After his first game against the greatest point guard of his generation, back in 2012, Damian Lillard said of Chris Paul, “I see the world in his eyes.” For the uninitiated, Lillard was referring to the beauty and excellence of a point guard’s sight and how Paul viewed the action on the floor, and how he created more action and organized everything. Five days into his professional career, it was a priceless learning experience for Damian Lillard and he had a good showing for a rookie. He played nine more minutes than Chris Paul but had five fewer points, one less assist, and his team lost by 13.
More impressive was Lillard’s ability to sum up exactly who and what the Blazers were in November of 2012. The Clippers had established a 25 point lead and then the Blazers stormed back but couldn’t get close enough to turn the tide.
Lillard said, “We can’t put ourselves in that hole because we’re not that level of team to be able to fight back every time.”
Lillard’s clear assessment of the Blazers, coupled with his ability to say so, elevated him to a leadership level and he had yet to finish his first week as an NBA player.
Nine years later, Lillard is still insightful about who and what the Blazers are. He didn’t react after scoring 55 points in a double-overtime loss to Denver. As he correctly noted, the Blazers lost. At 30 years old, Lillard knows exactly what he wants and it is more than what the Blazers have offered so far. Although Lillard has been to more conference finals than Chris Paul, he was swept by the Warriors, so both Lillard and Paul have both won 0 conference final games.
Unlike Kevin Durant, James Harden, Kyrie Irving, and LeBron James, Damian Lillard has no interest in joining a super team. But when the opportunity presents itself he’ll flex his power which he did a couple of days ago with his advocacy of Jason Kidd.
Lillard was very public about a Kidd hire and it made sense. A Hall of Fame point guard leading a team with a Hall of Fame point guard. The front office however was interested in others like Chauncey Billups, Jeff Van Gundy, Mike D’Antoni, and Juwan Howard. Obviously, Kidd was added to the list to make Damian happy.
And then 48 hours later Kidd withdrew his name because it was awkward under the circumstances. The Blazers were not interested in him and he was only included because of how vocal Dame was. The interview would have been uncomfortable as Kidd would have been nothing more than a token. He would have, in essence, walked the same dreary walk black NFL coaches walk when only interviewed because they are forced via the Rooney Rule.
With Kidd out, the Blazers can manage the way they intended. It doesn’t erase the disadvantages inherent with two dynamic players like Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum. Both are under contract until 2025. Starting in the 2023 season, Lillard will make $50 million dollars a year. As his contract illustrates, the Blazers are heavily invested in Lillard’s talent, grind, and work ethic. Time and time again, (see game 5 Blazers-Nuggets) Lillard rewards the franchise. But despite all his extraordinary clutch shot-making and leadership, Dame Lillard hasn’t been able to carry the Blazers into the postseason as a true contender. They usually enter the second season with a huge flaw. This year it was defense. Their defensive rating ranked them 29th in the league. Every Blazer who played 20 minutes or more had a defensive rating higher than 109. Lillard’s was an abysmal 118, making him a one-way player.
The Blazer truth is that everything is on Lillard. But with Lillard, it feels different, even though it is Lillard or bust. He has an organic rhythm of making everything about him and nothing about him until the end when he buries you with his jumper to win the game. He is everything to the Blazers which is the Blazers blessing and curse. They still aren’t a versatile offensive and defensive team with multiple weapons who can create their own shot and frankly their pace is slower than it should be with Lillard and C.J. McCollum, and they are always last in assists.
There are rumors about a Karl-Anthony Towns trade but he does nothing for the Blazers. In essence, they would be trading a scorer (C.J. McCollum) who plays horrible defense for a scorer who plays terrible defense. There’s an argument that regardless of his defense, Towns gives the Blazers an inside presence going against Nikola Jokic, Rudy Gobert, DeAndre Ayton, and Anthony Davis. Against Utah, Phoenix, and the Lakers, Towns shot 53% but against Denver, he struggled.
GM Neil Olshey has a tough task because he is not just hiring a coach, he has to upgrade the roster. Easier said than done because Lillard has been so spectacular and a lot of his superlatives have blocked out the sun particularly the front office mistakes that have the Blazers mediocrity leading them into an abyss plus free agent signing blunders. At some point, Lillard was going to get exhausted. If you score 55 points and your team loses, there are structural issues.
Jason Kidd did the front office a favor. They don’t have to appease Lillard; now the ball is in their court and they can continue with Plan A. They should look to their neighbors to the south. In a similar position two years ago, LeBron James wanted Ty Lue. The Lakers didn’t want to give Lue a 5- year deal so Frank Vogel was the consolation prize. But look what he accomplished.