Trail Blazers point guard Damian Lillard's star power has skyrocketed since the 2012 NBA Draft, when Portland made him the No. 6 overall pick. Playing in Ogden, Utah at Weber State University from 2008 to 2012, Lillard's national exposure was fairly minimal, especially for an All-American who averaged 24.5 points, five rebounds and four assists per game on 40.9 percent three-point shooting his junior season.
In his 2012-13 rookie campaign with the Blazers, Lillard went on to score 19 points per game, dish 6.5 assists a night and hit 36.8 percent of his threes while leading the league in total minutes played. This led to a unanimous Rookie of the Year selection after the season, further cementing Lillard's arrival onto the national NBA landscape.
Last year, as a 23-year-old sophomore, Lillard improved his outside shooting to 39.4 percent and bumped his scoring average up to 20.7 points per game en route to All-NBA Third Team honors. At the league's All-Star break in February, the 6-foot-3 point guard out of Oakland, Calif. made history by competing in five separate All-Star events, bringing the pride and glory of winning the Taco Bell Skills Challenge back to Portland for the second straight season.
In the 2014 NBA playoffs, Lillard averaged 22.9 points, 6.5 assists and 5.1 rebounds in 11 games, famously eliminating the Houston Rockets from the postseason in Game 6 of their first-round match-up against the Blazers with a last-second three-pointer.
The on-court productivity is certainly there, as Lillard has performed better than anyone could've anticipated in his first two NBA seasons.
Let's not forget, though, that Lillard's social stock has also flown through the roof this summer. In April, Adidas announced his contract extension, believed to be for 10 years and around $100 million. Since, Lillard's appeared in several national television commercials, including spots for Foot Locker and Adidas, while even crossing streams with the NFL and starring in advertisements for EA Sports' wildly popular Madden NFL video games. He's also on the cover of NBA Live '15, announced the same summer he made it to the final round of cuts while trying out for Team USA.
Lillard's now a superstar both on and off the court. What more could a Blazers fan ask for from a third-year player? How about an anti-bullying campaign? Also, take a look at how accessible Lillard is on social media, responding to fans as well as detractors often. And don't forget last summer when Lillard was seen shopping by a fan and declined to take a picture at the time, only to feel bad about it later and track down the high-schooler via Twitter, arranging a meeting where the fan could get a proper photo with him.
Lillard wears the number "0" on his uniform in a tribute to his hometown of Oakland, his college days in Ogden and his current state of residence, Oregon. Perhaps the mutual love Portland fans and Lillard have for each other can best be summed up by his reaction to sinking the first-round, series-clinching three-pointer over the Rockets last spring; After the game, Lillard jubilantly grabbed Moda Center public address announcer Mark Mason's microphone and screamed "Rip City!" to the 19,980 in attendance, igniting the crowd and further endearing himself to Blazers fans everywhere.
What exactly does Lillard's newfound NBA superstar status do for Portland, though?
Sure, droves of fans will be coming through the gates of the Moda Center, many donning Lillard's jersey and other Blazers apparel. Ticket sales will likely increase and the organization has probably seen a surge in merchandise sales with every national advertising campaign that features its young All-Star point guard.
Even for a franchise with two elite players -- Lillard and power forward LaMarcus Aldridge -- and a host of likable, productive role players in guard Wesley Matthews, forward Nicolas Batum and center Robin Lopez -- among others -- bringing in top-level free agent talent to Portland is not a foregone conclusion.
Just ask forward Kevin Durant and point guard Russell Westbrook of the Oklahoma City Thunder, another small-market franchise. Durant and Westbrook are two of the league's most visible stars, yet Thunder GM Sam Presti's biggest offseason signing this year was forward Anthony Morrow. And that's after OKC made a trip to the Western Conference Finals in 2014, two seasons after an NBA Finals appearance.
The Utah Jazz, Milwaukee Bucks, New Orleans Pelicans, Indiana Pacers, Orlando Magic, Sacramento Kings, San Antonio Spurs and Minnesota Timberwolves -- all small-market teams like the Blazers -- had no free agent star signings this summer. The Charlotte Hornets managed to reel in wing Lance Stephenson, though his supposed character issues scared off many other NBA teams.
The Cleveland Cavaliers swung a deal with the 'Wolves to get All-Star power forward Kevin Love in town, likely with an agreement that he'll sign there long-term, but that was for the opportunity to form a big three with forward LeBron James and point guard Kyrie Irving. James is the only true superstar who transcends the market size he's in -- at least in terms of free agency -- bringing in other stars with him wherever he plays. Aside from him, though, there's not a single player who can get other standouts to sign in a small market unless A). the money's right, and B). there is a realistic chance of winning an NBA championship in that city.
Lillard is but one piece of the puzzle in Portland that Blazers GM Neil Olshey has assembled, along with fellow All-Star Aldridge. Even a 54-win season in 2013-14, a trip to the second round of the playoffs and a promising future wasn't enough for Olshey to bring in top-level free agents this past summer; After whiffing on center Spencer Hawes -- who met with the Blazers before any other team when free agency began in July, ultimately taking the exact same contract he was offered in Portland to play for the Los Angeles Clippers -- Olshey managed to bring in 34-year-old point guard Steve Blake and 32-year-old center Chris Kaman, both NBA journeymen at the tail-end of their respective careers.
San Antonio is considered a model small-market franchise, having won four titles in the last dozen years. The Spurs' four stars -- point guard Tony Parker, wing Manu Ginobili, forward Kawhi Leonard and big man Tim Duncan -- were all originally drafted by San Antonio. Spurs GM R.C. Buford makes smart signings, bringing in role players who fit coach Gregg Popovich's system instead of trying to swing for the fences with big-name free agents.
Olshey would be wise to follow in Buford's footsteps. Portland will likely never be a destination for top-flight free agents, regardless of Lillard and Aldridge's successes. If Durant -- the NBA's Most Valuable Player last season -- can't combine his superstar powers with Westbrook's to bring in players with more impact than Morrow and point guard Sebastian Telfair to the Thunder, how could Olshey be expected to do much more in Portland?
The Blazers need to continue cultivating a winning culture, keep their core players intact, draft well and make smart trades. Continued success is the only way for a small-market franchise to truly be a player in free agency (barring the acquisition of a generational talent like James), and even then, landing a third star player outside of the draft or a trade is a long shot. If Olshey stays the course and figures out a way to keep Lillard, Aldridge, Matthews, Batum and Lopez in town, the wins should continue piling up and the rest will fall into place as long as the success of the organization continues its upward trend.
Until then, let's enjoy Lillard's meteoric climb up the NBA's superstar ladder -- it sure seems like he's soaking it all in.
-- Chris Lucia | email@example.com | Twitter