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LeBron, Lillard & NBA Narrative Control

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LeBron James has seized unprecedented control over the league and his own narrative. In order to compete, Damian Lillard may have to emulate the King and take matters into his own hands. But is that really the story we want?

Los Angeles Lakers v Portland Trailblazers Photo by Joe Murphy/NBAE via Getty Images

Last Sunday, the Los Angeles Lakers beat the Miami Heat to win the 2020 NBA Finals. Which obviously sucks.

It sucks because I hate to see Laker fans have nice things (Except these two kids, who I love and want to see have all the nice things). It sucks because it adds serious fuel to LeBron James’s case as the GOAT. It sucks because we can’t make fun of Rob Pelinka for calling Kentavious Caldwell Pope manna from heaven anymore. It sucks because it means championship rings for basketball villains like Rajon Rondo and Dwight Howard.

But most of all, it sucks because it validates everything LeBron and Anthony Davis did last summer to force the impossibly-proportioned big man out of New Orleans and to Los Angeles. Every time an Anthony Davis or a Kawhi Leonard holds his franchise hostage and gets rewarded with a championship, it makes it that much easier for other young superstars to follow the same playbook.

We keep seeing the same story play out, and in terms of a compelling narrative, it sucks.

LeBron the Author

When LeBron arrived in LA, the Lakers were “stocked” with “young talent” from years of picking in the lottery. LeBron repeatedly said how excited he was to play with and mentor his new teammates. Then he traded them all away the first chance he got.

When it comes to his own narrative and legacy, LeBron leaves nothing to chance. He has evolved into the game’s ultimate puppet master, controlling all the action on the stage and behind the curtain. Rob Mahoney of The Ringer put it well when he said that LeBron exhibits authorship over his career. He acts as both the performer and the marionette, moving the other pieces around the stage to ensure that the LeBron Show will always go on.

Ever since his first Cleveland stint, the King has refused to let a situation or front office hold him back from competing for a ring. He wields every tool at his disposal, from free agency to short-term contracts to a freaking talent agency run by his close friend and business partner, to ensure that no one besides LeBron can ever dictate the direction or circumstances of his career.

When LeBron realized the young Lakers core lacked the talent to compete for titles, he pulled every string imaginable to replace them with a player who could, destroying both the Lakers and Pelicans seasons in the process.

But in the end, it worked. LeBron received the perfect running mate, Anthony Davis bettered his situation in every sense, and the Lakers returned to the league’s summit.

Which sucks. And like most things in life, it got me thinking about Damian Lillard.

The Big Blazer Superteam Question

When the Milwaukee Bucks lost in demoralizing fashion to the Miami Heat, the NBA rumor mill fired up with fans speculating widely about whether Giannis Antetokounmpo would demand a trade. If that were to happen (and there’s never been any evidence to support it), several teams could cobble together attractive trade packages, the Trail Blazers included. For a few days, hopeful Blazer fans tossed out potential deals, all of which would have to include CJ McCollum, Jusuf Nurkic, and a treasure trove of young players and picks.

After allowing myself a few moments to salivate over the idea of the two-time MVP in Portland, my thoughts drifted back to the face of the franchise. How would Damian Lillard feel about this?

When the Blazers traded Will Barton, Lillard went over Neil Olshey’s head and demanded a private meeting with Paul Allen to voice his displeasure. He made it clear he wanted his voice heard on future moves. If Olshey were to somehow line up a Giannis trade that involved sending away half the roster, including Lillard’s two best friends on the team, he would need Lillard on board.

Which raises an interesting question: Would Damian be cool with that trade? Honestly, I’m not sure.

Part me of thinks, of course! Are you kidding?! A talent like Giannis comes around once a generation. Signing him would serve as an inflection point for the entire franchise, marking the transition from Cinderella darling that gets bounced in the second round every year to league-altering juggernaut that contends for championships. A Lillard-Antetokounmpo pairing would dominate the league for the next decade.

Do you trade spare change for a hundred dollar bill? Yes! Yes! A thousand times yes!

But Maybeeeeee

I can’t help but wonder if that’s really what Lillard would want. Part of me suspects that he’d rather stick it out with the McCollum-Nurkic core and keep trying to win on his terms. Lillard has made it clear he has no intention of leaving his teammates and joining a superteam in a bigger market. Would he really feel differently about trading them away in order to build one in Portland?

