their teams, or even the NBA’s first ever player-GM?

And how long before the promise of this type of power becomes a key selling point for select teams courting superstars in free agency?

Those are questions that we’re far from being able to answer at the moment. But the Dame scenario that played out over the weekend certainly gives those in and around pro sports’ ultimate player empowerment league a lot to ponder in the years to come.

About The Author
Shlomo Sprung
Shlomo Sprung
Shlomo Sprung is a Senior Staff Writer at Boardroom. He has more than a decade of experience in journalism, with past work appearing in Forbes, MLB.com, Awful Announcing, and The Sporting News. He graduated from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism in 2011, and his Twitter and Spotify addictions are well under control. Just ask him.