Gordon Monson: Here’s a move that could automatically launch the Utah Jazz toward an NBA title — get Damian Lillard

The Weber State alum’s ties to Utah go back more than a decade and a homecoming would help make the Jazz a contender, the Tribune columnist writes.

Portland Trail Blazers guard Damian Lillard (0) drives to the basket against Utah Jazz guard Johnny Juzang, left, and Utah Jazz forward Lauri Markkanen (23) during an NBA basketball game, Wednesday, March 22, 2023, in Salt Lake City. (AP Photo/Jeff Swinger)

Before we get started here, an admission right up front: Half of you are going to think what I’m advocating for edges toward insanity and half will not just think it’s a smart idea, you’ll love it. Those percentages are ones I’ll happily embrace and endure.

The Jazz took a step toward real contention on Monday with the acquisition of John Collins. Now, it’s time for a quantum leap. The chatter about this possibility has been quiet and heard pretty much in hushed tones only in narrow, near reaches, not far and wide. But wouldn’t it be something extraordinary if it were yelled into reality. THAT’S NOT A QUESTION, IT’S AN EXCLAMATION.

Damian Lillard in a different uniform, not Portland’s, not Miami’s.

No. A uniform with a Jazz note on it.

That would be a sight to see. Welcome home, Dame.

The noise surrounding the longtime Trail Blazers guard this offseason — and previous offseasons, too — has been loud. Lillard’s been in Portland his entire pro career without many opportunities for one of the best players in the game to have any kind of shot at a championship. That’s just one thing the man has in common with the Jazz organization: no ring.

Well. It’s time for desperate, empty hands to shake. He’s been loyal to the Blazers and been paid royally for that loyalty. It’s best for all involved to chuck that last part to the wind.

Remember what has already been alluded to, what nobody around here has forgotten: Lillard was here before he was there.

He annually holds a basketball camp at Weber State, and has generously donated to the school. He’s a Wildcat, still. He actually likes Utah, holds an appreciation for the place.

Lillard ended up at Weber for the same reason he’s lasted so long in Portland — yes, loyalty. Then-’Cats coach Randy Rahe was all over a young Lillard before anyone else was. Rahe saw early on what other coaches were slow to recognize — that the athletic kid with the rough edges out of Oakland was going to smooth those edges into a bright shine.

Once coaches at bigger schools saw what could be shined, it was too late. Lillard was going where he was first wanted. The Wildcats deserved that. They deserved him. And when Lillard arrived there … well, Rahe’s words, spoken back then, said it all:

“He’s above our level. We’re talking about an NBA guy here.”

Not just an NBA guy. An NBA star.

“Damian’s got a lot of ability. But his intangibles are off the charts. In 22 years of coaching Division I basketball, he’s the hardest-working player I’ve ever been around. It’s almost a sickness. He’s addicted to getting better. We have to kick him out of the gym.”

All of that has been made obvious now, Lillard ascending to heights in the NBA even Rahe didn’t see. No need to repeat every bit of it here.

As Lillard has kept in his memory who believed in him at the beginning, the Jazz, if at all possible, should believe in him now, making that bold move toward contention by offering up what is theirs to offer — a load of first-round draft picks.

Because the Jazz are substantially under the cap, and will remain especially so if Jordan Clarkson opts out, they could, in theory at least, do an unbalanced trade with Portland, taking back more than they give up in salary, making those enticing draft picks most attractive to a team like the Blazers who might — might — be on the verge of entering into a rebuild.

Lillard made $49 million last season, and in the final two years of his current deal is scheduled to haul in $57 million and $63 million.

A lot of money in exchange for a lot of hope, real hope this time.

Portland would likely want either Lauri Markkenen or Walker Kessler as a part of such a trade, in addition to so many picks, and that’s where the deal gets dicey. If I’m the Jazz, I do everything possible to hang on to those two guys, stirring them into the team’s mix with Lillard. That’s the whole point, to accelerate into the playoffs with legitimacy — and in the case of the younger players, preserve room for additional growth.

For Lillard, it makes no sense for him to jump from mediocrity in Portland to mediocrity in Salt Lake City. The move for DL, on both the player’s and the club’s part, would have to be a move toward the top of the West. That’s why the future picks would have to be such a huge part of the transaction. The Blazers want flexibility and growth into their future, as well.

In that regard, if the Jazz were to push for Lillard, they would be swapping out steady, consistent advancement for immediate reward. That sounds like an advantageous move considering the Jazz’s elongated history of always valuing steady, consistent advancement, gaining no trophy in that pursuit.

Folks around these parts have grown weary and wary of steady, consistent growth.

Speaking of insanity, what did Einstein say about doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results?

Just sayin.’

It’s time for the Jazz to do something different — fast-track their ascendency with an All-NBA guard. Trade their future for the present.

An NBA coach once used these exact words in his evaluation of Donovan Mitchell and the Jazz’s prospects for winning a title with him: “The problem with Mitchell is that he thinks he’s Damian Lillard.”

Damian Lillard is not Donovan Mitchell. He’s Damian Lillard, still.

He’s had a couple of injuries and the Blazers have, at times, shut their star down as a means of winning by losing games. He averaged better than 32 points last season, with just more than seven assists. Picture that kind of contribution on the Jazz.

The fact that Lillard turns 33 in July isn’t a detriment, it’s an asset. Yeah, the rest of the primary Jazz crew is younger, but Lillard’s leadership with that emerging talent would bolster their cause. Another fact — that Lillard hasn’t been able to win a title in Portland — doesn’t apply now on account of this truth: His abilities blended with the promising talent the Jazz currently have paints a different picture.

Some observers think the Blazers should pull the plug on Lillard. They’ve criticized the veteran for appearing to hold Portland hostage, claiming he wants to be there, but then barking orders to management about moves they should make to please him.

It hasn’t been just to suit his needs, though, it’s been to make the team an authentic threat.

None of this is possible if Portland has no interest in what the Jazz have to offer, but … they do have a lot to put forth, if they are willing.

They should be willing because an authentic threat is exactly what the Jazz would transform into if they used those future assets, perhaps with a little of this and that thrown in, to do what the Utah basketball community — which is just about everyone around here — has spent the last 40-plus years longing for, something John Stockton and Karl Malone couldn’t do, something Carlos Boozer and Andrei Kirilenko and Deron Williams couldn’t do, something Mitchell and Rudy Gobert couldn’t do.

Win the whole darn thing.

Welcome home, Dame. That opportunity awaits you — could await you — in the shadow of the mountains where your shining brilliance began.