Something about this loss felt different. It stung, in a way Damian Lillard hadn't felt before.
During the regular season Lillard had played the best basketball of his career. Only three players had racked up more points per game. He was more efficient than ever. He was named first-team All-NBA, finishing ahead of household names like Russell Westbrook and Stephen Curry, and led the Blazers to the third-best record in the Western Conference. Their reward was home-court advantage. Eighteen years had passed since they had last played in the Western Conference Finals. Lillard was eager and ready to end that drought.
Instead, the lower-ranked New Orleans Pelicans bottled up Lillard by trapping him at every turn. Another first-round exit ensued. Another year without notching a single playoff win. Lillard had always been able to elevate his game in tight moments. But against New Orleans, he shot just 35.2 percent, coughed the ball up more than ever and failed to generate looks for others.
The Blazers' season ended at New Orleans' Smoothie King Center. Later that night, Lillard returned to his Lake Oswego home. He was angry. Confused. Frustrated.
Most of all, he was concerned. Not for himself. He knew he'd be fine. Face of the franchise and all that. But what about his teammates and coaches? The success had created expectations, ones that weren't met. These men weren't just his colleagues. He viewed them as more than friends. The Blazers were Lillard's family, and now some of them might be uprooted from their homes, all because he let them down.
"I care about these guys' well-being," Lillard would say. "Like, when I play the game, I'm like, 'Man, we need to win games, we need to make the playoffs and do this because I want everyone on our team to keep their jobs.'
"It's not that I think I hold everyone's career in the palm of my hands. It's more that I know the impact the things I do and say can have. It's the burden I put on myself, the need to fight to keep everyone here, to hold everything together."
For the most part, he did. Yet here Lillard is again, nearly one year later, and he and the Blazers, surging but still unlikely to threaten the behemoth in Golden State, are on a similar path. Now 28 and in his seventh season, Lillard is as dominant as ever, a lethal combination of silky drives and long-distance bombs. But in a league where you now have multiple teams with multiple stars, the singular greatness of a single star is no longer enough.
At least that's what we're always told, that championships are all that matter. But what if you're after something else? What if you don't subscribe to the superficial championship-or-bust demand? What if you think that's a silly way to evaluate a person? Can such a contrarian survive in today's NBA? Can a star's desire to remain loyal withstand the pain of repeated defeat, never mind all the noise oozing in from the outside world?
Damian Lillard thinks the answer is yes. We're about to find out if he's right.
It's a frigid Tuesday morning in New York. Lillard strolls into a warm conference room in a chic SoHo hotel where the Blazers, who are hovering around the same spot in the standings where they finished last year, are staying. His listed-at-6'3" (and if you believe that number, then you're likely trying to offload a couple faulty bridges) body is blanketed from head to ankle in black Adidas sweats, with a pair Adidas sneakers strapped to his feet. He's like a walking billboard, though this billboard is being paid more than $100 million to rep the three stripes.
The history of Lillard's relationship with Adidas is a bit ironic. Certainly symbolic. It dates back to spring 2010. That was Lillard's sophomore year of college. He was desperate to receive an invite to that year's annual Adidas Nations camp. He'd averaged nearly 20 points a game that season at Weber State, earning the honor of Big Sky Player of the Year. But his background wasn't what you'd typically find among the country's top prospects. He had been a lightly recruited, 2-star prospect out of Oakland, per Rivals. His name had never flashed across the radars of the country's biggest basketball programs. And Big Sky Player of the Year? "That probably meant nothing to them," Lillard says.
But Lillard was eager to prove himself, and he and Phil Beckner, a Weber State assistant coach who would become one of Lillard's closest confidants, had chosen an Adidas Nations invite as an achievement to chase. And so Beckner did what any good mentor would do in this situation: "He begged," Lillard says. Beckner called and sent emails, and then called some more and sent some more emails. Finally, the camp's directors relented. A spot opened up. Lillard arrived that summer but quickly realized that "nobody knew who I was."
Still, he took advantage of every opportunity, every open look, every transition break. He put up shots during lunch break. He schooled some of the most highly touted prospects in the country. His play, and work, caught the eye of every coach in the gym. Players, too.
"A few dudes came up to me and wanted to know what school I went to and what year I was," Lillard recalls.
Four year later, Adidas signed him to a 10-year, nine-figure shoe deal, one of the most lucrative in the history of professional sports.
Lillard finishes this story and picks up the fancy black ballpoint pen resting on the table. His right hand dances over the lined piece of paper in front of him. "I just always be doodling, man," he says. "I like to leave the paper behind and let random people find it." He draws a large "D" and "L," both in cursive, sandwiching a zero (his jersey number). Above them a "D.O.L.L.A.," the name he's used to release his two rap albums. Up on the right corner, between a pair of quotes: "Logo Laheem," the name he says he'd adopt if he were ever to wrestle professionally.
