ORLANDO — There was a game in Orlando about a week ago, and the score was tight near the finish for the visiting Portland Trail Blazers, and because Damian Lillard was involved, everyone in the arena knew what time it was. Especially the Magic.
So the home team concentrated on one player, and Dame saw more doubles than a concussed boxer. It reeked of disrespect for his teammates, or maybe the defensive strategy spoke volumes about the Magic’s fear of Dame. Probably both. In these situations, Dame, like any other star, has a choice: Does he make the play, or does he make the right basketball play?
On this night, he delivered … as in, the ball to wide-open teammates. And his supporting cast, which hasn’t always been very supportive, came through. After the 122-119 win, Lillard spoke about trust and faith and also the one word that best describes his entire existence as a professional basketball player, spent exclusively in Portland.
“I’m a patient person,” he said. “I play the game patient. I have to show patience with the process.”
And then, he added: “I’ve had to learn to be that way.”
His word of choice might as well be his middle name. Or better, stitched on the back of his jersey. Because we are now, 11 years into the Damian Lillard Experience, and the one-man show has been well worth the thrills, to where the audience, as incredible as it sounds, is just as invested in the journey as he is.
Really, at this point, who seems to crave that slippery championship more: Lillard? Or his many disciples who badly want it for him?
With the Blazers much closer to the bottom of the standings than the top, and once again further from the promised land than even his shooting range can cover, everyone knows how this will end for Dame. At least this year. And maybe next.
He’s the most popular person in the whole state … [Blazers fans] have had the chance to get to know who this guy really is, not like most (players) who give you just a little bit. It’s a two-way relationship. He loves them, they love him.”
— Blazers coach Chauncey Billups, on Damian Lillard
Put it this way: The familiar silhouette of someone tapping his wrist has twin meanings. One, of course, is Dame right after he snatches victory and some poor team’s soul with a buzzer-beater. The other is the restless signal we all give to those around us as a reminder that patience has its limits.
So now we wait for if, or when, Lillard — still lacking a championship with a team he refuses to leave, a team that needs plenty of help — adopts the second meaning. We wait to see the limits of the most patient franchise star in the modern team-jumping-player-empowering- trade-demanding NBA.
We wait to see what happens first in Portland: A championship, or time’s up for Dame.
The desperate hours
The person who is talking truth to power right now, who’s desperately trying to speak the most satisfying Lillard scenario into existence, sounds determined. Or desperate. Or maybe both.
“We are fully aware the clock is ticking,” Trail Blazers legend Bill Walton says, “and we know how fragile this is.”
Walton is the self-elected president of the Dame Fan Club, and the appointment is for life, and he will thwart anyone trying to pull a coup to remove him. On this day he is sermonizing about Dame and will not stop until he exhausts his thesaurus and his lungs.
“He has a level of skill, fitness, commitment, sacrifice, discipline, honor, entertainment, fun, imagination and creativity … all the things you could hope and dream for, all in one package,” Walton says. “He has the class, dignity and professionalism of exactly who you would want not only as your teammate, not only as your friend but also as your hero. He’s got it all.”
To the current generation, Walton is the quirky guy on the alternate broadcast who will often, without warning, detour and philosophize about something totally different from the game he’s analyzing. To those who know the history of the game, Walton broke the mold of the big man decades ago when he brought passing (and a ponytail) to the center position and excelled in the high post; his NBA doppelganger is Nikola Jokic.
He also happens to be the last and only Blazer to give the City of Roses its flowers, and this was 46 years ago when the championship trophy took up residence in Small Town, USA.
I’d love to be out there with Damian, my teammate. He’s a teammate because we’re all family with the Blazers. I’d love to be carrying his bags, washing his car, buying his lunch, doing whatever I can. I wish I could help but I haven’t played basketball in 37 years.”
— Blazers legend and Hall of Famer Bill Walton, on Lillard
Clyde Drexler later took the Blazers to the NBA Finals twice, and was twice denied. And now here’s Dame, arguably the most ballistic Blazer of them all, with only a Western Conference finals cameo to his name.
Anyone who ever watched Lillard knows the main reason for that, though. Here’s the statistic that matters: He has had one All-Star teammate, and that was LaMarcus Aldridge — a decent enough player, but not one with Hall of Fame fabric.
From Nicolas Batum to Wesley Matthews, Allen Crabbe to Evan Turner, Enes Freedom to Nik Stauskas, Meyers Leonard to CJ McCollum, Lillard has sifted through dozens of teammates and none have proven to be a championship match. He’s now 32 and running with Jerami Grant and Anfernee Simons, solid for sure, just not starry.
So, what happened? Well, the Blazers during the meat of Dame’s career were steered by GM Neil Olshey, who was once a soap opera actor in a previous life. He could never shine The Guiding Light toward team building, though. It’s now up to Joe Cronin to create a contender while Lillard is still at peak performance.
