BOSTON — Damian Lillard and the Portland Trail Blazers have quietly put together another excellent season. With a core largely unchanged from the team that won 49 games and finished third in the Western Conference last season, Portland is a study in continuity in a league that makes a fetish of constant change.
Of course, last season also ended in disappointment following a four-game sweep at the hands of Anthony Davis and the New Orleans Pelicans. That experience could have broken lesser teams, or caused wholesale changes, but the Blazers keep doing what they do. That has Lillard optimistic.
“I’m excited by how we responded,” Lillard said following a morning shootaround at Emerson College. “You would think that we would have come back and have a situation like New Orleans, rather than coming back and backing up our performance from last year. So, I think it’s going to pay off for us in the long run.”
It’s funny how things work out in this league. What New Orleans got for its first-round success was a season filled with frustration punctuated by a long, awkward goodbye from its franchise player. What the Blazers got for their bitter exit was a renewed feeling of resolve with Lillard once again leading the way en route to an All-NBA caliber campaign.
After an uneven start to the season that had them hovering around .500, the Blazers are right back where they were last season, with an eye on 50 wins and a top-four seed. Maintaining that level of consistency is an achievement, but it also sets a familiar trap. Fail to move forward in the postseason and the Blazers will once again be left answering questions about how much this core can improve.
“It’s not based off of anything on the outside,” Lillard said. “It’s based on the urgency that we want to have another shot at it. We’re really looking forward to that opportunity to redeem ourselves.”
Following his regular media session, Dame settled in for a conversation about parenthood, perspective, and his feelings for Portland. (Portions of this interview have been edited for length and clarity.)
SB Nation: The last time we talked your son was about to be born. He’s almost a year old now. How’s that been for you?
Damian Lillard: It’s been great, man. The best thing that ever happened and I’ve had a lot of great things happen in my life. But that’s the best thing that ever happened.
SB: The first year is really hard with sleep and all that stuff, what’s been the hardest part for you?
DL: The hardest part for me is where my career is, it requires me to be away a lot, not being able to be there all the time. Obviously, I’m there a lot. We spend a lot of time at home and then we’ve got the summer. Most parents are able to be with their kid every day. Every day of their life their parents have an opportunity to be with them and we don’t have that luxury as professional athletes. That’s the hardest thing.
You always worry about every little thing. At first, I was just carefree with everything in my life. Now I’m like, I don’t want him to fall over. I don’t want him to hurt himself. I don’t want him to choke on something. You’re just so concerned for them and it hurts you. It’s so alarming, man. I feel it for the people around me, but it’s deeper for my son. Only a parent would understand.
SB: And they constantly change on you. My son learned how to zipper his jacket and now I have to resist helping him.
DL: My son can do stuff now. I come into the house and he’s walking now. He doesn’t want my help. When I try to pick him up, I’m like that’s my baby, that’s my son, and he’s like, ‘Dad put me down, I can do it by myself.’ I’m like, wow.
SB: How do you think it’s changed you?
DL: It’s changed me as a person in that I just don’t carry stuff like I used to. If I have a bad game and on TV they’re like, Dame went 6-for-20 and they lost. I’m just like, you know, whatever. It’s ok, bro. You know what I’m saying?
SB: Because he doesn’t care.
DL: Obviously it’s my career so you think about stuff, but it’s just not in my mind who the best point guard is and all the stuff that I once cared about. I just worry about myself and my team and doing stuff the right way.
I’m going to go home to my family and my son is like, that’s dad. When I walk in there he’s smiling and running up to my leg. Having that makes you deal with everything else and makes you take it with a grain of salt.
SB: It’s kind of liberating, right?
DL: Yeah. There’s more important shit out there.
SB: At All-Star, you worked with Special Olympics. When did you get started with them?
DL: I started working with Special Olympics when I was 17 years old. I’ll never forget the first time I did it, I was at Weber State and it was the summer before I started school. We have to get up in the morning and do this Special Olympics camp. Everybody else on the team was complaining about it, so I complained about it too.