On paper, the choice to trade McCollum, Nurkic and assorted young players/picks for Antetokounmpo is an easy one. Even if Giannis gives no indication he’ll stay in Portland for more than a year, it’s worth the gamble to give yourself an inside track in free agency, as well as a yearlong audition for your franchise and city (It’s Portland - we love freaks!). If you have a chance to resign the two-time MVP to a long term contract, you make that deal every time, regardless of the how many players and picks you have to cough up (See: Davis, Anthony).

However, the lasting appeal of these recent Blazer teams has never been something easily captured on paper. Thus far, their legacy has been defined less by wins and losses and more by their connection to the city, the fans, and each other. At every turn, they choose to double down on the person to their left and right rather than look for the exits.

A trade for Giannis, or any other superstar, would mean an end to this era, as well as a dissolution of the fundamental beliefs that powered it. Would a chance at the Greek Freak be worth it?

Or does the NBA still have room for a team that - for better or for worse - rides and dies together?

Business and Loyalty in the NBA

A trade for Giannis remains, at best, a pie-in-the-sky possibility. But it illustrates the unique crossroads Lillard faces as he approaches the back half of his career. Dame’s earned his league-wide reputation as “a real one” by consistently zigging where other superstars zag. His loyalty to Portland, commitment to the community, genuine friendships with his teammates, and refusal to take the easy way out have defined his brand and persona as much as his on the court play and logo threes.

This sets Dame apart in a league that, from top to bottom, seems to value loyalty less and less with each passing year. Fans incentivize winning at all costs by turning every player comparison into a shouting match about rings. Superstars break contracts, demand trades, and torpedo their team’s entire season to flee for greener pastures. Cutthroat GMs treat players like assets to be traded and dumped the second their value begins to decline.

The Player Movement Era and its resulting free agency drama have helped the NBA generate headlines all offseason long and achieve its goal of becoming a year round sport. Unfortunately, all that news seems to hammer home is a single, discouraging message: that the NBA is a business, not a game. Everyone should look out for themselves, the ends justify the means, and only the bottom line matters.

LeBron has embraced this version of the NBA and mastered it, bending the league around him to maximize his shots at a title. To LeBron, nothing matters more than winning titles and chasing Jordan. Everything around him, from teammates to coaches and organizations, get subsumed by his quest for immortality.

And that’s the difference between him and Damian. To this point, Lillard has tied his title chances to a single franchise and a largely-unchanged group of teammates. It may lead to him never winning a ring.

But does that mean it was the wrong choice?

Something Special in Portland

It can be hard to articulate why these recent Blazers teams have resonated so much with Portland fans. Perhaps to a fault, the entire organization from Lillard to Olshey has prioritized loyalty to each other and the city of Portland above all else. The rest of the league seems to reset each year as stars shuffle from one team to the next, but this Blazer core stays the same, providing fans the opportunity to build a connection with their favorite players over many years. I may be unable to predict what new catastrophes life will throw at me, but for the past six years, I’ve always been able to count on a starting backcourt of Lillard and McCollum taking the court together.

As Blazer fans, we never have to read storylines wondering if our best players actually like each other, or listen to talking heads speculate whether Lillard will force his way out at the next sign of trouble. Instead, we get articles about Dame and CJ’s genuine friendship off the court, Lillard’s heartwarming mentoring of Nurkic, or young players fawning over the team’s leaders.

Under Lillard, the Blazers have shown that there’s still more to professional sports than the final score. They resonate with every kid who preferred losing with friends over winning with strangers. The kids who idealized Benny the Jet Rodriguez and believe a team’s best player should elevate less-talented teammates like Smalls, not trade him to the Tigers. The kids who identified with underdogs like Danny Laruso, not superteams like Cobra Kai. These Blazer teams represent something inherent and pure about sports, something that seems harder and harder to find in the pros.

Each year, only one of the league’s 30 teams can win the championship. The other 29 fanbases need to find other reasons to follow and stay engaged, and the Blazers have given us no end of them. Even if this team never wins it all, I’ll never get tired of watching them try. As much as I’d love to get Giannis, I’m also not ready to say goodbye to this era of Trail Blazer basketball and its cast of lovable heroes. I fear we may never see its likes again.

Selling Superstars as Superheroes

More than other pro sports, the NBA relies on superstars to generate storylines and drive casual fan interest. For the past four decades, the league has cultivated the celebrity of its stars by focusing its marketing around individual players rather than teams. When Nike promoted Michael Jordan in a similar fashion to its tennis stars, Bulls and league officials viewed it as tacky. Over three decades later, that superstar-first approach is baked into the league’s DNA.

