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If Damian Lillard is the Answer, Portland’s Evolution is on a Clock

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Today’s Blazer’s Edge Mailbag deals with the heart and soul of the Trail Blazers franchise.

NBA: Charlotte Hornets at Portland Trail Blazers Jaime Valdez-USA TODAY Sports

Damian Lillard is the All-Star, quarterback, and Mr. Everything for the Portland Trail Blazers. The face of the franchise generates more interest nationally than any Portland player since Bill Walton, and judging by your submissions to the Blazer’s Edge Mailbag, he’s been generating interest locally too. Let’s dive in.

Dave,

How the [deleted expletive] does the coach take Dame out of the allstar game when he was tearing it up like that? And for who? And just to lose? I know bigger injustices in the regular season but is this the biggest allstar goof ever or at least the biggest Blazers related one?

Al

No. Clyde Drexler tore up the NBA in 1992, carrying the Blazers to the NBA Finals in dominant fashion when it became clear that Portland’s team approach wasn’t quite going to do it. In the midst of that run, he was named a starter for the 1992 All-Star Game in Orlando. He was on his way to winning the All-Star MVP with 22 points in 28 minutes on 10-15 shooting. But Clyde’s performance wasn’t the biggest story of the game. Magic Johnson, recently diagnosed with HIV and departing the league—ostensibly forever—started that game alongside Drexler. It was his national goodbye.

Drexler excelled through three quarters, but he wasn’t meant to be the featured story. Johnson came on strong in the fourth, with Drexler (and the entire Eastern squad defense) deferring to him in the game’s waning moments so he could go out strong. Magic finished with 25 points on 9-12 shooting in 29 minutes and took the MVP trophy that could have been Clyde’s. As would happen decades later with Kobe Bryant’s 60-point final game versus the Utah Jazz, few in the media mentioned the context. This was appropriate, but still.

Ultimately the MVP trophy ended up one of several accolades in Magic’s trunk of glitter, to the point that few remember it anymore without prompting. Drexler never got another serious chance at the award, and to this day no Trail Blazers player has ever won All-Star MVP.

Lillard’s return to the bench in the fourth quarter of last Sunday’s All-Star Game was not the biggest rip-off in Blazers history. It was actually pretty predictable. Mike D’Antoni was the head coach of that game. The starting guards eating up the crunch-time minutes that Lillard might have filled were James Harden and Steph Curry. Sure, they shot 9-33 from the field, while Lillard shot 9-14 all on his own and D’Antoni’s team lost. Neither the percentages nor the final score matter.

Harden is D’Antoni’s own player. What’s the coach going to say? “Hey, James...you know I have confidence in you and we’re going to depend on you to take us to the Finals this year, but Dame is having a better game and frankly I trust him more down the stretch in this meaningless exhibition.” No matter how well that stranger at the party danced and how much fun you had, you don’t want to be giving justification to your spouse on the way home after finishing the party in the stranger’s arms. That’s going to be a frosty trip. D’Antoni is no idiot.

Oh, and that other guy who replaced Dame? D’Antoni was coaching Team Stephen, not “Team Damian”. So there you go.

That said, Lillard has made a career out of people saying that he’s better than the league gives him credit for. Most people lament past All-Star snubs. This was even better than a snub. He played excellently in front of the entire nation and didn’t get fully rewarded for it. That’s a bummer for Trail Blazers fans but it’s going to strengthen the Lillard brand...not as much as the MVP trophy would have, but as much as could be hoped given the circumstances. Giannis Antetokounmpo, Joel Embiid, and Karl-Anthony Towns played alongside Steph Curry, James Harden, and Lillard on that team. Which player’s name and performance does everybody remember? Dame is going to be alright.

Moving along, we posted this video interview of Lillard with Rachel Nichols on Monday, which prompted a question from Twitter follower Shawn-cy.

The danger in these kinds of things is reading too much into a situation. With that caveat,here are the portions of the interview we quoted directly and my thoughts.

Rachel Nichols: Give me your sell of where you are in the point guard constellation in this league.

Damian Lillard: I think I’m as good as any point guard in this league. It’s that simple. There’s nothing that any point guard in this league can do that I can’t.

I like this version of Damian Lillard. It seems more honest somehow. He is one of the best point guards in the league. If he’s not lifting this team to the heights all by himself, well, some weights are beyond solo lifting for anyone outside of LeBron James. I’m pretty sure Lillard has believed this about himself for a long time. Hearing it is refreshing.

On the content and purpose of Lillard’s meeting with Paul Allen:

“It was just me showing urgency, like, spark that urgency...figure out, “OK, what do we have to do?” We’re a five, six seed. What do we have to do to make the jump? If you don’t have a line of communication with people who can make the changes or the people who can make impact for things happening for the better, then you’re just going out there playing.”

This has two interesting parts. First, Lillard describes Paul Allen as the person who can make an impact. Obviously the owner of any company is the ultimate authority, but chains of command exist for a reason. When things are going smoothly, impact and authority are supposed to rest with every person in the chain. Generally speaking, the higher up you have to go to identify the true “impact person” the closer the organization is to turmoil or change.

Lillard’s question, “What do we have to do to make the jump?” is multi-layered and deserves its own Mailbag. The easy answer is, “Get more talent!” There’s a harder reality to face, though. What if you can’t get there from here, at least not with the current contract structure and mix of assets?

Taking it a step farther, what happens when a player realizes that seed numbers are just that...numbers. “Fourth seed” is a better number than fifth or sixth, but it doesn’t indicate much on its own. Depending on opponents, injuries, and talent distribution, a team can back into the fourth seed just like they can back into the lower ones.

Relevance and success aren’t just defined by bracket position. The importance of seed depends on where the line lies between teams that have an honest shot at a title and the teams that don’t. Right now the divide rests between the second and third seeds in the Western Conference. The real question isn’t just, “How do we move up?” but, “How do we move up THERE?” Short of that, repetition and ultimately losing in the playoffs will make those once-shiny lower seeds seem dull.

Lillard has exited the “young” stage of his career now and is starting to move fully into his prime. The numbers shuffle seems important early in a career, especially on a team where just making the playoffs is an accomplishment. Lillard’s current sense of urgency seems to indicate that definitions are changing for him as he ages. That should be a clarion call for the franchise. If the course doesn’t alter, the progression goes:

  • “Playoffs! This is nifty!”
  • “Hmmm...this number we’re shooting for doesn’t matter as much as I once thought it did.”
  • “That means my work here doesn’t matter as much as I once thought it did.”

At that point, pleasing and retaining that player is a much harder sell.

Lillard has proclaimed undying love for the Portland franchise, which is both appropriate and true. Undying love can overcome all manner of obstacles, but the one realization it cannot survive is, “All this love I’m pouring in doesn’t matter, because it doesn’t change anything.” The Blazers must evolve significantly before their relationship with Lillard reaches that stage.

On analyst speculation about whether Lillard and McCollum can take the Blazers to the upper tier playing together or whether a trade would be in everybody’s best interests:

“I don’t think me and CJ is the issue. I don’t think us playing together is the issue.”

Therein lies the rub. If CJ and Dame aren’t the issue, who or what is? Let’s hope they figure that out, and quickly.

As always, keep those Mailbag questions coming to blazersub@gmail.com or @davedeckard!

—Dave / @davedeckard / @blazersedge / blazersub@gmail.com