The Trail Blazers’ 50-year anniversary season is temporarily on pause as the NBA goes on hiatus to slow the spread of COVID-19. During that break, Blazer’s Edge is counting down the top 100 Blazers: players, executives, and other influencers who made the franchise what it is today.
No. 3 | Damian Lillard
Games Played with Blazers: Regular Season 607, Postseason 51
*PTS: 24.0 | AST: 6.5 | FG%: 43.6% | 3PT%: 37.1%
*Statistics are pulled from a player’s time in Portland
Joined Club: June 2012, selected 6th overall in the 2012 NBA Draft
Departed Club: currently with team
Place in History: For those of you reading this Top 100 countdown through the lens of history, realize it was written in the spring of 2020. Trail Blazers All-Star Damian Lillard is just completing his eighth season. It may well be, when his career is finished, he will sit on top of this list as the greatest player ever to don Portland’s uniform. We don’t know that quite yet. For now, marvel that a mid-lottery pick from Weber State has progressed so far in eight years that he’s practically indiscernible from the absolute greatest names in the franchise.
Lillard sits at #3 not because he’s lesser than the best players in Portland history, but because somebody had to.
People were expecting something dynamic when the Blazers selected Lillard 6th overall in the 2012 NBA Draft. Choosing him wasn’t a surprise. His shot and confidence both recommended him. He also played at a position the Blazers had tried, and failed, to fill for most of a decade.
Damon Stoudamire manned the point from 1998 to 2005. When he stepped aside, it theoretically made room for highly-touted draft pick Sebastian Telfair to take over. Unfortunately, Telfair wasn’t playable. That left Portland up the creek. Between 2006 and 2012, the Blazers bought, drafted, or traded for all of the following players to fill the gap: Steve Blake, Jarrett Jack, Sergio Rodriguez, Jerryd Bayless, Patty Mills, Andre Miller, Nolan Smith, Johnny Flynn, Raymond Felton, and Jamal Crawford. That’s not even counting Armon Johnson, Taurean Green, and low-level picks who didn’t pan out.
At minimum, the Blazers tried to stuff 11 players into the same slot over 6 years. It just wasn’t working. By the time Lillard was drafted, their attempts to find their next point guard had become a running joke.
Even had the Blazers found an answer, it might not have held. Blake, Miller, and company had been brought on to feed the enormously talented halfcourt machine of Brandon Roy, LaMarcus Aldridge, and Greg Oden. Running through the list above, you’d never guess that Blake would become the most successful among them. It wasn’t a matter of talent. He distributed the ball, played well without it, hit distance shots, and worked hard on defense. That was everything the Blazers needed at the time. Ball-intensive guards like Miller and Felton ended up inhibiting the flow. Even though they were better on paper, they didn’t fit on the court.
By 2012, the job description had changed. Dreams of championship glory behind the Big Three died along with the knees of Oden and Roy. Aldridge remained strong. Behind him: Wesley Matthews, and Nicolas Batum. All were fine players, but the Blazers needed a little more than Steve Blake to make that roster viable. They could use a ball-handler, a point-producer, maybe even a second star.
That’s what they were hoping for from Lillard. The 6’2 guard had blossomed in four years at Weber State. Nobody had heard of his college (Was Weber in Illinois? Alaska, maybe?), but people knew his game. He was a scorer with a nice outside shot. His pre-draft interviews were great; Portland came out of them smiling. The Blazers weren’t exactly telegraphing their pick, but it was pretty sure. They were going to take another stab at filling their perpetual weak spot.
Lillard’s outside shot and scoring ability were as good as advertised. That was only half the equation. Drafting Lillard, they got a franchise leader for the ages.
In 2006, Roy and Aldridge had made Portland forget the Jail Blazers era and root for the team with passion again. In 2012, Lillard would make Portland forget the ache of watching the Roy era crumble as they rooted for him.
In the Beginning
As so many of his great predecessors had, Damian Lillard gave his audience a reason to cheer from the first moment he met them. He debuted on October 31st, 2012 with a 23-point, 11-assist effort in a victory over the Los Angeles Lakers. L.A. was sporting a bling-y new lineup as Steve Nash and Dwight Howard joined Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol, and Metta World Peace. The Blazers ruined their night with 51% shooting, putting all five starters in double figures.
In Game 2, Lillard scored 21 against the Oklahoma City Thunder. In Game 3 he scored 20 points and 9 assists on 53% shooting against the Houston Rockets. The guy was staring down Nash, Russell Westbrook, and Jeremy Lin, putting 20 on each one. Three games in and Damian Lillard was already wearing out the league.
The real revelation came on November 16th as the Blazers faced the Rockets once again. Houston was not playing around this time. They came at the Blazers hard. Portland fought back, pushing the game into overtime. Throughout the fourth quarter and extra period, their prize rookie took shot after steely-eyed shot, causing long-time color commentator Mike Rice to scream at one point, “That CANNOT be a rookie, can it?”
