January 29th was an unremarkable day in most ways for the Portland Trail Blazers. Carrying a 32-14 record, Portland had dropped 6 of 8 games, memorably torched by Kyrie Irving for 55 points in their last outing, a loss in Cleveland. A 3-game road swing against Eastern Conference playoff opponents was nobody's idea of fun.
But January 29th held one important distinction. It was the day 2015 All-Star Game reserves would be announced. A season before, two Trail Blazers had named to the squad, the first such occurrence in the new millennium. Even after slumping their way into the New Year, Portland seemed primed to repeat that feat...an occasion of considerable excitement for the Portland faithful.
When the announcement came out, LaMarcus Aldridge made the team. This surprised no-one. The L-Train was dominant in the first half of the season, his defense blossoming to match his relentless offensive attack. Aldridge had averaged 25 points and 12 rebounds (plus a block and a steal a night) in December. He upped the ante in January with a gaudy 26 points, 9 rebounds, nearly 50% shooting and a ridiculous 97% shooting from the foul line. The guy was unstoppable, his All-Star bid all but guaranteed.
While Damian Lillard wasn't the lock that Aldridge was, he was an All-Star Game incumbent and one of the most dynamic guards in the league. His blossoming off-court fame led many to believe that this game's "showcase" could and would turn "popularity contest" in Lillard's favor.
That didn't happen. Lillard was not named to the squad by the coaches.
Hope was not lost. With an injured Kobe Bryant slated to start the game, a replacement roster spot stood wide open. Lillard was the highest remaining guard on the depth chart. Instead the nod went to Kings center DeMarcus Cousins. Explaining his decision, NBA Commissioner Adam Silver said that he deferred to the coaches' original vote, which had Cousins next in line. Statistically, the argument was obvious: Cousins was having one of the best seasons in the league. But questions lingered. How could Silver replace a backcourt player with a big man? What about Cousins' time missed to injury? Shouldn't winning be rewarded?
A week later, a third opportunity arose. Clippers forward Blake Griffin suffered an elbow injury and was out indefinitely, opening another spot on the team. This time Lillard heard his name called.
In Lillard's own words, he felt "disrespected" by being overlooked by coaches and Commissioner. Instead of the All-Star fanfare of a season before--where he hosted a #4BarFriday concert and participated in more weekend events than anyone ever had--Damian walked into New York under the radar.
In typical Lillard fashion, he still managed to make some noise. Adidas released the All-Star colorway edition of his D Lillard 1 shoe. Dame paid a visit to fellow Oakland-native and rapper/reporter Sway's radio show "Sway in the Morning," where he rapped beyond his normal four bars, generating nearly 2 million views on YouTube to date.
With little planned or by the league to showcase him, Lillard pushed his stock upwards yet again.
During the Big Game on Sunday Aldridge scored 18 points in 18 minutes, hitting 7 of 11 shots, 4 of 4 three-pointers. Lillard's in-game contributions were more modest: 4-12 from the field for 11 points in 16 minutes.
The weekend confirmed Aldridge as a cornerstone player, Lillard the young gun with a higher profile but more to prove. Whether succeeding or struggling for recognition, both stars had serious mojo heading into the second half of the 2015 campaign. Blazers fans wondered whether All-Star Weekend would be a springboard to something greater. Portland's stars and the team they led seemed poised for a great second half of the season.
Tune in tomorrow for Part 2 of our Season Review!