Damian Lillard is playing out of his mind. He’s averaging 32 points per game at just a shade under those magical 50-40-90 shooting percentages. There was some hype for Lillard as a potential NBA MVP going into the season, and this is exactly what you’d expect to see to keep him in the conversation: elite scoring at elite efficiency with strong playmaking. Look at his last three games combined: 117 points on 78 shooting possessions, or 1.5 points per possession. This is Hardenish.
Unfortunately, the Portland Trail Blazers are 4-7 on the season and have lost two of those three games where Lillard put up extraordinary numbers, including the 60-point outburst against the Nets. Stars on sub-.500 teams don’t get second looks when MVP voting comes around.
The season certainly isn’t over for the Blazers at this juncture: we’ve seen teams in the West have slow starts and rally to make the playoffs. Portland has been subject to a seemingly inordinate number of injuries, particularly impacting the frontcourt. The Blazers knew Jusuf Nurkic would be out this season, but losing Zach Collins for a few months is crushing to the team’s depth up front. Hassan Whiteside has been banged up. Pau Gasol, who is soaking up a valuable roster spot, hasn’t played yet.
But the Blazers brought a bit of this on themselves by losing Al-Farouq Aminu, a flexible power forward, and Moe Harkless, a legit smallball option up front, this summer, replacing them with Whiteside, Rodney Hood, and low-minutes roleplayers like Anthony Tolliver and Mario Hezonja. (At least those guys should be low-minutes roleplayers.) Kent Bazemore replaced Evan Turner; this changes practically nothing.
Meanwhile, Lillard’s best start ever circles the drain of team usefulness.
There are two ways to look at it. First, how bad would the Blazers be if Lillard weren’t playing out of his mind right now? Would they be competing with the Warriors and Pelicans for the worst record in the conference? The other way to look at it — the more cheerful view — is to expect that Portland’s luck will flip at some point soon, and having had an ultra-effective Lillard to keep them afloat in this early stage will have created enough of a springboard to chase a low playoff seed.
The problem with optimism here is that Nurkic might not play this season and Collins is out until possibly March. In this case, better injury luck will move as fast as honey in Irkutsk. The Blazers are otherwise fairly restricted on what they can go with the roster unless some other team falls in deep love with Anfernee Simons or Portland decides to take the plunge by trading C.J. McCollum.
I’m skeptical Simons will fetch a star or near-star in mid-season and I’m skeptical Portland will trade McCollum given present uncertainty. That leaves the Blazers quite stuck with the current set-up.
The good news for the Portland front office is that they (smartly) reached a long-term extension with Lillard this past summer, one that could pay him $54 million in 2024-25. There’s no threat of him becoming disenchanted with the team and leaving in free agency, or threatening to leave a year out. The Blazers now have immense leverage in building the team how they see fit. That doesn’t mean they want to or can afford to alienate Lillard. But the short-term risk of flight is gone. They can be more patient than most teams with veteran superstars and ticking free agency clocks.
Will that allowance for patience allow the Blazers to make smart instead of rash moves, or will the drive to capitalize on what looks to be Lillard’s peak create the impetus for rash moves? How will Portland’s front office navigate this weird time coming off of a conference finals run where the team and Lillard are performing at way different levels? If the answer is that they do nothing, and the team continues to falter despite MVP-level production from Lillard, how will he react internally and externally? How will he cope given his immense financial security and sturdy legacy in the making but the real potential that this team has under peaked under his leadership?
What happens if this neat quilt of perfection — Lillard and the Portland Trail Blazers, two entities built for and by each other — starts to fray?
It makes for a fascinating scenario as a neutral observer, perhaps more interesting than if the Blazers were merely good. Lillard’s Blazers have faced tumult before — when LaMarcus Aldridge bailed out, when the Pelicans swept them into embarrassment — and bounced back stronger. Perhaps that history and the patience afforded by Lillard’s extension will inform how the Blazers react now. Or maybe this is a sign of troubles to come, and maybe this time things will be less rosy in Rose City.