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Damian Lillard And The Blazers Are Not A Superteam, And That's OK

Blazers star Damian Lillard says he has too much pride to join a super team.

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NBA: Oklahoma City Thunder at Portland Trail Blazers Steve Dykes-USA TODAY Sports

Two weeks ago, Damian Lillard sat down for an interview with SiriusXM NBA Radio in which he revealed, among other things, his opinion on Kevin Durant joining forces with the Golden State Warriors in free agency this summer.

First, Dame said he didn't begrudge Durant one bit - defecting to the Bay Area is not against any NBA rule, he pointed out, and it's totally within KD's rights to make whatever career move he wishes.

But he also added a few choice words describing how he felt about that move on a personal level. Here's Dame:

I wouldn't do it. That's just not who I am. I might have too much pride for that, or be too much of a competitor. I couldn't bring myself to do it.

Oh boy. This is fun!


Before we go any farther, two things.

1) From a public relations standpoint, this quote and the storyline it sets up are just too perfect. If you're running a small-market NBA team, this is exactly what you want your franchise player to say, and man, this is just the perfect climate in which to say it.

Look at the circumstances: The Warriors are the kings of the Western Conference; they've been to the Finals twice running. The Blazers are young, hungry and gunning for them. They just played a competitive second-round playoff series against the Dubs five months ago; now, they're looking to take another step forward. The Warriors doubled down on being a superteam this summer when they added Durant. The Blazers doubled down on being an underdog when they spent a lot of money to retain a group of promising but flawed fringe-starter types. This is David versus Goliath - and the kicker is that the captain of the Davids is from Oakland originally and is now rebelling against his hometown team. Do narratives get any more fun than this? I think not.

2) As cool as this quote is, it's also predictable as hell. Lillard has no choice but to take a stand as an anti-superteam guy, and for obvious reasons - he's now locked into a team that's far from super. The Blazers last year won 44 games, respectable but hilariously 29 games out of first place in the West, and they made only modest moves this summer to move up from there. They're not going to have the star power of the Warriors, now or even before decade's end barring a major shakeup. Lillard knows the situation he's in, and he knows he might as well embrace it.


Of course, playing for a non-superteam is nothing new, for Lillard or most of the rest of the NBA. Being in a situation like the Warriors are in now requires ridiculous set of circumstances to fall into place. The Celtics in 2007 needed Paul Pierce to stay in town despite years of unrest through a couple losing seasons; then, they needed a massive stockpile of assets to acquire two more stars, and they needed Minnesota and Seattle to agree to give up Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen. The Heat in 2010 needed three of the biggest superstars in the world to sublimate their egos, share the cap space and the basketball and come together in one magical summer. The Lakers in 2012 had to line up trades for both Dwight Howard and Steve Nash, and in Nash's case needed him to agree to a sign-and-trade. The Warriors' move this summer was the craziest of all. If Stephen Curry were paid his actual market value, or if the cap hadn't spiked this year with the TV money, or if Durant had just beaten the Dubs himself for crying out loud, we wouldn't be here today.

You look at the Blazers, and it's quite clear they don't have the ingredients to build anything like the above four historical superpowers. They have a nice collection of talent, but it's nowhere near the asset trove needed to get a star player like a prime KG or Dwight. They don't have the free agency cachet of a destination like Miami, and even if they did it wouldn't matter, since their cap space is shot. They've got young players who might break out, but the odds of finding a Draymond Green-level diamond in the rough are always stacked heavily against you. No matter how you slice it, the Blazers franchise for the time being is what it is. They're in good shape, but good is not super.

You could make the argument that there's nothing wrong with “good but not super.” It really depends on what kind of sports fan you are, philosophically, and what you hope to get out of your teams. Some will tell you there's virtue in fielding a competitive team year after year, even if you can't win it all; when you do, every game is watchable and compelling, and every postseason offers a glimmer of hope that you might catch lightning. Maybe things break right and you're the next 2011 Mavericks, beating the superteam and winning it all. Even if you're not, giving it your best shot is noble.

