In the summer of 2012, Damian Lillard was drafted by Portland, and fan expectations grew quickly that this kid from Utah by way of Oakland would bring new life to the team, a team that had won just 28 games the year before his arrival. Lillard arrived the same year as GM Neil Olshey and head coach Terry Stotts, and the three of them would bring a new era of basketball to the Portland Trail Blazers. The 2012-13 season was not great, but it was a step in the right direction despite only winning 33 games.
From 2014-2021, Portland won 369 regular season games, won four playoff series, and made it back to the conference finals for the first time in 19 years. Not a bad run; I want that on the record. They did this during what was supposed to be a 3-5 year rebuild, and perhaps they caught on earlier than they should have.
On the flip side, they lost 8 playoff series in that same span, three of them sweeps. Their most recent loss was to a depleted Denver team, and Portland failed to win more than two games. Phoenix destroyed Denver in the next round, so it’s possible they did Portland a favor. Head coach Terry Stotts left (or was he fired?) in the offseason, with a very favorable record as head coach. Stotts never finished worse than 11th in the conference, even placing third in consecutive seasons.
Lillard appears to be healthy enough to play into his late 30’s. But time makes fools of us all. It’s only a matter of time until at least one of these statements is true –
Lillard is traded
Lillard’s body can’t keep up with the demands of the game
Let that last one sink in. Regardless of the circumstances, one day, Lillard is going to retire. And what will the team have done for him between today and the day he says farewell?
In some ways, the face of this franchise is a lot like Batman.
In 1977, we had Bill Walton – the Adam West of the Batman universe. Dave Twardzik would definitely be Burt Ward. They won it all (KAPOW!) and did it with a smile. Gotham looked great on that day, but it hasn’t looked so great since.
In 1990, Clyde Drexler became the Michael Keaton of the Batman universe. He led the Trail Blazers back to the NBA Finals for the first time in 13 years and came up just short of leading them to their second title while facing the bad boys in Detroit. In 1992, some said his team was even better in his return to the Finals, and the series was definitely better. Portland had more than a fighting chance but fell to a duo of all-time great villains in six games. Drexler’s career faded some after that, and he was traded in 1995.
Just like the Batman universe, we don’t talk about the next two movies. Fast forward to 2006.
In 2006, Brandon Roy joined the team and launched a reboot as Val Kilmer of the Batman universe. The past was the past; they would rebuild this thing and make it a winner again. The villains were a little more comical than we thought they should be, the colors sometimes too neon, but Roy won rookie of the year, and it appeared all was well. Roy was injured for good in his fifth season and had to bow out for good.
Just like the Batman universe, we don’t talk about the next movie. Fast forward to 2012.
In 2012, Lillard arrived and took over as the Christian Bale Batman. It appeared we finally had the hero we deserved. Like Bale, Lillard had a tall and sneaky teammate in Aldridge who turned out to be a villain, but Lillard helped keep the franchise afloat against a slew of super villains – including two of the greatest villains of all time teaming up together. Lillard eventually started working with Jim Gordon (Terry Stotts) and Harvey Dent (CJ McCollum). Still, it turned out that Lillard’s sneaky and tall teammate was none other than Ra’s Al Ghul, who may, in fact, be resurrected once again after recent rumors surfaced that he had been seen exiting the Lazarus Pit. GM Neil Olshey was unveiled as the leader of the League of Shadows, and Harvey Dent became Harvey Two Face – a great teammate on offense, a horrible liability on defense.
And that brings us to the present day. Lillard has become an aging and bitter billionaire, Gotham is tearing itself apart, newcomer Norman Powell (John Blake) is trying to help but has limited power. Stotts has been replaced by Chauncy Billups (Lucius Fox) and may have the technology to dispatch their enemies. But it will take a lot of teamwork, and we’re not sure they have the players to pull it off.
Powell can be a great player, and his game is the perfect complement to Lillard, but he has to play third fiddle to McCollum too often. With McCollum giving up as many points as he scores, it puts the rest of the team in negative game scripts, which forces guys like Jusuf Nurkic to try to pull off unrealistic plays when a calmer play would have been more impactful.
So here we are with the league of shadows running the city. All appears lost, and for all, we know Talia Al Ghul is acting owner. The people are ready to rise, their hero is ready to give it his all, and all he needs is the team to pull it off. But can we see him coming back here? Can he live in and play for a city that forced him to give it his all when they could have just given him a team?
We’ll know soon enough. Rumors are swirling, and they always swirl the most just before the season when things calm down, and folks are distracted by the sport on the court. The NBA season starts in mid-October, which is just a couple of months away. This weekend Lillard will wrap up playing in the Olympics, hopefully bringing home the gold.
Once Lillard gets home, he can focus all of his attention on the current Blazers team, get some practice sessions in (whether its league a sanctioned event or just a casual get together near a pair of hoops), and let all of us know for sure just how dialed in this season is going to be.
Will we see the departure of Harvey Two Face? Will Powell take over the team and give Lillard the chance to live a lower-profile life somewhere else? Will Fox be able to give this team the upgrades they desperately need on defense?
There are a lot of questions and so little time to answer them. And there are at least one if not two movies featuring Batman being released next year, one of which will probably be pretty good. Whatever happens, it’s going to be fun to watch. I hope we get to see Lillard on the team he deserves since he’s been the hero we deserved for a long time now.