The Portland Trail Blazers look to finish their journey to the playoffs tonight against the Utah Jazz. Having lost the last two outings against the team from Salt Lake, the Blazers desperately need to hit their stride on the right foot.
Led by Donovan Mitchell and Rudy Gobert, the Jazz embody the ultimate defensive force in today’s NBA. The Blazers on the other hand, are led by one of the more prolific offensive backcourts in Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum.
The Trailblazers are entirely reliant on Damian Lillard, their franchise star. While teammate CJ is a premiere offensive player in this league, Lillard carries most of the weight of this franchise’s success. This season, he’s setting a career high in Win Shares, PER, and True Shooting Percentage. When Lillard is on the bench, the Blazers are a losing franchise. His time on the bench is costing the Blazers about 7 points per 48 minutes of playtime.
Without Lillard, the Blazers would be a lost franchise and wouldn’t be sniffing a spot in the playoffs. While teammate CJ McCollum is a great player, the Blazers don’t lose much of any firepower when he’s on the bench. In fact, the Blazers actually gain a net 3 points over the course of 48 minutes with CJ off the floor.
Even Dwyane Wade came out in favor of Lillard over the All-Star Break, by reiterating the fact that Dame can dime with the best of them. By the way, Damian Lillard is also posting these record highs whilst in the beginning of his max contract. This guy was never destined to break down and cash in. He’ll do whatever it takes to get there for a chance for the big one, and it’s being recognized.
In short, these final couple of months of the season can potentially define the greater picture of Lillard’s time with Portland. Back in January, Damian Lillard asked for a sit-down with team owner Paul Allen and during this meeting, Lillard wanted to make sure that Allen was “expeditiously” working to make this roster as good as possible. Lillard made clear to Allen that he wanted to win now.
What makes this final stretch into the playoffs so crucial, is that Lillard is so frustrated this early into his max contract. At 28 years old, this is no time to show even the slightest bit of frustration and unfortunately, he’s right.
The meeting between Lillard and Allen happened well before the trade deadline. Lillard thought to himself, as nearly every franchise player does, that he was already getting tired so early in the year, having to overcome the struggles of Jusuf Nurkic and the bench. He was using the meeting as a call to action.
In response, the Blazers did nothing to get help. They did get rid of Noah Vonleh for cash, and have just brought in Brandon Rush to help an ailing bench. However, it’s interesting that Rush will finally take stage in front of Portland just like he was meant to so many years ago. The Blazers had selected Rush at the 13th spot in the 2008 draft but was shipped out immediately.
Anyways, if Lillard’s frustrated, and the Blazers aren’t doing anything to help, why does it matter? He’s signed to a long-term deal, so there’s no point in being mad, right?
He can, and should be, very frustrated. He’s 28 years old and the star of a franchise that has struggled to attract stars from the free agency market. The leverage he owns over the Blazers is the fact that the Blazers won’t be able to find the likes of him anytime soon, and would therefore become hopeless in rebuilding mode. No franchise wants to be caught in a long stalemate with a potentially fuming star.
Given that the likes of Kawhi Leonard and Anthony Davis are openly voicing their opinions about the state of their current franchises, Lillard could follow a similar path. In fact, demanding a trade wouldn’t be totally out of sorts either. In fact, Kevin Love had forced his way out of Minnesota after seeing how his Olympics teammates were surrounded by wealth of talent.
Damian Lillard did just play in the All-Star Game with players who, for the most part, have elite starters surrounding them. During these kinds of events, players are talking to each other and asking for career advice. There shouldn’t be a surprise as to why Dwyane Wade gave props to Damian Lillard, especially since Wade was in Los Angeles to partake in the festivities as well. There’s no reason for a player like Wade to ever waste his time with a tweet just to show how nice he is towards another player. In that tweet, he’s reminding Lillard who he is: one of the premiere franchise players that this league has to offer.
Lillard is off to finish another successful season but has to start off by facing a tough Utah team. He’ll be aptly supported by CJ but will have to overcome the ailments of the rest of the team’s roster. Lillard will have to play opposite Donovan Mitchell, the rookie sensation who’s had an immediate impact at a time where Zach Collins is “slowly developing.”
But, winning cures everything, and should Lillard pick this franchise up into the playoffs, the pain will be worth it. Tune in tonight as the Trail Blazers look to finish off the rest of the season with a spot in the playoffs.