No, Mike. That was no rookie. That was Damian Lillard.
Exactly one month later, on December 16th, the Blazers found themselves tied with the New Orleans Hornets with 4.2 seconds left. Lillard was inbounding the ball. He got it to forward Luke Babbitt, who tossed it right back and set a screen. Quicker than you could say, “Where’s Aldridge?”, this happened:
If you’re ticking off boxes at this point, not only was Lillard good, he wasn’t afraid of the big moment. Dame was starting to smell like a star.
19.5 points and 6.5 assists a night through the rest of the season would bear out the impression. The guard replacing Roy earned the R.O.Y.—just like Brandon had—and was well on his way to capturing the heart of Blazers fans.
The Blazers earned only 33 wins in Lillard’s rookie year. They did not make the playoffs. That was about to change. Dame’s career would be typified by scoring big, winning big, and looking good while doing it.
Road to Superstardom
Winning Rookie of the Year was the beginning of Lillard’s ascent into the national spotlight. He’d score 20.7 per game in his second campaign, upping his three-point percentage from 36.8% to 39.4%. He was now a legitimate NBA star, passing beyond the label of “rookie sensation”, creeping towards the league’s elite.
Accompanying Lillard’s superlative stats was an attitude that put everyone around him at ease. He had confidence without overt swagger. He celebrated whenever he hit a big shot, but never in a way that conveyed surprise. His nods and gestures always seemed to say, “You didn’t think I’d make that? Better read up.”
So, too, with interviews. Lillard eschewed the usual NBA camps of walking cliché or self-aggrandizing showman. He communicated honestly, answered questions as they were asked, and conveyed the same sense of assurance in front of the mic as he did at the arc.
The combined effect was a player that everybody loved. Every time he fell into the national spotlight, the audience and their sponsors were glad he did. His smile, his style, his production...everything about Lillard seemed bankable.
Every once in a while you’d fear it was all too much, that people were praising the young guard too highly. Then something like this would happen...
...and you realized they hadn’t said enough.
Lillard received his first All-Star nomination in 2014. In typical Dame style he didn’t just show up for the game, but competed in every single event possible: Rising Star Challenge, Skills Challenge, Three-Point Shootout, Dunk Competition, and the All-Star Game on Sunday. It was an NBA first. He won the skills competition, but looked a bit overworked during the rest of the festivities. Apparently he was human after all.
That April, Lillard’s transcendent stardom was confirmed as he signed a mammoth, nine-figure deal with Adidas. It would include his own signature shoe line. The paycheck and name-brand style put the second-year guard at the same altitude as 2011 NBA MVP Derrick Rose, one of the biggest names in the business. This was absolutely unheard of for a Blazers player. Bill Walton had come up before the sneaker wars. Clyde Drexler had a huge basketball profile but a muted celebrity presence. He spent his career with little-known shoe company Avia. Rasheed Wallace hadn’t been a magnet for endorsements. Brandon Roy was beloved locally but didn’t catch on as big on a national level. Dame not only broke through quicker than any of them had, he skipped right to the top level.
Lillard became a publicity magnet. He would go on to star in State Farm commercials, appear on nighttime talk shows...he did things that most Los Angeles Lakers players couldn’t imagine. Whether it was touting his popular “4 bar Friday” rap clips, showing off his shoe line, or talking about his latest playoffs performance, Lillard was representing Portland’s pinwheel everywhere.
Back on the basketball court, the Blazers returned to the postseason in 2014. It was Lillard’s first trip ever, his team’s first since 2011...one of only three appearances in the last ten years. Just getting there was an accomplishment. They hadn’t actually won a playoffs series since their fateful loss to the Lakers in the 2000 Western Conference Finals...back when dinosaurs roamed the court and coaches spoke Latin.
Portland drew the Rockets in Round 1, the same franchise that had manhandled Roy and Aldridge during their first-ever trip to the playoffs in 2008. They were ready to do the same to Dame.
Aldridge, by then an eight-year veteran and an All-Star himself, determined there would be no repeat. Lillard was right there with him. The Blazers would have serious trouble stopping James Harden and Dwight Howard throughout the series. Each scored 27 in Game 1. Aldridge and Lillard countered with 46 and 31 respectively, giving Portland a narrow two-point win. The Aldridge posted 43 in Game 2, making up for a 3-14 night from Dame. Portland was up 2-0.
The Rockets weren’t going down without a fight, however. They took two of the next three, setting up Game 6 in Portland. If the Blazers won, the series was over. If Houston prevailed, they had momentum and Game 7 at their place.
It was a hard-fought affair. Harden shot 9-15 from the floor, 12-12 from the foul line, scoring 34. Howard added 26 on 10-18 shooting. Aldridge kept his team in it with 30, but Portland’s wings weren’t hitting at all and their bench was practically non-existent. Lillard spent the evening trying to shake one of the league’s best defenders in Patrick Beverley, a man Blazers fans would come to hate. Dame was successful, shooting 8-13, 5-9 from distance, but even his 22 points couldn’t put Portland ahead.