Lillard flew to New York straight from the NBA's All Star weekend in Charlotte. He's still on a high from the whole event. This was his fourth time playing in the game, but something about this experience was different. For one, he drilled six three-pointers for a total of 18 points. But it was more about the way it seemed others were acting around him. His teammates hopped with glee every time he bobbed his way into a 30-foot jumper. He picked up this new vibe from everyone associated with the weekend.
"Not that they were treating me so special, but it was almost like they acknowledged with what felt like a different level of respect," he says. "This time it was more like, 'You know the drill.'"
He was also on the floor for the game's final minutes. "They usually roll with the people that they feel are the best out there, you know, the ones that the fans want to see, the ones who are going to be the most entertaining," Lillard says. "So the fact that I wasn't a starter but I finished the game, that says something to me."
But the highlight of his weekend came after the game. It was a text message he received from his dad, who had accompanied Damian to All-Star Weekend. Houston Lillard had watched his son navigate the spotlight of NBA stardom and embrace all the responsibility that comes with it.
You're a real bad man, he texted his son, on and off the court.
"My dad's seen and been around a lot—he never is, like, blown away or emotional," Lillard says as he recalls the message. He likes to use his hands to add emphasis when he speaks and is now tapping the table with the side of his hand.
"For my dad to say that, that's just crazy. It was the best feeling."
The words meant more than anything he achieved on the court that weekend. As Lillard made clear by what he said over All-Star Weekend on Yahoo Sports' Posted Up podcast, wins and losses mean plenty, but he's looking at his career through a wider prism. "I do want to win a championship, but it's other stuff that means more to me," Lillard told reporter Chris Haynes. "It's almost like I'm not willing to sell myself out for that."
The quote was chewed up and launched out across social media. Some viewed it as a jab at players like Kevin Durant, Anthony Davis and even LeBron James, stars who in recent years have tried to seize control of their own destinies. In doing so, they've changed the landscape of the NBA, though not to everyone's delight.
And so here was Lillard, one of the league's premier players, one of the faces of a billion-dollar sneaker brand, a player who in his six-plus years with the Blazers has never even hinted at wanting to leave, seemingly standing up for all those jilted and hostile fans who liked things better the way they were. Here, finally, was a star who agreed with them. Who had their backs. Who believed in being loyal to a city, to its franchise, to its fans.
"That's not really what I meant," Lillard says.
"I'm loyal to the people that I care about. I'm loyal to myself and to the things that I care about. You don't want to be too consumed with thinking, like, 'This is what's going to make me, this is what everybody wants to see, this is what counts to everybody else.'"
Instead, he says, worry about "what counts to you."
He brings up Durant as an example. "He did what he wanted to do, you know what I'm saying? I heard him say, 'The Warriors look like they're having fun playing basketball, I just want to have fun and play basketball and go home.' There's nothing wrong with that. A lot of people they have, like, personal stuff with KD, but they don't have a real reason to hate him—they don't even know him."
He may have won Rookie of the Year honors in 2013, but it took Lillard a few years to find his footing in the NBA. He was drafted onto a veteran Blazers squad featuring an All-Star, LaMarcus Aldridge. The opposite of Lillard in almost every way, Aldridge preferred to keep to himself. Let his play do the talking. Lillard, on the other hand, was like a magnet—only he worried about pulling too much attention away from his older and more established teammate.
"Dame would always make sure everyone knew LaMarcus was our best player then," says longtime Blazers assistant coach David Vanterpool, one of Lillard's closest friends. "Not only because it was true, but because he cared about LaMarcus and knew how much that meant to him."
Lillard is adamant that he never had an issue with Aldridge as a teammate. People around the Blazers say Aldridge was jealous of the team's younger, more enthralling star. Both players recently told The Athletic that this "controversy" was nothing more than a narrative birthed out of miscommunication.
Lillard had his own growing to do as well. Earl Watson, a former point guard whom the Blazers signed before the 2013-14 season to help mentor the team's young star, remembers a seething Lillard returning to the bench late during a first-round playoff game against the Rockets. Lillard had made his first All-Star team that season. But Aldridge was still the Blazers' leading scorer, and proven veterans like Wesley Matthews and Nic Batum were occasionally placed ahead of Lillard in the pecking order, too. A few possessions had passed without him getting a shot.
"Tell Coach to give me the fucking ball," Lillard told Watson.
Watson pulled Lillard aside and tried to calm him down.
"I want the fucking ball," Lillard said.
"The ball will find you," Watson said. He told him to hang in there, keep his head up, keep running the plays.
Later in the game, with just 0.9 seconds left on the clock and trailing by two, Blazers head coach Terry Stotts called a timeout. All game, then-Rockets center Dwight Howard had been fronting Aldridge. Stotts told Aldridge to position himself on the right block and Batum to throw him a lob. "The play was for LaMarcus," Watson recalls.