And what a performance it has been in 2022-23, his finest ever. Lillard is on an epic scoring run at a career-high 32.1 points per game and, helped by a 71-point masterpiece and a league-best 35.4 ppg since the calendar flipped to 2023, is within range of the league scoring title and All-NBA honors. Once again, Lillard is in a very exclusive class when it comes to all-around bucket ability.
Walton says he arranges his schedule around Blazers games just so he can see more of the show.
“The drives that he makes, the step-back jumpers, runners in the lane, making half-court shots like they’re layups, it’s exhilarating,” says Walton. “Keep in mind that this is not a very big dude. This is a game that’s been dominated by the winners of the genetic lottery. And here’s Lillard torching them and teasing them, waving them goodbye while he checks his watch.”
If there’s any drawback with Lillard, it’s exactly that: he’s 6-foot-2 and doesn’t protect the rim, make All-Defensive teams or grab boards. In this game, you don’t carry teams to titles with those limitations unless you’re surrounded by the blessings Stephen Curry has had, or Isiah Thomas once had. And Lillard has had only a fraction of their help, if that.
Even Walton concedes to being from a different era of the NBA, ruled by centers. Teammates Maurice Lucas, Lionel Hollins, Dave Twardzik and Larry Steele weren’t Hall of Famers. But they made for a cohesive group, all elevated by an elite big man who impacted both rims.
Today, Walton says: “I’d love to be out there with Damian, my teammate. He’s a teammate because we’re all family with the Blazers. I’d love to be carrying his bags, washing his car, buying his lunch, doing whatever I can. I wish I could help but I haven’t played basketball in 37 years.”
Walton was once the toast of the city and still gets respect whenever he makes an appearance, but clearly Portland is Dame Town, has been for a while. While Lillard is fiercely loyal to his East Oakland roots — more Lillard than Curry jerseys would sell there if folks could find them — he has made a permanent impression on Portland, from the suburbs to the citified sections, because of his community efforts.
“He’s the most popular person in the whole state,” said Blazers coach Chauncey Billups. “He’s the guy. You only know that by what happens around him. You never know that by sitting with him. He’s a humble dude, principled young man. The relationship between him and our fans is authentic.
“They have had the chance to get to know who this guy really is, not like most (players) who give you just a little bit. It’s a two-way relationship. He loves them, they love him. He just stays the same no matter what, win or lose. We all feel very thankful to be around him, grateful to be a part of his journey.
“We also feel a responsibility to see this through with him. Try to get to the ultimate goal.”
These days Lillard gets a lot of the “loyalty” questions from reporters, and he grudgingly obliges them. The topic has become cliche. The Blazers are paying handsomely for that loyalty — Lillard will make $63 million the season he turns 36 — but he’s one of the few athletes who never hears blowback about his salary. It’s all well-earned in the view of the locals.
That’s the rub. Dame has it all: Massive generational wealth, a growing young family, good health, universal respect, etc., etc., and yet there’s still the absence of a title that makes folks … sympathize?
“He lives a life of purpose,” says Walton, “and Damian Lillard is a champion in the game of life.”
But the next basketball city to hold a parade for that will be the first.
Time to swing for the fence?
The Blazers today are two teams removed from the Western Conference basement with 14 games to play. If this holds, it would be the lowest finish of any season in which Dame were mostly healthy. That is the reality. They do not inspire hope, not in that position. They’ll need a prayer just to make the Play-In Tournament.
“Everyone knows there’s some urgency,” Lillard said. “We’ve got to put some wins together.”
There’s this notion in Portland that help is coming soon. That the Blazers have stockpiled enough young assets to package with Draft picks to make proposals this summer. That the next disgruntled superstar — and there’s one almost every year now — will force his way out of town and toward Portland. Blazers fans figure a frustrated Joel Embiid — if the Philadelphia 76ers are ousted quickly in the playoffs — will be the next to flex that leverage.
In a sense, Dame needs the anti-Dame — someone who isn’t loyal to his town — to uproot and team up in Portland.
He said he wants the Blazers to be “aggressive” this summer and not make excuses. To swing for the fence. It sounds like a star who knows the limits of his patience. As for Lillard sticking with his pledge to one day bring a championship to Portland, Walton says:
“He has chosen to grace us with his life, lived on the grandest of stages. But when you make that choice, you have to accept and embrace and acknowledge the risks. The risk of not being able to get it done to where you want it to be, but always ending every sentence with the word “yet.”
“His belief that it is going to work here is just another reason why we choose Damian Lillard as our standard bearer in the search of perfection. We’re hopeful. We’re patient.”
And if doesn’t happen, say within the next two years, and Dame plots an exit strategy?
“I’m not here to tell Damian what to do,” Walton said. “I stand with him, beside him. All he can do is his best. He’s doing everything he can. He’s there, man. Our question is, where are we?”
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Shaun Powell has covered the NBA for more than 25 years. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.
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