On the other hand, some will tell you it's discouraging having a good team that never takes the next step - go that route and, as ESPN's Justin Verrier succinctly put it last week, you're "destined for a Hawksian malaise" where you "bump your head on the ceiling once or twice" without ever cracking through. Atlanta is indeed an interesting comparison. The Hawks had Al Horford for nine years, from his draft date in 2007 to his departure for Boston this summer. During that stretch the Hawks had two good-but-not-great Big Threes - first Horford/Joe Johnson/Josh Smith, then Horford/Paul Millsap/Jeff Teague. Those teams won between 37 and 60 games every year, made the playoffs every year and reached the NBA Finals in - obviously - zero years. From a fan's perspective, is that satisfying? It's a matter of taste.

A lot of Blazers fans are hopeful that their team is better than this Hawksian middle ground - that they're young, still improving and bound to win more than 44 once they continue developing. Part of me really wants this to be true - I'm not a fan, in the strictest sense, but I have grown to like these guys and want them to succeed - but I have doubts.

For one thing, the perception that this team is young and growing might be a bit overblown. Remember that Dame and CJ McCollum both went through four years of college before entering the pros, so they're older than they seem in NBA years. Lillard is 26 and McCollum, 25, putting the pair only a year or two behind Curry and Klay Thompson in Golden State. Al-Farouq Aminu might be newish to a full-time starting role, but this is his seventh NBA season. It's the fifth for Moe Harkless and Meyers Leonard. At a certain point, these guys have to move past developing and just be developed. That might come sooner than you think.

Dame and CJ, as good as they were last season, might be hitting their ceilings. It wouldn't shock me a bit if their performance leveled off. Same for most of the other rotation guys, really. There are little bits of improvement you can look for at the margins, sure - if Harkless adds a respectable jump shot this season, he's sure to be an improved player, and if Leonard gives the Blazers 75-plus games without an injury or shooting slump, that's also huge. There's even the chance, I suppose, that Noah Vonleh turns into a real player in his third NBA season. Improvement isn't impossible - no one's saying that. It just might happen in smaller, more incremental ways is all.

Small incremental improvement isn't enough to take down a Warriors squad that may well be the super-est of all superteams. Even if you take Golden State out of the conversation, though, the road forward is still uphill and steep. Last year's Blazers finished 23 games out of second place in the West and 11 out of third! You could argue that the gap is closing, what with Tim Duncan and Kevin Durant off of their respective teams (as ESPN's Zach Lowe wrote this summer, the West is like a middle-aged man - fatter in the middle and thinning up top), but it's a long way from altogether shut. The Spurs are still capable of winning 60-plus. I've gone on record saying that even sans Durant and Serge Ibaka, the Thunder are still capable of winning 50. Those two are gone, but the team that remains is deep and talented. Laugh now, but we'll talk in April.

The West landscape beyond Golden State is really, really murky right now - especially long-term. Will the Spurs still be good in two years? Will OKC hold it together (remember, Russell Westbrook and Enes Kanter can both opt out in 2018)? Will Houston ever put a contending team around James Harden again? Will the Clippers fall apart next summer? Can New Orleans build anything that makes sense? Can the Jazz stay healthy? How far away is Minnesota? I have no answers to any of these questions. Between now and 2020, the Blazers might be the second-best team in the Western Conference. They also might be 10th. So much remains undecided that it's hard to say.

The rise of the Warriors these last two years, coupled with the chaos that most everyone else in the West has dealt with, has basically split the conference's contenders into two tiers. One is Golden State all by itself, and the other is a horde of flawed teams all gunning for them. For the Blazers, you have to say that just being one of those gunners is a privilege. Just being in the mix is going to make for an exciting half-decade. Even if it's ultimately fruitless, seeing this team take a swing at the West titans will be more than worth the price of admission.

In that same SiriusXM interview, shortly after he declared that he could never join a superteam like Kevin Durant, Lillard also made another interesting statement about KD's move to Golden State and its impact. Read on:

"It also makes it more fun. You get to take a monster down and that's always fun. I love being the underdog. I love being the smaller man. I love to take that challenge."

I couldn't agree more, Dame. From here on, this is the new world order. The Warriors are on top, and the Blazers will take their best shot at knocking them down a peg. That quest begins tonight, as the two teams meet in their final preseason game; it continues Nov. 1, when they meet for the first time in the regular season. Actually, it continues every time these two teams meet through 2020.

Is Damian Lillard on a superteam? Nah. But he's on a good one, and they're embarking on a journey this season that's guaranteed to be compelling. Let's get to it.