Damian Lillard is set to become the first player in the history of the NBA to have competed in five different events over the course of the All-Star Weekend by this time Sunday night. That includes tonight's Rising Stars Challenge, the Slam Dunk Contest, the Skills Competition, the Three-Point Contest and finally the All-Star Game.
Five events in three nights -- sounds crazy right? Especially when you take into consideration the fact that many teams like the All-Star break because it allows the majority of their players to rest before the start of the second half of the season, where playoff positioning is won and lost. So when you have one of the most daunting second halves of the season in terms of strength of schedule (like the Blazers do), what kind of decision is it to have your franchise point guard kill himself over the course of three nights that may end up resulting at best in a couple of individual awards?
That's easy: It's a long-term decision.
If I confused you there for a second, let me explain. Yes, it seems like the short-term individual accolades Lillard could potentially take home do not outweigh the potential damage to the Blazers' season should their star point guard suffer an injury in a series of glorified scrimmages. After all, Portland is a team that looks primed to escape the first round of the NBA Playoffs for the first time since the year 2000. But there are several things to consider: First, Lillard's "exhaustive" output of five events in three nights isn't going to be all that difficult. Yes he'll be busy, but it won't be like he's putting in 40 minutes in five playoff-level games -- these are fan events, meaning it won't be a horrible strain on his body. Second, worrying about Lillard's All-Star Weekend gauntlet and its effect on the second half of the Blazers' season (including a playoff run) is still a short-term mindset when looking at the future of the team.
Now comes the point where I have to drop a bomb, people: The Trail Blazers are NOT going to win their second NBA Championship this year. In fact, they're not even going to make the Western Conference Finals. The West is too good, too deep, and too competitive for Portland to legitimately contend beyond round two. This was, after all, a team that prior to the start of the season was seen as maybe an 8th seed if they caught a couple of breaks. While getting out of the first round is important for the Blazers and their fans, you don't get a ring for it.
This means that Portland likely needs another piece to make legitimate postseason noise for multiple years to come, and the odds say the best chance for getting that piece will come in free-agency. But in spite of the team's recent success, the Blazers have always and will continue to suffer from a major problem: they're a West Coast team that doesn't call Los Angeles home. As such, on most nights a majority of the nation will be tucking in for bed before the Blazers tip off, and the city Portland is a difficult enough pitch to free agents on its own (small market, bad weather and so on) without straight up over-paying for talent. Yes, a loyal fanbase and winning factor into the decision as well, but if a free agent is choosing between signing with the Blazers, Lakers, Heat and Knicks; how well do you really like Portland's chances?
And so we return to Damian Lillard and his All-Star gauntlet: The entire weekend is one big spectacle, and a Trail Blazer is set to take the spotlight at center-stage. And prior to the All-Star Game on Sunday, every time Lillard steps out into that spotlight he's going to be doing so with a Blazers jersey on his back. Superstars want to play with other superstars (*cough* *cough* Miami *cough*), and Lillard taking the more prominent role in the spotlight while another budding superstar in LaMarcus Aldridge does all his talking on the court could entice better talent at a better rate. Think of Blake Griffin and Chris Paul -- both are great players in their own right, but you're more likely to see a Blake Griffin commercial than a Chris Paul commercial (to help sell this point, think of how no one at All State discovered Chris Paul's "twin" before he moved to Los Angeles). In this sense, Lillard can be Griffin to Aldridge's Paul.
Lillard wants to win a league MVP award someday. He's said as much, and this weekend helps feed into that superstar mindset that people need to be in just to have him in the conversation. But even Lillard knows that no matter how dominant, how prominent of a superstar he becomes, he won't be able win an NBA title with just himself and Aldridge. So while his All-Star gauntlet can be seen as a pursuit of individual awards, to not see the potential long-term benefits for the Trail Blazers as a whole wouldn't be getting the whole picture. In a few nights of stepping into the spotlight alone, Lillard could potentially set up a future scenario in which the spotlight encompasses the whole team, with a championship banner flying high overhead.