Add in social media, and fans now have genuine connections with their favorite players because they feel like they know them as people off the court. The result is a league driven by its characters rather than its teams, where superstars create the narratives and generate the drama. LeBron’s impossible quest to catch MJ, for example, provides far more intrigue and interest than the Lakers chance to tie the Celtics for most championships.

These narrative structures matter because they shape the fan experience. NFL games often feel like old war movies because they share many of the same tropes. Band together. Us versus them. Crush the opposition. The NBA experience, on the other hand, plays out more like an Avengers movie, full of larger-than-life players and personalities clashing against one another and vying for supremacy. The league has essentially built itself a roster of superheroes, and we as fans keep buying new issues to see what happens next.

At their core, though, every superhero story shares a defining trait: ultimately, the story’s not about the superpowers. It’s about the person beneath them. Powers provide the excitement and imagination, but the flawed human at center provides the heart and narrative drive. A story about a teenager growing up and dealing with the pressures of adulthood and increased responsibility strikes a far more universal chord than a kid going through spider puberty.

NBA superstar narratives function the same way. These players may possess obscene amounts of wealth and athletic abilities that border on superpowers, but they also have flaws and quirks that color them in and ground them as people. Kawhi has a goofy laugh. LeBron acts like a corny dad. Harden loves strip clubs. Luka’s European.

These normal human traits help build up the superhero illusion because they make the players’ ensuing feats of athleticism feel that much more otherworldly. I can relate to Tony Stark, the smartass with a drinking problem, the same way I can see myself in Damian Lillard, the undersized gym rat who likes to spit bars with his friends. But the moment Dame starts drilling contested 40-footers, then he might as well be Iron Man, and I might as well be a kid in a movie theater waiting to see what impossible thing he’ll do next.

The Stories Matter

Since the NBA relies so heavily on its superstar narratives, the players’ stories and mythologies gain outsized weight and importance when we look back at the game’s history. No one talks about the schemes Rick Carlisle used to bamboozle LeBron in 2011. They talk about how LeBron choked. Then in 2012, the dominant narrative was LeBron finally learning what it takes to be a champion, not the Miami Heat outdueling the Oklahoma City Thunder.

This also represents a core aspect of the superhero narrative: that internal conflict matters more than external. The story’s resolved when the hero changes and grows into a better person, not when they conquer the primary antagonist.

This helps explain why fans give Durant almost zero credit for his two championships with the Warriors. He skipped part of the narrative, and took the easy way out. His triumph felt like the result of changing his external situation rather growing as person to overcome the obstacles in front of him. Joining the 73-win team that beat you and then steamrolling the league does not make for a good story.

And the stories matter.

If Dame and CJ pulled off a miracle and won it all, it would mean so much more because we watched them fall short time after time. Seeing them win it together would deliver the type of catharsis normally reserved for Disney movies. The Mavericks and Raptors both won their first titles this decade, but I guarantee seeing Dirk Nowtizki finally breakthrough meant far more for Mavs fans than winning it with a one-year mercenary did for Raptors fans.

Damian Lillard and the Hero’s Journey

In his seminal work, The Hero’s Journey, literature professor Joseph Cambell distilled mythologies from around the world down to a shared narrative structure to better understand hero stories. He found common characters traits and used them to build a portrait of the archetypal hero that pop up time and time again in our favorite stories. And that portrait of the archetypal hero looks a lot like one Damian Lamonte Ollie Lillard.

If we view the NBA as a cast of outsized characters spinning an endless web of narratives, then we can all agree that Damian Lillard is the hero at the center of it all (obviously). He’s basketball’s Luke Skywalker. The NBA’s Neo. The rap game’s Muad’Dib.

Fans find it easy to root for Dame because they have been conditioned by thousands of stories to view him as the archetypal hero. He comes from humble origins. He repeatedly chooses the right path (sticking with Portland) over the easy path, or the path that leads to more power (jumping ship to join a superteam). He’s had leadership thrust upon him when his wise mentor left too early (LaMarcus Aldridge in the role of a more treacherous Obi Wan Kenobi/Albus Dumbledore). His powers have grown stronger and stronger as he faces increasingly difficult challenges on his journey. He has an ingrained super talent that he consistently works on in the hopes of elevating the common folk around him.

Lillard as the NBA’s storybook hero has a nice ring to it. But here’s the catch.

