Tough edit: USA Today's Dan Wolken

A critique of the column that declared Portland's Damian Lillard to be annoying, thereby earning the author a nomination for our inaugural Headinass Awards.

Welcome to the tough edit where I get all forensic on a piece of sports writing to point out all of the things that make me grit my teeth. First up: Dan Wolken of the USA Today, whose Tuesday column was titled, “Blazers star Damian Lillard is earning a new moniker: NBA’s most annoying player.”

The column was sufficiently obtuse as to earn Dan Wolken our second nomination for the Headinass Award, which will be given out here at The Dang Apostrophe at the end of the year. He joins Ric Bucher, who stated that Kevin Durant needed to get married earlier this year.

The original text of Wolken’s story is below in bold. My comments are in italics with a vertical red bar to the left:

Given his age and the current state of his team, Damian Lillard is not going to win a championship with the Portland Trail Blazers. But with every turn in the will-he-or-won’t-he saga that plays out in interview clips and coded messages on social media, Lillard moves one step closer to locking up a different title: The NBA’s most annoying player.

What? I can’t think of any things about Dame Lillard that I would classify as an annoying player at all let alone the most annoying player in a league that includes Kyrie Irving, Chris Paul, Pat Beverley and Draymond Green.

Dame Time was must-watch television when it meant swishing 40-foot shots in the playoffs. Lately, it’s got a different connotation. It’s time for Lillard to say what he means and mean what he says about his future with the only franchise he’s ever played for.

a)   Really, must-watch television? What is this the 1990s NBC TV lineup? That phrase is corny as hell; b) What authority do you have to demand transparency from the employee of another company? I’m dead serious. Why do you think he owes you or any of us a (gosh) (darn) thing.

Enough already.

I agree. Enough.

Lillard, who turns 33 in a couple weeks, is at a career crossroads. His first 11 seasons in the league have produced some excellent basketball and a couple good playoff runs but no real chances to win a title. And with Portland drafting Scoot Henderson at No. 3 overall, unable to find a suitable trade that would net another ready-made star, the reality is that it’s time to pivot toward a plan that might — might — make the Trail Blazers contenders by the time Lillard’s prime is long in the past.

OK. That’s actually a pretty fair synopsis of Portland’s current situation.

Lillard, commendably in many ways, has been firm over the years that he wants to stay in Portland and be forever associated with that city and team. That has put him in stark contrast with a litany of stars in the last decade who have demanded their exit from circumstances they didn’t like regardless of contract status.

So in other words: not annoying.

But gauging by the comments Lillard has made in various interviews lately or the messages he’s laundered through unofficial spokespeople in the media, it is clear that he’s wavering.

And the way it’s playing out publicly is unbecoming of a player with a reputation for being a grownup and consummate professional. 

Ooh, sneaky Dan. Very, very sneaky. You don’t quote one thing he’s said nor do you mention a specific media report. You just bundle it all together and say, “it is clear he’s wavering.” And you know what, he might be. But you haven’t demonstrated that in this column, and even if you had, I would argue that might make him “insightful” or “realistic” as opposed to “annoying.” If Neil Olshey was the GM of your company for eight and a half years, you might waver, too.

In the days and weeks leading up to the draft, the Lillard speculation was somewhat tolerable. The Blazers were in a unique position with the No. 3 pick, an asset that seemed to pretty clearly give them a choice of two paths. 

Trade the pick and perhaps some other young assets that would allow Lillard to make a couple more runs as he moves into his mid- and late-30s or draft Henderson and go all-in on the youth movement — which would obviously include getting significant assets in a Lillard trade.

Again, a largely fair synopsis of the situation.

Simple, right? Apparently not. And as a result, the rest of us are rolling our eyes so much that it might soon become a new medical condition.

First it was must-watch television and now we’ve got eye-rolling hyperbole. We got ourselves some high-caliber sportswritering here

What happened between Lillard and the Trail Blazers in the days and weeks leading up to the draft can best be described as some of the lamest, most passive-aggressive behavior we’ve seen in these inevitable divorce situations — and that's saying something given the high bar LeBron James has set for his peers in that department.

First of all, the fact you’re citing “inevitable divorce situations” gives a pretty good idea of what you think will happen. Second, what specifically happened in the days and weeks leading up to the draft? I’m being serious. I pay fairly close attention to the NBA, and I wouldn’t consider it at all out of the ordinary by NBA standards. Was it lamer than Dwight Howard’s exit from Orlando? Ben Simmons’s departure from Philadelphia? James Harden from the Nets? From the Rockets? If you think Lillard’s actions are “some of the lamest, most passive-aggressive behavior we’ve seen” I’m not sure how much you know about the NBA, Dan.

What I think you’re actually sick of is the opinions that you’ve seen on ESPN’s talking shows like "First Take” and “Get Up!” or FS1’s lineup. And honestly, I get that. But if you’re mad about the hot-take competition regarding Lillard’s future, perhaps you should address the hot-take factory where those opinions are being manufactured and distributed. Instead, you’ve decided to write about Lillard as if he’s throwing a temper tantrum when he’s not.

Lillard believes he can win in Portland but doesn’t want to play with kids. He might or might not like the idea of playing in Miami. The team either did or did not communicate its plans with Lillard as the draft was approaching. And, in perhaps the most laughable bit of news that has come out, Yahoo! Sports reported that the Blazers weren’t trying to trade Lillard to Miami but rather were hoping to put forth a “compelling package” that would net Bam Adebayo off a team that just played in the NBA Finals.