I show up that morning and we walk in the gym and I look over there on the court there’s 25 Special Olympic athletes and they’re warming up hard as hell. They were so excited. We’re the Weber State basketball team, we’re not the Golden State Warriors. There was a guy the same age as me, and he runs up and is like, oh man Weber State basketball. I’m Jason.
Every little thing had them so excited and they were so thankful for us being there. They love to hoop but they were playing like they were in front of NBA players. When I saw that in them I was drawn to it. When I came to the league I became a global ambassador for Special Olympics and started a few campaigns in Portland and speaking at schools.
SB: What have you learned from that?
DL: One of the main things I’ve learned is that everybody is equal. The world may not be equal opportunity, but everybody is equal because their feelings are just like our feelings. They may not have every ability, but they have feelings and they have challenges that they have to deal with every day. I’ve learned to appreciate them as people and treat situations that way.
SB: All these experiences offer you a different kind of perspective, has your perspective as an NBA player changed since you came into the league?
DL: I was trying to prove myself and I wanted to earn stuff: All-Star games, Rookie of the Year, max contracts, all that stuff. And now that I’ve made All-Star games and hit big shots and had max contracts and my own signature shoe all this stuff, now I’m realizing what’s really most important to me.
This era is like, ‘Oh I want to win championships and how many rings do you have?’ I’ve said that’s what I play for: to win. But I’m not as overly consumed by that as how I treat people around me. And how I care about the people around me.
I’m competing for a championship, but how can I pour into other people, how can I impact other people? That’s where I’m at. I’m past all that other stuff.
SB: It’s strange that it’s almost a unique perspective in the NBA, because that’s a normal perspective.
DL: Yeah, it is normal. This is not a normal life so you have to think your way to normalcy. It’s almost like a fairy tale. We don’t even carry our bags. We worked hard to be in this position, but to be able to live in this type of environment and think normally is hard.
I came into the league thinking, man I want to do this and wondering what is this about, and how is it to be in LA and going to the ESPY’s and all that stuff. I always wondered what is that like? Now that I’ve experienced that it’s allowed me to come back to reality.
SB: Kyrie Irving got himself into trouble by saying that he wanted to stay and now he’s backed off that a bit.
DL: People change. Your mind can change.
SB: Right. You’ve maintained a strong relationship with Portland. There’s always a question of how long that can last. It’s like people want to test that.
DL: Our city is behind our team 100 percent. That’s who I play for. My job is to come out and help the team to be in the best position to win, and give them a good time and something to cheer for. That’s what I do. I work hard to do that and I go out and do that. We win. We’ve got a good environment, we’ve got a good coaching staff, we’ve got a good culture, and those things matter.
When I say this is where I want to be, that’s how I feel. If it comes a time when they don’t feel that way anymore then I respect that. It’s not about loyalty and all that stuff. It’s about who I am and how I feel about the situation I’m in.
If they decide that they don’t feel that way anymore, then that’s fine. People say, well one day they won’t be loyal to you no more, that’s not what it’s about to me. I’m doing this because this is who I am. So that’s just what it is.
Consumable NBA thoughts
While Luka Doncic runs away with the Rookie of the Year race, it’s worth remembering that the top of this past year’s draft has been remarkably strong. Here’s a snapshot of the top five.
Picking Ayton first was totally defensible. Seven-footers with his skill set don’t come around all that often. In a Luka-less world, Ayton’s rookie season would be worth celebrating. There have been 35 players in league history who averaged better than 16 points and 10 rebounds in their rookie seasons, and only one (Ayton) has shot better than 58 percent from the floor. There’s still a ton of upside left to be tapped offensively. His defense, which was the main concern coming into the draft, has been … not great. He’s also playing on a young team with a culture of losing. Ayton has miles of development left in him and the next few years will be critical.
