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Can Damian Lillard Carry the Portland Trail Blazers?

The Blazer's Edge Mailbag looks at Lillard as the face of the franchise, the ingredients needed to run transition basketball, screens, free throws, and a bunch of goofy questions.

Craig Mitchelldyer-USA TODAY Sports

Hello Dave,

Even though I truly believe that Damian will be excellent for us in the next season, does Damian really have that superstar material ala Kevin Durant, Steph Curry etc. that can lead us to the next level? What evidence do we have that we can truly say that he deserve to be the next face of the franchise?


I don't suppose you really get evidence.Curry's Warriors didn't post a winning record until his 3rd season. Durant took Oklahoma City to the Conference Finals in his 2nd year and the NBA Finals in his 3rd. Superstars take different paths. I'd say Durant is in a class by himself while we're still waiting to see if Damian Lillard can experience a Curry-like arc.

Lillard's clutch play and demeanor speak well of his chances. Whatever "it" factor intangibles are necessary for stardom, this guy has it. But you're right to imply that being "face of the franchise" doesn't mean your franchise will be good. The "Dame Face" will grace Portland posters for years to come, but that doesn't mean they'll see the Finals, or even the playoffs. He needs more help, for one thing. He also needs to prove he's more than just a great scorer. He's earned a couple more years to figure that out, though. As the team gels around him, we'll see if he's going to be that transcendent superstar or one of a few dozen really good players who help their team immensely but can't carry it.

Hi Dave:

It occurred to me that if the Blazers are going to play more pick and roll basketball, they'll need some better screen setters than they've had in the past, especially to free up Damian and CJ on the perimeter. Besides Kaman, which of the new Blazers do you think will develop that Prizbilla-like skill to peel off defenders?


If the Blazers are smart, they'll employ some Jerry Sloan/Gregg Popovich coaching tactics and make this not only a point of emphasis, but a point of honor.

Sloan's Utah Jazz teams never messed up screens. The dribbler rubbed off his man with a tight line past the pick. The screen-setter stood firm until the ball went by. It was poetry. Watching the relatively soft screens of Portland's bigs last year--plus dribblers not knowing how to time or space the move--was stomach churning by comparison...a real "pass the antacid" moment.

In truth, though, it's been years since Portland had a solid screen game. We've been complaining about this since the early Nate McMillan days.

Stocking the roster with inexperienced players means plenty of things will get messed up this year. It's also a chance to change direction, to instill fundamental principles from the ground up. One of the principles the Blazers need to establish is, "If we're going to do something, we're going to do it right."

I expect we'll see plenty of botched screens, both in timing and coordination. But I hope we've seen the last of the lazy ghost picks, plus dribblers leaving 4 feet of space between themselves and the screener. Technique alone doesn't make good basketball, but it's hard to play good basketball without it.

Hi Dave,

Many basketball players, and nearly all NBA players, seem to be able to reliably shoot at least layups with either hand. Baseball has its switch hitters. Those in position to catch either a football or basketball are expected to be able to do so from virtually any angle. Soccer players generally can kick well with either foot. So my question — which is admittedly a bit from left field — is why there's so little discussion about, say... switch pitchers, quarterbacks who can deal with short passes with either hand, etc.?


P.S. Any idea what's happening with Mike Miller? I'd've thought we would've heard something by now... or did I just miss it somehow?

The first question is easy enough. You don't see switch QB's (or switch jump-shooters) much because those actions take a combination of fine motor skill, power, and rhythm. Plus they're crucial to the life of an offense in their respective sports. An off-hand approach would be counterproductive.

The ambidextrous actions you mentioned--batting, catching, layups, kicks--are either two-handed by nature (the former pair) or are simple enough that the dominant side doesn't come into play much (the latter examples). It's much harder to throw a football accurately than to catch a football that's in your orbit. It's much harder to shoot a jumper well than convert a layup.

Take anything less than your best jumper in the NBA and it's going to miss or get blocked most of the time. There'd be relatively little point in practicing enough to develop the muscle memory to attempt an off-hand jumper consistently. Even if you did, you'd still be 20 years of practice behind the dominant hand you grew up with and the results would reflect that. NBA players will occasionally attempt off-hand jump shots but it's more of a curiosity than a staple.

As for Mike Miller, he's on a guaranteed contract so there's no reason for the Blazers to waive him until they're ready. Brendan Haywood would have made $10.5 million dollars had Portland not cut him loose when they did. Miller is different. They can waive him at any point; they'll owe the same amount regardless. Why not keep him until you need the roster spot open? It's an outside chance, but he might become useful in a trade.

Nevertheless, I suspect they'll do him the courtesy of waiving him before the season starts so he can catch on with another team for the full year. But they're under no obligation to do so. They could even keep him! You never know.


