The exploits of Damian Lillard over the last two weeks need no recounting in this space. 50-10 double-doubles have become commonplace during that stretch, as have victories for the Portland Trail Blazers.
Even if Lillard never comes back to earth, at some point he will descend to the vicinity of the solar system. Wilt Chamberlain’s records are safe. When 50 per game returns to “only” 25, Lillard’s eruption will still leave lasting effects on the Trail Blazers topography. These moments have been career- and franchise-defining. There will be a “before” and “after”. Neither Lillard nor the Blazers should expect things to return to normal.
Obviously Lillard achieved plenty before January of 2020: Rookie of the Year, All-Star appearances, All-NBA teams, and huge scoring performances. The last two weeks were not an example of a star becoming a superstar, but a near-superstar going supernova.
Having shined so brightly, Lillard cannot go back to being “just” Dame. It will be a disservice to himself and the franchise if he does so.
Ever since Lillard entered the league, he’s faced competition from his own roster. He joined a team with LaMarcus Aldridge ensconced as leader and focal point of the offense. By the time Aldridge departed, CJ McCollum was scoring 20 alongside Lillard. When that was sorted out, Jusuf Nurkic arose.
Throughout his career—and appropriately so—questions have dogged Lillard. “Yes, he can score 20, but does he make everyone else better? Can he pick his spots, facilitate, fit in?” That’s what a point guard does. That’s how a team leader develops.
Except Lillard has now achieved so much more. He answered most of those questions long ago anyway, but at this point, they’re immaterial. He’s moved beyond their relevance.
Lillard is now encroaching on space occupied by players known by their first names. He’s not had the sustained success of LeBron, nor has he become legendary like Wilt, Magic, and Bird. This month he’s at least opened the door to that room and peeked in, making us wonder what could be if this version of Lillard became the new norm.
That transition is not unprecedented. One of Lillard’s current teammates, Carmelo Anthony, has been a member of the First Name Club for a decade or more. Watching Lillard’s on-court relationship with Anthony evolve throughout the season has been fascinating.
When ‘Melo first suited up for the Blazers, Lillard (and most of Lillard’s teammates) deferred to him, at least in spirit. You’ll recall the reverence and respect for Melo’s name, the cheers that greeted his made buckets, the slow drift into an isolation-based offense. This was all appropriate; he is Carmelo.
Anthony is still a part of Portland’s offense. He is no longer the biggest name on the roster, nor is he a focal point stylistically or otherwise. As long as the guards were willing to place the ball in his hands, Carmelo would accept it. That’s what superstars do. But somewhere along the line, Lillard stopped passing the ball to Carmelo with reverence and instead became Carmelo, earning reverence himself. The team is better off for it.
The actual Anthony hasn’t seemed to mind this transition. Indeed, his play looks more inspired now than it was earlier in the season even though he’s technically averaging fewer shot attempts in his last 10 games than he was in his first 10. Perhaps it’s a case of game recognizing game?
Recall that Carmelo—even the 35-year-old version—did not shy away from the moment, the shots, and the accolades when they came. He was unabashedly himself, make or miss. He respected the environment, but also expected it to bend around him.
Having shown similar ability, Damian Lillard must now do the same...not just this week and not just when he scores 50, but everywhere, in every game, from now until he hangs it up.
Lillard has been transfigured. His potential and greatness have been revealed, and they’re as big as anything we’ve seen in today’s NBA. His name belongs with Giannis, LeBron, Harden, Westbrook, and Curry in a select group of players who don’t get questioned, who get to ask the questions themselves. This is no longer about him fitting in, but about his team fitting in around him.
Lillard will continue to learn and evolve. He will not become James Harden, Part Deux. His assist totals will remain high and his teammates happy. But from this point on, anyone who cries out, “Hero Ball!” should remember that Lillard is the hero of this franchise. He’s earned the right to make 20 shots or to miss 20; nobody is as good as he either way.
Trying to parcel out who will take the lead is not going to make Lillard’s teammates better. His teammates look better right now because of what he’s doing, even though the spotlight is on him and they’re afterthoughts in the public perception. If the Blazers begin losing again (and that’s highly likely), fans and analysts will need to remember that the Blazers are better off with Dame reaching for superstardom than they are with him looking for long-term answers in hands that aren’t his.
As long as he remains healthy and able to play, Damian Lillard is the answer. The questions can now cease.
If Dame’s play has put you in a good mood, can you help out by purchasing a ticket or two for kids in need to see him play on March 17th against the Timberwolves? Here’s how.