The real intrigue began with the second pick where the Kings took the Duke forward ahead of Doncic. The choice was widely panned at the time, and doesn’t look any better with the benefit of hindsight given that Doncic is already a developing franchise player. And yet, the Kings sure got themselves an intriguing player. Bagley put up 16-and-8 after securing a steady role in the rotation in early January, his high energy bounce fitting right in with the Kings superfun vibe. A knee injury has him out for a few weeks, but Bagley is the only rookie picked in the top-10 pick with a chance to contribute toward a playoff push. Doncic may have been the prize of the draft, but Bagley is a player.
When the Hawks traded Doncic’s rights to Dallas, they moved back two spots to five and secured a top-5 protected lottery pick in this year’s draft that eventually becomes unprotected. That’s a hell of a deal under most circumstances. The only danger is if you pass on a generational talent. There’s a chance that Luka becomes that kind of a player. The journey to elite status is long and challenging, but Doncic has shown many of the qualities you look for in a potential franchise player. He’s answered questions about his athleticism with an impressive array of skills and savvy. There’s also an irrepressible eff-you quality to his game that is a crucial element of all great players. Hell of a trade by Atlanta. Hell of a gamble too.
The knock on Jackson coming into the draft was that he didn’t rebound well enough for a player his size and his tendency to foul negated many of his defensive strengths. The upside, though, was tremendous given his length, range, and handle. Players like Jackson tend to be either dominant or just good enough to get you fired. There have been enough flashes to suggest Jackson has a chance to become special. Knowing what we know now about the 19-year-old, if you held the draft today with different teams making the selections, how high would Jackson go: top-3, top-2?
Back in December, when Lukamania began to take hold, Young and the Hawks were headed in the opposite direction. A loss to Brooklyn left them 6-23 while Young was struggling to make just 24 percent of his shots from behind the arc. The word ‘bust’ was used liberally. It was right around then that Young found his stroke and the Hawks became competitive. Over the last 15 games, Young has been on another planet: averaging 24 points, nine assists and shooting 43 percent from long range. He may always be the dude who was traded for Luka, but Young has enough game to move beyond that designation and create his own path.
THE STATS THAT EXPLAIN THE WEEK
Following a spirited win over Golden State on Thursday, Orlando’s chances of making the playoffs per basketball-reference’s probability report soared to 64.7 percent. It’s easy to make light of the race to secure one of the final two postseason spots in the East, given that the four teams in contention are all under .500. But the Magic own the conference’s longest postseason drought and making the playoffs in Steve Clifford’s first season would represent an important breakthrough. The trick comes in deciding who fits into the core, but that can wait until the summer. A playoff push for this franchise is overdue and necessary.
On the opposite end of the spectrum are the San Antonio Spurs, who have been a postseason regular for 21 years. Following a horrible Rodeo Trip that saw the Spurs lose seven of eight, they returned home on Wednesday and beat the Pistons. The Spurs are on track to win 44 games, which should be enough, but the competition will be fierce for one of those final spots. The release of Pau Gasol only magnified the reality that San Antonio is clearly in a transition phase.
The Celtics confirmed everyone’s worst suspicions with an embarrassing 23-point loss to the Raptors. Losing in Toronto is not a surprise — the C’s haven’t won there in four years — but getting blown out and offering little resistance along the way reinforced the case that this Boston team just isn’t mentally strong enough to deal with adversity. That this year’s weakness is the direct opposite of Boston’s long-term strength under Brad Stevens only makes their season more perplexing. At this point in the season, there’s not much they can do to earn anyone’s trust, but no one should write them off yet either. The playoffs will be the ultimate judge.
James Harden has hit 50 points in a game six times this season. No one else has done it more than once. During his 58-point outburst against Miami on Thursday, Harden shot 50 percent from the floor, 44 percent from behind the arc, and was a perfect 18-for-18 from the free throw line. There has never been a scorer like him. This has been your James Harden numbers update for the week.
Doc Rivers likes to say that the first attribute of being a great player is availability and Karl Anthony-Towns has that locked down. He had played in 303 straight games before sitting out a pair of games following a frightening car accident. Towns returned to the lineup this week and dropped 113 points over his next three games. It may not be enough to push Minnesota back into the playoff picture, but Towns has taken an important step forward this season. He’s always been there, now he’s dominating every night.