Just a few days ago, I was lauding CJ McCollum’s rise to All-Star level. He was setting the NBA on fire, helping the Portland Trail Blazers keep pace in a wonky season where everybody except the Los Angeles Lakers has issues. He’d suffered a foot injury against the Atlanta Hawks on Saturday, but the initial reports said it was minor.
Turns out it was a broken foot. The Blazers announced McCollum would be re-evaluated in four weeks, and with Jusuf Nurkic still out for another several weeks/two months with a broken wrist, and Zach Collins being sidelined indefinitely with ankle issues, Portland is down two of its three best players and a youngster they really were hoping to evaluate for a contract extension.
These injuries, and the ineffectiveness and limitations of those who are healthy, once again force Damian Lillard to carry a middling roster. He does have more offensive help than in years past, but we’ve already seen the results of Lillard trying to dead-lift a MASH unit to greatness: futility and summary dismissal from the postseason.
There are two saving graces in this peculiar season. The first is the postponement of games due to COVID-19, with the Blazers’ game against the Memphis Grizzlies being waved off, hopefully temporarily. The fewer games that Portland plays until McCollum and Nurkic return, the better for both the Blazers’ record and Lillard’s own health (though I do look forward to Rodney Hood and Gary Trent, Jr. getting to cook more), which segues to the second reason these injuries may not be totally catastrophic—they’re happening early.
Of course, even after everyone except Collins gets healthy, another rash of booboos could spring up, or the virus could ravage Portland’s locker room. (I apologize in advance for putting that evil on the Blazers). Injury luck is a fickle thing. Still, it’s better to deal with these things in January instead of April or May.
I also wonder what this does to Lillard’s mental state. He’s got an iron will, and injuries to his teammates haven’t stopped him from exploding before. And maybe it’s silly to worry about a five-time All-Star who’s averaging 28-5-7 with 44-37-94 shooting splits while leading the league in total points. Lillard has demonstrated his commitment to the Trail Blazers franchise and the city of Portland overall many times, and there’s now little reason to doubt him because of the outsider reputation he’s developed among his peers in the NBA. At what point does it all become too much to stomach, though? All people break eventually.
Lillard’s choice to remain loyal to Portland is both very characteristic and very unusual among superstar players in the NBA today. His sometimes irascible personality on the court leads to delicious BEEF among some of his opponents; he and Russell Westbrook dislike one another, and Paul George is still salty about Lillard draining a ridiculous 37-footer in his mug during his and Westbrook’s last game for the Oklahoma City Thunder. Lillard and McCollum took time to troll PG after the Los Angeles Clippers fell apart like a slow-cooked lamb against the Denver Nuggets in the bubble Playoffs last summer.
His remarks towards Stephen Curry this season, however, I don’t approve of. For one thing, antagonizing the greatest shooter in NBA history is a very stupid thing to do, even if you’re one of the very few men that’s near his level. Two days after the Golden State Warriors lost by 25, and Lillard talked some trash, Curry came right back with 62 in a 15-point Warriors victory. (The two teams are tied at 8-6 as of Thursday evening, FWIW). Curry is also almost universally beloved around the league, and is also the rare superstar to never switch teams these days—the two men share many similarities. What separates them besides the accomplishments of their respective teams is that Curry is congenial while Lillard is reserved.
While it’s totally understandable that young, rich Black men typically don’t fancy living in Portland, with the gloomy climate, relative isolation from the large urban centers of culture, and heavily white population, another reason why the NBA’s talented players eschew the Rose City unless they are overpaid may be Lillard. He is a great teammate and an exceptional leader, but the ego-driven elite might bristle at Lillard’s command of the room and presence; this was a reason why LaMarcus Aldridge left the Blazers, according to the scuttlebutt back then.
(Ignore the fact that James Harden named Portland as one of his preferred destinations when he was demanding to be traded from Houston—the Rockets weren’t going to trade him here because the Blazers lacked the resources to tempt them, and they wanted to avoid trading him within the conference if at all possible).
The burden Lillard carries is the same one the likes of Dirk Nowitzki and the late Kobe Bryant carried in their day, the undisputed heart and soul of a franchise and the biggest sports celebrity in the city. Bryant, of course, won five titles with talented squads helmed by the greatest coach of all time in Phil Jackson, while Nowitzki finally got his championship by catching the league in a time of transition, with LeBron James’ Big Three in Miami still working out the kinks while the other contenders were either too old (Lakers, Spurs, Celtics), too young (2011 Thunder), or too injured (2011 Blazers, RIP Brandon Roy’s knees).
Lillard has had two solid chances to surprise the league, but ran into the Warriors in 2019 and the Lakers in 2020. He was often the last man standing for those teams, with McCollum and Nurkic either hurt or ineffective, and the Others (as Shaquille O’Neal dismissively calls role players) unable to step up. As he enters his 30s, he’s lying in wait like Dirk did a decade ago, just aching for that one golden opportunity to bring championship glory back to Portland.
As the NBA has swiftly shifted to a hierarchy of the Lakers (led by an ageless James and Anthony Davis), Brooklyn Nets (where Harden and Kevin Durant will try to survive Kyrie Irving’s…whatever), Clippers, and Milwaukee Bucks, the odds have lengthened sharply for Dame. The Bucks have Giannis Antetokounmpo locked up to a long contract, which was nice to see—like Lillard, Giannis is something of an outsider, mostly due to his foreign birth.
Lillard, however, is not like the Greek Freak, who is basically Shaq 2.0. He’s a point guard who’s a normal sized man, a leader in minutes played twice in his career, and has many gifts except size. As the Lakers proved, unfortunately, size still matters, as long as those with that size also have great skill.
There’s still time for Lillard, but things for an athlete look much different from the other side of that big Three-Oh. I’m hoping that things finally break his way, that his teammates all stay healthy and productive, that he can have that one six-week stretch in the playoffs where he goes full Dirk and basically dips his opposition in molten lava, immolating the best of the best on his way to the Larry O’Brien Trophy. Even though all the evidence says it’ll never happen—the frail teammates, the horrible defense, the exhaustion from carrying a franchise for six months straight—I still want to hope.
After all, hope’s pretty much all we’ve had for a solid year.