Uh huh.

So they had hopes of completing an admittedly ambitious trade for Adebayo, which would have moved Portland further into win-now territory. It didn’t happen because Miami understandly said, “No.” That actually sounds like a fairly normal attempt at a transaction.

But the latest, most nauseating development surely came on Monday when Chris Haynes of TNT and Bleacher Report — a reporter who is well known to have a close relationship with Lillard — said that Lillard and agent Aaron Goodwin were meeting with Blazers executives to discuss the direction of the franchise.

OK. What – exactly – is nauseating about a reporter stating that Lillard and his agent are meeting with Blazers brass? I’m serious. That’s not speculation. Are you saying you wouldn’t have reported this as fact if you knew about it before Chris Haynes? If so, you’re a poor journalist. Are you throwing shade on just how Haynes learned this fact by pointing out his close relationship to the subject? If so, I’m going to humbly point out that you — of all people — probably aren’t in a position to judge the interpersonal dynamics of the relationship between reporter and subject.

Hours later, general manager Joe Cronin issued a statement that included these words: “We remain committed to building a winner around Dame.”

The capper, though, came again via Haynes in a video posted on Bleacher Report’s Web site: “He doesn’t want to be on a team that’s just stacked. He doesn't want to have a team where it's just three All-Stars or three superstars and they go and battle that way. He just wants a team that has a shot.”

I feel like I’m taking crazy pills here because everything that has happened seems highly normal and on the precipice of being bland. There’s no public trade demand here.

Will someone in Portland please be the adult here?

What exactly would being the adult look like to you, Dan? It’s clear you’re annoyed there isn’t a more definitive answer on Dame Lillard’s future in Portland, but I’m not sure why you believe there needs to be a more definitive answer right now. Dame hasn’t asked for a trade, and the team doesn’t seem to be pursuing one. That could change depending on how this season goes, it might not.

Lillard has been one of the NBA’s best players for more than a decade, but whether he wins a championship or plays on another really good team just isn’t that important in the grand scheme of things.

a)   All of professional sports “isn’t that important in the grand scheme of things.” b) I’ll bet the question of whether Lillard wins a championship is pretty important to him and to every fan in Portland. It may not be that important to you, and that’s fine. But that’s just like your opinion, man, and as much as you’ve tried to invoke some collective annoyance with the news regarding Lillard, this whole thing reads like a journalist who’s mad that there’s not a more definitive outcome because that makes it harder to have a firm opinion on what’s happening in Portland. And let me tell you something, the difficulty you experience in writing a column REALLY isn’t that important in the grand scheme of things.

He’s not some kind of martyr if he stays in a small market his entire career and settles for one conference finals appearance in 2019 as the apex of his run. Likewise, if Lillard goes to Miami or somewhere else and eventually wins a ring while surrounded by other great players, what really changes for him other than being able to say he played for a championship team?

All the stuff about needing a title to be viewed a certain way in history? That’s all fake unless we are splitting the finest of hairs about the greatest of the greatest, and Lillard isn’t part of those conversations anyway. He’s a Hall of Fame guy if he never picks up a basketball again, and at this stage of the game the needle isn’t going to move very much for him in either direction. 

Honestly, these two paragraphs outline the premise for a much better column than whatever it is I’ve just waded through. This is a really sharp analysis of a deep-rooted issue in professional sports in general. We tend to imbue the decisions that players make in their careers with a sense of virtue or morality that they shouldn’t necessarily possess. After all, these are essentially employment decisions.

I’m grateful that Felix Hernandez spent his career pitching for the Seattle Mariners in spite of the expectation he would (or should) eventually leave. I wish Seattle had a team capable of reaching the playoffs in that time, but I don’t think that means Hernandez suffered some horribly unjust fate. He chose to be a folk hero here rather than push his way onto a team that would put him on the biggest stage. There are benefits (King’s Court) and there are drawbacks (no playoff starts). You are not owed championships because you are a great player.

See, that’s a good column as opposed to this, which is very much NOT a good column.

So the question is what does he want to do, and what’s realistic?

Uhhhhh, those are two questions. 

If Lillard’s goal is to truly compete for a title, he needs to come to terms with the reality that time and circumstance is not on his side in Portland and ask the team to find him a better situation.

OK. Let’s say that is the case and Lillard has decided to ask the team to find him a better situation. Why should he tell us that’s what is happening right now? I mean, other than to satisfy your demand that someone “act like an adult” whatever the hell that means. Because I can tell you two reasons not to say a word: 1) Making a public trade request would undermine Portland’s bargaining position because other teams would now they HAVE to move Dame. 2) It makes things painfully awkward should Portland be unable to find a trade partner over these next few months, and for an example of that, look no further than the Nets with Kevin Durant last season.

If his goal is to leave a legacy as Portland’s forever king, then he needs to be all-in on the idea that the Blazers might be ready to compete in important playoff games again when he’s on the other side of 35.

Either way, it’s up to him. But he needs to step up to the plate, stop the double-talk and make his intentions known. Lillard has spent most of his career as one of the NBA’s most admirable players, but this interminable limbo has been a decidedly ugly look.

What makes this the now-or-never moment? Is he barred from asking for a trade in two months? A year? Two years? This whole deadline is being imposed by one person: you. And you know what? I think that’s really annoying.


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