According to Campbell, the hero must face one final challenge that pushes them to the limits before they can claim what Campbell calls the Ultimate Boon, or the Holy Grail. In order to overcome this challenge, the hero needs to undergo a transformation. They have to kill their past self completely in order to be reborn as their final form. Think Neo dying and coming back as the One. Or Gandalf the Grey falling into Khazad-dum and emerging as Gandalf the White. Or Jaime Lannister losing his hand but finding his heart. Or Harry Potter sacrificing his life in the Forbidden Forest to kill the part of Voldemort living inside of him (spoiler alerts, by the way).

If the story of Lillard’s career follows the traditional hero arc, then his final sacrifice still lies ahead.

But what does that even mean?

Destroying Dame

If we assume that delivering a championship to Portland represents the Ultimate Boon for Lillard, and that a Larry OB trophy will give his journey closure, then I believe we can predict what his final sacrifice will look like (I realize we’re venturing into very weird and abstract territory here, but bear with me).

Lillard has built his brand around his underdog persona. The kid from Oakland who all the big colleges overlooked. The fearless gunner who refuses to compromise and take the easy way out. The franchise leader who sticks around through the ups and downs. The point guard who truly cares about elevating his teammates, on and off the court. The superstar who wants to win it his way, even if that means not winning at all.

This persona represents Damian’s final sacrifice. To make room for Lillard the champion, he’ll have to destroy Dame the lovable underdog. That means moving on from CJ and/or Nurkic, teaming up with another superstar, and accepting that he can’t win it all on his terms. According to Campbell, this step of the journey “requires an abandonment of the attachment to ego itself, and that is what is difficult.” Transforming the Trail Blazers into champions will require Damian to become more like LeBron and walk away from many of the things that made him so unique as a modern superstar.

If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em. For Dame, that would be the ultimate sacrifice.

A Different Kind of Story

But what if that’s too narrow of view of Damian Lillard’s journey? What if he’s been telling us a different story this whole time?

I think a lot about a quote Lillard gave to Paul Flannery of SB Nation before the 2019 playoffs.

“Now that I’ve made All-Star games and hit big shots and had max contracts and my own signature shoe all this stuff, now I’m realizing what’s really most important to me.

This era is like, ‘Oh I want to win championships and how many rings do you have?’ I’ve said that’s what I play for: to win. But I’m not as overly consumed by that as how I treat people around me. And how I care about the people around me.

I’m competing for a championship, but how can I pour into other people, how can I impact other people? That’s where I’m at. I’m past all that other stuff.”

For Lillard’s hero journey, maybe the chance to play on a superteam that wins multiple titles represents the Sacrifice, not the Boon. Maybe Lillard’s Holy Grail resembles something far more nebulous than a championship, something you can’t measure with wins and losses.

Campbell calls the final stage of the hero’s journey The Return. In it, the hero brings the Holy Grail back to his or her home, forever transforming the community . The hero’s journey has not been completed until they take what they’ve learned and use it to inspire positive change in the world around them. Think Luke restoring balance to the Force, or Simba saving the Pride Lands.

Lillard’s Aunt Val summarized the final stage nicely in a mantra she would repeat to a young Damian: “Our gifts are given not for us. They are given to us to share with others.” The story’s not about the superpowers. It’s about how you choose to use them.

LeBron’s narrative hinges on his ability to win at a more prolific rate than anyone else in league history. He has become unstoppable and inevitable, making it to nine of the last ten NBA Finals. If he were an Avengers character, he’d be Thanos, a titan who dominates the competition on a quest to collect more jewelry (He can even snap his fingers and make half the Lakers roster disappear).

Lillard provides a different take on the traditional sports hero. The night he was drafted, his father told him, “Now you are in the NBA and in a position where you can pick other people up...Don’t just think of it as you are a basketball player. You can be bigger. This is bigger than you.”

In a league shaped by stories of individual transcendence and superstars so talented they became larger-than-life icons, there’s little room for a sentiment like This is bigger than you. In his own words, Lillard measures success differently from other superstars. His impact cannot always be measured in wins and losses.

Yes, Dame could conform to the rest of the league and follow a more traditional path of superstardom. Yes, he could prioritize winning above all else, join the superstar rat race, jump ship and join a super team. Or he could trade away his favorite teammates to build one in Portland. All these options would give him a much better chance at winning a ring than if he stays the course.

But is that really the ending we want?

LeBron has mastered the art of telling a certain story. Maybe instead of trying to fit Damian into a similar narrative, we should let him tell a different one.