While football season is just around the corner—I can practically hear the pads smashing in practices in Downtown Portland, Eugene, and Corvallis from my humble Southeast Portland abode—my first sports love is basketball. Specifically, the National Basketball Association.
(Quick aside: I love how no pundit in the NBA media sphere ever refers to the NBA by its full name; it’s always just the acronym or “the Association.” The meatheads in the NFL punditry, especially former players and coaches, always call the NFL the National Football League. Wait, it’s actually pronounced like this: THE NATIONAL FOOTBALL LEAGUE!!!!!! It’s obnoxious as hell to me, and this was my first tangent of the 2019-20 season. Thank you.)
Every NBA franchise has its charms (except the New York Knicks), but my favorite team is also our hometown team, the Portland Trail Blazers. Many great players have made their way to Rip City to rip those nets with deadeye marksmanship, acrobatic layups, and thundering dunks. We’ve even had a few transcendent superstars grace the Stumptown hardwood; names like Walton, Drexler, and Roy.
The man who has joined that list as the fourth member of the Trail Blazer Mount Rushmore is the man who will be profiled today, Damian Lillard.
How He Did Last Year
The regular season was business as usual for Lillard, with a few slight improvements in his stats and a few major improvements in his play and ability to break traps. His points per game were down slightly from his First-Team All-NBA year in 2018, but he played at least 80 games for the first time in four years. The increased time let him surpass 2,000 points in a season for the second time in his stellar career (insane to think about, and more proof that it’s really freaking hard to score 2,000 points in an NBA season), and set his career high in total points.
Dame also set career highs in assists, Effective Field Goal Percentage, Field Goals Made, 3-Pointers Made, Field-Goal Percentage, blocks, and offensive rebounds. He shot 55% from the restricted area, no mean feat when you’re as small as he is on the court, and the highest percentage of shot attempts he took last season came from within five feet of the basket. He also showed off a great pull-up game from three-point range and midrange; Lillard shot almost 40% on pull-up threes and hit a disgusting 46% of his midrangers.
The onus was on Lillard to improve his ball-handling, playmaking, and ability to break traps after the New Orleans Pelicans shut him down in 2018. It was brutal.
After a player gets dominated to that degree, most never recover and simply lose their mojo. Some get back up, bust their butts to get better, and never really improve. A rare few bust their butts to get better, and actually DO improve, and improve to the point that a tactic they were getting stymied by is now the kind of tactic an opposing coach would be insane to use against them.
Lillard is among those rare few, and though he made the Second Team All-NBA instead of the first team last season, I think that was his best season ever. His game was complete. He sprinted through traps and got to the cup (which is why the largest percentage of his FGAs came within five feet).
When the two trapping players met him 40 feet from the rim, he split the double-team and created a 5-on-3 situation, which was untenable even when Portland employed Bricklayers’ Club Charter Members Maurice Harkless and Al-Farouq Aminu, and led to Lillard posting a career-high assist total; imagine if those shooters were Rodney Hood and Kent Bazemore, which they will be this season. When the trappers tried meeting him from 26-30 feet out (to give the point guard time to sprint to an open shooter), Lillard simply shot an open 30-footer, sometimes after crossing over the poor big man who switched onto him.
His passing was crisper, his handle was tighter, he attacked the rim like a hungry man attacking a pizza, he shot with no conscience and plenty of success, and he had his best postseason ever, which resulted in the Blazers making the Conference Finals for the first time in 19 years. He crossed the treacherous path from star to superstar.
So yeah. Damian Lillard had a stupendous season. In other news, water is wet, pine needles are green, and Gordon Ramsay yells a lot.
What He Brings to the Table
If you don’t know what the greatest Blazer since the Glide does on a basketball court, either watch some of his games, read the many testimonials about his prowess (some of which are in my OSN archive #ShamelessPlug), or just listen to the multitudes of fans that love him for both his basketball mastery and commitment to the city of Portland. I’m not wasting our collective time telling you what Lillard does on the court.
What does really impress me is the aforementioned commitment to this place. While Portland is no Boston, it has its own shameful race-relations history, and is one of the last major American cities with a white majority. Also, Lillard is in the upper echelon of NBA stars. Those guys usually live in Los Angeles for the summer and ditch the cities they work in at the first available opportunity.
Dame, however, is making Portland his home. He’ll always have Oakland, his hometown, in his blood and heart, and he also is fond of Ogden, Utah, where he played college ball for Weber State. The good vibes he’s received from the third O in his life, Oregon, has been reciprocated through tireless community service, his anti-bullying and all-ability inclusion campaigns, and his refusal to stay shut in his home and willingness to go out into his community (though he probably finds that much harder to do now; the days of mall-crawling and Jet-Skiing the Willamette are likely done). Lillard reinforced that commitment by signing a four-year supermax contract extension last July.
The guy even did the unthinkable and turned down an Early Termination Option on his last year—though to be honest, he would have picked up that $54 million option in 2025 at age 34 even if Neil Olshey had rats crap in his cereal every week.
The point is, Lillard is here for the long haul. He’s been going against the grain his whole life, and even though the hot new trend in the NBA is so-called “pre-agency” and strong-arming franchises with threats of leaving early and trade demands, Dame is having none of that.
Lillard has a real shot at doing what Drexler, Bill Walton, and Brandon Roy couldn’t do—play his whole career in the City of Roses.
Dame couldn’t give a damn what his peers think about his decisions, and I like that in my franchise player.
What to Expect in 2019-20
Bill Simmons of The Ringer said in a recent podcast that he thinks Lillard still has another 10% or so in him in terms of potential. This is probably based on the fact that Lillard has had less-than-ideal shooting around him ever since Wesley Matthews’ Achilles burst asunder like a rubber-banded watermelon.
Simmons’ thoughts aren’t that far-fetched considering Dame works his ass off and will have the chance to continue salvaging Hood’s career, and save Bazemore’s reputation as a shooter.
Whether Lillard reaches that potential—that kind of top-100 all-time-type potential—will depend on his teammates. Not just his teammates this year, mind you, but his teammates for the rest of his career. We know Lillard will bring it, will lead his teammates, and demand nothing but excellence.
Whether said excellence results in the first NBA championship parade down Broadway since 1977…that’s why we keep watching this team, isn’t it?