With all the new players I'm guessing the Blazers will play at a faster pace and attempt more fast breaks and/or quick hitting offense. With some line-ups it would seem that almost every Blazer player (excluding Kaman) will be able to beat (or at least tie) his man up running up court. This leads me to two questions: (1) Can Damian be an effective fast break point guard? and (2) Will Stotts devise multiple pass ahead schemes to get the ball up court in a hurry?

Thanks, Jerry

With questions this nice, we ran you twice, Jerry!

Yes, Lillard will be fine on the break. He's a multi-threat offensive player. With the ball in his hands, defenses will always be guessing what he's going to do.

I'm not sure you need multiple pass-ahead schemes with this lineup. It's pretty simple. Half the new guys can rebound and take the ball up the floor themselves. The other half get it to Damian or CJ McCollum while the rest of the team runs the side routes.

Schemes will matter in the two initial keys leading up to the break: defense and rebounding. You have to keep the opponent from scoring in the first place and then grab the ball in order to run. With this new roster, rebounding should come easy. It's the one nearly-guaranteed strength next year. Whether Portland can coordinate enough defense to create rebounds in the first place remains to be seen. If the "D" is good, running should follow, with just about every player capable of filling a lane and finishing on the move.

Hi Dave,

Now the Blazers have players who aren't good at free throw. Ed Davis and Mason Plumlee are hitting a little over 55% in their career so far.

Why don't they (and even some non-Blazer players, too) try underhand like Rick Barry did?
It may not be stylish. It may not be manly. And I understand it is not cool. But if they magically start hitting 70%+, wouldn't it worth doing it?

Thank you.

You've hit on a potential sore spot. Portland will not lead the league in free throw percentage next year like they did this. The saving grace is that the worst free-throw shooters (basically the centers) are also the least likely to have the ball in their hands in the halfcourt offense, where most shooting fouls are committed. If the big guys get hacked on an offensive-rebound putback, nobody's going to complain. But the Blazers are going to experience some interesting 4th quarters if games are close. Opponents don't even have to put a name to their strategy. It's going to be "Hack-an-Anybody Over 6'9".

As far as the Barry-style shot, it mirrors the ambidextrous question above. If a player has been shooting free throws one way for 20+ years, switching to a new style will not bring instant results. They're not going to shoot like Rick Barry all of a sudden; they're going to shoot like themselves, just looking goofier. After months or years of practice they could see results, but they have to play on the world's biggest stage in the meantime. It's not like a high school choir kid disappearing into a back room to learn a solo and coming out when he's ready. When these guys step to the line they're on American Idol as the only singer. There's no time to learn on the least not something that major. If you're trotting out an unfinished product, everybody's going to see it.

Granted, their production isn't that great to begin with. But when they start missing just as many shots with the new form as the old (in the short term), everybody's going to blame the form instead of the shooter. The incentive to quit and just go back to shooting "normally" is significant. It'd take a special player getting special results to provide enough evidence and positive reinforcement to stick with that kind of change.

Not to mention the huge question: what assistant coaches are going to teach that form and support them staying with it?


In case you ever feel like spicing up the mailbag...try these questions.


1. What people, dead or alive, would you most love to meet?

Right now it would be Pete Docter and the crew from Pixar, because I've watched Inside Out three times now and it may be one of the more perfectly-done movies I've ever seen...animated or no. There were so many ways that movie could have gone wrong: static and ill-defined characters, abstract environment, lack of narrative, or total absence of anything believable or anything to relate to. When keeping a storyline almost entirely in someone's head, the minefield is huge! And yet they pulled off what amounts to a miracle. Character development was pristine, the environment engaging, the story packed with easily-accessed emotion. It's one of the few movies I've ever seen where people of both genders and almost any age can get something out of it and enjoy. The expertise and subtle layering that went into it was off...the...charts. I am in awe. So I'd like thank them and talk to them more about how they ended up where they did.

2. Let's say non-threatening aliens landed in your backyard, wanting to inconspicuously study the ways of man. How would you advise they blend in, and what cautions would you extend to them?

Nod. Say, "Mmm-hmmm" and, "Say more" a lot. Always walk like you have a purpose even if you're afraid you don't. Eat hamburgers often. Look both ways before crossing the street. Do not criticize Neil Olshey.

3. What are some of your personal or professional pet peeves?

HAAAAA! You're just trying to get me in trouble now. I'll do a separate post on this sometime.

4. What unsolved mystery (or mysteries) would you really like to be solved?

How much did the Blazers know about Greg Oden's health before he was drafted?

5. If a genie gave you three Blazer-related wishes, what would they be?

Assuming we can't go back to 1978 or 1990-92, I'd say Kevin Durant, Brandon Roy's knee never breaks down, and the ability to send 10 times as many kids to Blazer's Edge night.

6. Got any good jokes?

How many Trail Blazers does it take to screw in a light bulb?

[I'm sure people will provide good answers in the comment section.]

We'll be doing this all through the dog days of summer, so send your Mailbag questions to! We love to answer them even more than you love to write them!

--Dave / @DaveDeckard@Blazersedge