The Trail Blazers point guard has prized loyalty over easier paths to winning. And that’s what makes him great.
Damian Lillard should get angry more often.
Through thick and thin with the only N.B.A. team he has known, Lillard, the Portland Trail Blazers’ luminescent point guard, has always possessed a remarkable calm. Still, he is not above letting defeats get to him, as he showed after a recent meltdown loss to the Los Angeles Lakers.
“I’m confused why y’all asking me these questions right now,” Lillard said in a news conference after his team coughed up a 25-point halftime lead. A reporter had asked Lillard about the state of his listing team. I followed up by asking how much more patience he had.
Lillard’s voice sharpened, sending tension cracking through the room. It felt like his eyes were beaming lasers right through me.
“The struggles that we’ve had are obvious,” he said, adding that he had been “transparent” about how Portland could improve.
He continued, calling the queries a “weak move” and indicating that he thought he was being baited into criticizing the makeup of his team as the league’s trade deadline loomed. “Y’all putting me in a position to, you know, answer questions that I don’t think is cool,” he said.
Later, I had another interaction with Lillard, a brief moment of reconciliation that revealed his character. I’ll get to that later. First, let’s focus on all that is swirling, once again, around Portland’s star.
Lillard is the N.B.A.’s most interesting outlier.
“He’s one of a kind,” said Chauncey Billups, who spent nearly two decades playing in the N.B.A. and is now the Blazers’ second-year head coach.
Billups wasn’t merely speaking about talent. Lillard is the rare basketball star who prizes loyalty to his city and team above all — even if that means waiting and waiting, and waiting some more, for his team to become a championship contender.
“We understand how lucky we are to have him,” Billups said. “Everyone in this city, and on this team, wants to win for Dame.”
Problem is, the Blazers are the basketball equivalent of a sturdy Honda Accord. For almost all of Lillard’s 11 seasons in the N.B.A., Portland has been a middling operation: good — sometimes very good — but never great.
It defies the norm for Lillard to remain on a team that seems stuck in neutral, while never demanding a trade or opting to leave.
Six times, the 32-year-old has been named an All-Star, and six times he has been chosen for an All-N.B.A. team. He was voted onto the league’s 75th-anniversary team, meant to honor the 75 best players in league history. He won gold at the Tokyo Olympics in 2021 as a member of the U.S. men’s national team. Cat quick, graceful, brimming with the kind of bold brio that is a hallmark of his native Oakland, Calif., Lillard recently passed Clyde Drexler to become Portland’s leading career scorer.
And yet during Lillard’s tenure in Portland, the Blazers have made the Western Conference finals only once. The current Blazers are talented — and one of the league’s youngest teams. Billups is learning on the job. If this team is to become a true contender in the loaded Western Conference, it may not be until Lillard is on the downslope.
Can we be OK with that?
The past week offered us a window into Lillard’s world. A week ago Sunday: the 121-112 meltdown defeat by the Lakers.
Portland’s postgame locker room felt like a morgue. In the concourse at Moda Center, the Blazers’ saucer-shaped arena, fans let loose, dishing details to me about the team’s legacy of losing. On a Facebook page for Blazers fans, the reviews were unsparing: “Lillard needs to go for his career to have any chance before it’s too late. This team is DONE!!”
The next day, the Blazers thumped the San Antonio Spurs, 147-127. Lillard had 37 points and 12 assists.
Then came Wednesday. Peak Lillard. One for the books. In the Blazers’ 134-124 victory over the visiting Utah Jazz, he scored 60 points, making an eye-popping 72 percent of his shots.
The remarkable thing was how easy it seemed. Lillard, averaging 30 points a game for the season, never once looked forced against the Jazz. He played what he described later as an “honest game,” always making the right pass, moving the ball to the right spots, pulling up to shoot at exactly the right time. When Jazz players swarmed him, he looked like a buzzing hornet at a summer barbecue that everyone wants to stomp but nobody can catch.
Brilliant? You bet. According to ESPN, after taking into account combined marksmanship on shot attempts and free throws, it was the most efficient 60-point game in league history. Informed of this, Lillard was shocked, and all smiles.
“The most efficient 60-point game ever, for real?” he said. “That’s crazy.”
On Saturday, Lillard continued his torrid pace and again hit his season scoring average, but the injury-depleted Blazers fell meekly to the Toronto Raptors. He is doing all he can, to no avail. The Blazers sit at just 23 wins and 26 losses, mired in mediocrity, 12th out of 15 teams in the West.
Like many, I’ve often thought that Lillard’s prime years were being wasted and that Portland should do right by him and find a way to move him to a contending team. He’s nearing his mid-30s — years when hardwood courts become quicksand for shifty point guards — and a new breed of young stars is wreaking havoc across the N.B.A.
Ja Morant, Luka Doncic, Jayson Tatum, Nikola Jokic and plenty of other 20-something talents are leavening the league with their skill and something close to Lillard’s preternatural confidence.
N.B.A. life is only going to get more difficult for Lillard.
But I’m willing to reconsider the desire to see him leave Portland. To follow the common line of thinking, after all, is to place winning above all else. Sadly, that’s the reasoning that has helped fuel the whipsaw superstar shuffle currently coursing through the N.B.A. LeBron James from Cleveland to Miami, back to Cleveland and then to Los Angeles. James Harden from Houston to Brooklyn to Philadelphia. Example after example. I understand the “win above all else,” “grass is greener everywhere but here” sentiment — and I question it.
Winning is important, no doubt. But isn’t there more to sports than victory?
More than any other N.B.A. star of his caliber, Lillard embodies the notion that the journey — the often painful path toward getting better — is the thing. It takes guts and patience and the ability to go against the grain. He has that. It also takes a certain kind of awareness that shows itself with deft passes and clutch shots and even in how players handle life off the court. Indeed, he seems to have that, too.
Remember how Lillard bristled at my question after the loss to Los Angeles? By chance, I found myself next to him in an arena hallway later.
He stopped me, shook my hand and looked me straight in the eye. He said he was sorry for his scolding reaction. The look on his face showed genuine sincerity.
“I didn’t mean any personal disrespect,” he said.
What stars would do that? Not many. “Sorry” isn’t usually in the playbook. But not many are like Damian Lillard.