LAS VEGAS -- Portland Trail Blazers guard Damian Lillard says star NBA players recruiting each other has become a more "powerful" way to join forces than the traditional approach of franchises holding pitch meetings during free agency.
"It's become huge," Lillard said during a news conference Saturday to announce his four-year, $196 million extension. "Because sometimes the coaches and the front offices, they don't have as much power as the players. The players are so friendly now. I think in the past it was like [Michael] Jordan probably didn't go out searching and trying to get guys to come join him. It was like they were competing against each other.
"Now it's, 'Well, they got three stars on their team, so I know this guy and that guy, I'm going to try to get them to come to my team.' So I think you see [recruiting] a lot more now where it's just players recruiting players is more powerful than the pitch meeting with the team. That's just what it is now, so it's a huge part of the game now."
Coming off a season in which he led the Trail Blazers to the Western Conference finals, Lillard admitted he is excited about the challenge of trying to compete against all the teams that have upgraded over the past week in free agency.
"It gives you something to look forward to, something to be excited about, a new challenge," he said. "I'm just excited about it. It's perfectly fine."
Trail Blazers general manager Neil Olshey called the decision to extend Lillard a "no-brainer." He praised the 28-year-old for his loyalty to the city of Portland and the organization during a time when players are moving around more than ever to play with other stars.
As Olshey put it, "market is more valuable than team" in decisions that have been made by players in recent years, but Lillard has been an exception.
"Whether it's free agency, whether it's players forcing their way into a trade, market has won," Olshey said. "Almost exclusively, market has won over team. And I think one of the things, why we're so blessed to have Damian, is that all of his decisions -- extending his rookie scale, doing his extension now two years early -- is because he has chosen team and organization and city and the Portland Trail Blazers. And I think that's what makes this signing so exciting, is that he has made a choice to accept the team and everything that comes with that, everything that he has built over the last seven years, and he's prioritized that."
Lillard, who has spent his entire career with the Trail Blazers after being drafted No. 6 overall in 2012, says the reason why is simple for him.
"That's just what it is," Lillard said. "I appreciate our fans, the way they feel about our team. I appreciate the type of environment that I'm in. I would hate to be somebody that is in this type of situation, and I start looking for other places like, 'All right, I want to join this guy or that guy and go play in this market.' Just based off of the pressure of people saying, 'Well, you don't have a ring, you don't have stuff like that,' then I go somewhere and I'm in a bad situation and it's not working out and then I get traded somewhere. Like if it don't work out when you make these kinds of decisions you could be -- you start bouncing around and then you kind of let something go that was special because you got bored with it. And wanted to be a part of where everybody else was going."
For Lillard, the opportunity to win a title in Portland has more allure than trying to win in a different community as a complementary piece around a different set of players.
"I've said also in the past that I want to do it here," Lillard said. "They haven't won a championship since '77, the one and only, and it would just feel so much better to know that I just kept it solid and I did the work.
Lillard added: "In the end, I know that if it gets done, it will feel much better to know that I did it in a solid way. I didn't have to go and play with the best players just to get it done. For me, this is the way I want to do it. And I know that if it don't happen I can live with it because I know the route that I chose. I accepted it a long time ago."
Trail Blazers swingman Rodney Hood, who signed a two-year, $16 million dollar deal to stay with the organization, said that Lillard sets the tone for everyone else on the team. Hood noted that he took less money to stay in Portland in part because of the culture that has been created under Lillard's leadership.
"Every day he comes into work, he never has an off day as far as his attitude," Hood said of Lillard. "He's never leaning one way or the other. He wants to win. A lot of guys in his position, care about their self first, and he's always checking up on guys. I remember coming in late night [to the practice facility] shooting with my wife and he'll be in there with Anfernee [Simons]. ... He's a rare leader in this league and I think that's why, a big reason why, Portland has sustained the success it has, because he's leading the way."
Lillard expressed confidence that his team will continue building on last season's success. He said he believes the Blazers have "built something special."
"It's been built genuine and in an environment that we've created," he said. "It's something that I've been a part of and something that I want to continue to be a part of. And having my family in Portland, everything is set up. I've kind of gotten comfortable, and it feels like things are the way it needs to be, that it should be. And everybody around me is happy with that, so aside from the personal stuff, even my career, I feel like it's only right that this is where I continue to play."
Lillard also reiterated that he is hoping to have his jersey retired whenever his career in Portland comes to an end.
"That's important," Lillard said. "I said years ago that I wanted to be the best Trail Blazer ever. If you look back at just the history of things that I've said you'll see that I don't just say stuff just to say it. I say what I mean and I stick by it, I stand by it. Obviously, if I want to be the best Trail Blazer ever that means that I would want to see my jersey retired. So going forward I just got to continue to do what I've always done."