Here we go again.
Stephen A. Smith used First Take on Tuesday to pour gasoline on an old flame when he said Damian Lillard must “leave Portland” if he’s ever going to win a championship.
At this point, Stephen A.’s opinion is known. In his segment, he reminded us that he’s told Lillard as much in person. And he’s grilled CJ McCollum in the past about the Blazers’ need to trade one of them if they want to win in a meaningful way.
So let’s unpack this.
Stephen A. spent the bulk of his energy waxing poetic hypotheticals about LeBron James having Lillard in L.A. to “kick the ball out to.” A trio of LeBron, Lillard and Anthony Davis is lethal—no getting around that. But to analyze Lillard’s would-be role as if he’s Offensive Bruce Bowen takes away from what Lillard does on the court.
Lillard creates. He attacks. He pulls up. He defers at the precise moment.
He’s a hero with the ball who doesn’t have to play hero-ball. And that all applies up to and outside of 37 feet.
There’s also the implication that Lillard can’t win a title as a No. 1 player. Stephen A. doesn’t say it in as many words (how could he after hyping up the five-time All-Star’s accolades page). But to imply that Lillard, a player who has improved every season, who was in the conference finals a year ago and who was the league’s best player for a stretch in 2019-20 shouldn’t be No. 1 on an elite team, that’s to doubt the very man whose resume you just recited.
Where Stephen A. is right is that the Blazers need work. Nobody is saying they don’t. Returning to contender status during Lillard’s prime means significant organic growth across the roster, or, yes, admitting you have too much money invested in the backcourt.
Neil Olshey has spoken plenty about needing commensurate value in a return on McCollum, so if you do find that value while also opening up the books, Olshey’s loyalty may finally be tested.
That word, though—loyalty—is an interesting one. Because it’s the other thing Stephen A. disregarded. It’s what many constantly see past or see as overrated, if non-existent.
Since 2012, Lillard has said all of the right things, and none of it has been smoke. It was fair for critics to wave Paul George’s flag for him when his desire to leave the Pacers became public. Same for Kyrie Irving in Boston, Jimmy Butler in a number of stops and even stars who have refused to say anything at all. Silence is golden, but sometimes a reassuring word can reduce the noise as long you really mean what you say, Kyrie.
That’s not Lillard. The humble superstar is outspoken on the matter, and that has gone back to when I interviewed him before his rookie season. No topic got him to open up like his ride-or-die devotion to mid-major Weber State. And when I put him in the impossible position of comparing his collegiate loyalty to the quiet Pacific Northwest team that had just drafted him, he had this response:
“I feel like they trusted themselves to take me sixth. I really don’t know them extremely well; I know them well. Hopefully we can build that type of relationship.”
For Lillard, that relationship broke ground and hit the Portland skyline quicker than any real build seems to around the city. But nothing was ever given. Not for Lillard, who had to prove yet again that he was worth the risk; not for the Blazers, who had to earn his trust even after their own leap of faith.
Nearly eight years later, Lillard has done everything the Blazers have and could have asked of him on and off the court. Should he choose to leave Rip City under any circumstance at any point, it will be warranted, and it will be as one of the greatest players to ever spend his prime tucked away up north.
But so far, Lillard’s desire to win a title has only been matched by his need to do it where he started.
That sounds an awful lot like the tail of a fabled 7-foot German who eventually slayed his King and earned his ring. And if anyone out there out there can’t see that, they just aren’t looking.