Batum took his spot on the left sideline. The referee handed him the ball and blew the whistle. While Aldridge and Howard jostled on the block, Batum caught Lillard darting toward him from the opposing wing, clapping his hands. Lillard, fading to his left, rose up and flung the ball high into the air. The buzzer sounded. The ball splashed through the net, sending the Blazers into the second round.
"That shot sort of launched his platform," Watson says now. The lesson from it wasn't lost on Lillard either. Still, Watson adds, "It wasn't until LaMarcus left that Dame and I really began talking about how to be a leader, how to bring his teammates together." Says Vanterpool: "A lot of people throw the word 'leader' around, or just say whoever is the team's best player is automatically the leader. That's not Dame. He's actually inspiring others to be better, and he's doing it because he genuinely cares."
There's another Lillard story you should know. It took place off the court. About 35,000 feet above one, actually. It was November 2017, and the Blazers were flying home from Sacramento. They'd just fallen to the previously 3-11 Kings. The loss dropped Portland to just one game above .500. It was another disappointing night in what was turning into a disappointing season and another disappointing performance from the team's starting center, Jusuf Nurkic.
Portland had traded for Nurkic, a 7'0", 275-pound house of a man, back in February. The hope was that he'd shore up the group's interior defense while also providing an injection of offense around the paint. And sometimes he did. But he was just 23 then and coming off a rough three-year stretch in Denver in which he had been bounced in and out of the lineup. His confidence often waned. He could be easily derailed.
This had been one of those nights. He'd missed five of his seven shots. He'd looked despondent at halftime, and so that night, before the Blazers boarded their plane, Lillard approached Evan Turner, a guard who typically sat next to Nurkic on team flights.
"Switch seats with me," he told Turner. Lillard spent the next 90 minutes sitting alongside Nurkic. Reviewing film. Offering encouragement. But also admonishing his propensity to brood.
"We need you," Lillard told him. "And you have to figure out how to give us what we need.
"But," he added, "I'm here for you, whatever you need."
Nurkic scored 14 points the next night. He finished the season with the best Player Efficiency Rating of his career to go along with a scoring average of 14.3 points per game.
"Every time I've ever needed him, he's been there for me," Nurkic says. "Even if I call him in the middle of the night, he's always there."
Lillard invites new teammates over to his home and rookies to the gym to work out. He tells them he's there for them, whatever they need. "Unless it means picking up the tab," Ed Davis, a former Trail Blazer and one of Lillard's closest friends, says. Even so, Lillard once bought undrafted rookie Luis Montero $5,000 worth of dress clothes so that in games where he was inactive, he'd look professional while sitting on the bench. A few months later, during an off night, Lillard received a call from Montero. He wanted to get in extra work, but the team's training facility was closed.
"Can you help me get in?" Montero asked.
Soon after, Lillard arrived at Montero's home. He shuttled him back and forth, lifting weights while Montero put up shots.
The texts and calls forge relationships, but they also free Lillard to be critical when he feels the need and allow his word to carry more weight. Maybe a teammate's slacking on defense. Maybe someone's hogging the ball. Lillard doesn't shy away from confrontation. He's not strutting into practice with an acoustic guitar and asking teammates to hold hands and sing "Kumbaya."
"It's about championships, that's why I play. It's just that there's other stuff in life that's more important," he says.
In other words, don't mistake perspective for indifference.
"I'm comfortable enough with myself I don't have to prove to anybody that I want to win a championship, I know that in my heart," he adds. "But when I'm done playing and five years go by, they're not going to be talking about me; they're going to be talking about the next dude that's averaging 25."
Lillard thinks about his future all the time. Just not the way we tell our stars they're supposed to. Sometimes he'll envision what it would be like to deliver a title to Portland. The pressure to win is constantly tugging at his Adidas sweats, and all the while, the burden to protect his basketball family weighs on him every day.
So instead, he tries to think ahead, to his future wedding, or 50th birthday party, about the people who will be there, about what they might say. "The people who dealt with me, the people who will be talking about me, they're going to remember the kind of person I was," Lillard says. "That I didn't let the game swallow me up and make me say, 'All right, I'm just going to jump ship and go somewhere else to win a championship.'" If he did that, he says, he has a feeling the Blazers would tear the whole thing down: "And now this guy gets moved to a team that might not value him, and this guy isn't re-signed, and now he may never get a job again."
Lillard's quote brings to mind one last story. A couple years ago, he was going through a rough period. Family stuff, mostly, but it was seeping into his professional life. He didn't make the All-Star team that year. He looked sleepy on the court. The Blazers appeared on the verge of missing the playoffs.
Lillard decided to use the break as an opportunity to reset himself. He called up Beckner, the former Weber State assistant. That weekend, the two spent hours on the phone. Beckner's advice was simple, and it's stuck with Lillard since.
"He told me that I'm always pouring into other people," Lillard says, "but that sometimes I have to let others pour into me."
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