After all the back and forth, the Blazers were down 96-98 with 0.9 seconds left. They had the ball. They ran a curl screen for Lillard at the far side of the court while Aldridge posted low on the passer’s side. LaMarcus was reportedly the first option, but he couldn’t get free. Incredibly, Beverley and Chandler Parsons miscommunicated on their screen coverage. This left Lillard darting free. As he ran, he clapped his hands frantically for attention, hoping that Batum would see him.
The rest was history.
That legendary video would become Portland’s most watched over the next five seasons. It was the Blazer fan’s teddy bear, turned to for comfort whenever sad or worrisome things bore down on them. The shot, the crowd, the aftermath, everything about it was absolutely perfect...just as Lillard now appeared to be.
The Blazers would lose in the second round that year against the San Antonio Spurs, but what a run it was. Everyone assumed great things were just around the corner.
2014-15 started with the Blazers building on their incredible promise. It was the confirmation of everything they had shown the prior spring. Lillard averaged 21 points, 6 assists, and 5 rebounds that year, earning his second straight All-Star nod. Portland won 41 of their first 60 games, looking like world-beaters. Then shooting guard Wesley Matthews tore his Achilles in a game against the Dallas Mavericks and the whole thing fell apart. Aldridge was also injured, battling thumb issues. Portland finished the season 10-12, then got hosed by the Memphis Grizzlies in a five-game series.
That loss was nowhere near the most significant event of the year, however. Aldridge’s contract was up that summer. He had been pressuring the Blazers to make moves over the last couple seasons, wanting to play for a contender as his career wound down. Portland did, and they won, but it wasn’t enough. After messy, semi-public negotiations, LaMarcus signed with the Spurs. Lillard, who had reportedly made a pitch for his co-star to stay, had been jilted.
The Blazers now had a gaping hole at forward and no way to fill it. They scrambled on the free agent and trade market, signing defenders Ed Davis and Al-Farouq Aminu, getting Moe Harkless nearly for free. Combined, those three didn’t come close to equaling Aldridge. A team that looked ready to ascend to the conference elite the prior year was now predicted to win 35 at most. Some pundits predicted win totals in the 20’s.
They hadn’t reckoned with Lillard.
Having pulled the franchise out of the Post-Brandon Blues back in 2012, Portland’s superstar now did the same after Aldridge’s departure. Lillard averaged 25.1 points that season alongside backcourt mate CJ McCollum, who was about to rise to prominence himself. Their combined 46 points per game would rise to 50 the season after. They began to draw comparisons to World Champions Steph Curry and Klay Thompson, the best backcourt in the NBA.
Instead of mourning Aldridge, the Blazers won 44 games in 2015-16. They beat the Los Angeles Clippers in the first round after L.A. lost Blake Griffin, Chris Paul, and most of their starting lineup. The Blazers would fall to the Curry, Thompson, and the Warriors in Round 2. Under the circumstances, even getting there was a major accomplishment.
2016-17 was somewhat less successful. The Blazers earned the 8th seed with a 41-41 record, getting swept by the Warriors in the first round. Lillard was still golden, averaging 27 points, 6 assists, and 5 rebounds that year.
2016 was also the year Lillard went public with his rap talents, releasing “The Letter O” which peaked at #7 on the US R&B/Hip-Hop chart. It was the first of three over the next four years. If there was anything Lillard couldn’t do (besides maybe beating the Warriors in the playoffs), he hadn’t found it yet.
During this period, the public began to pick up on Lillard’s fabled gesture, tapping his wrist after making a big shot. His finger hit just where a wristwatch would be. The implication was clear: This is DameTime.
He was right. But by then, what time wasn’t?
Stalled in Second
2017-18 was both the best and worst of times for Lillard and the Blazers. Their lineup had gelled by now. Recently-acquired center Jusuf Nurkic gave them a much-needed weapon in the frontcourt. Lillard again provided 27 each night. He made his return to the All-Star game, where he’d remain a fixture for several seasons. Portland won 49, but fell once more in the first round, this time to Anthony Davis and the New Orleans Pelicans.
Playoffs losses to the Warriors had been expected. They were perpetual champions, runners-up even in their “down” years. Getting swept by the 6th-seeded Pelicans after earning homecourt advantage was a shock to the franchise. They had taken a severe hit when Aldridge left, but that was beyond their control. Everything else since Lillard had arrived had been trending upward. This was the first time they’d been knocked back on their heels for something that seemed preventable...the first intimations that the system might not be working as planned.
For years, the Blazers had embodied an underdog, us-against-the-world mentality. The franchise carried it over from the 1990’s and early 2000’s when they were bridesmaids but never brides. Lillard had it coming into the league, being doubted because of his small-college background. They doubled down on it big time when everybody doubted them after Aldridge fled. Finally they had made it into the advantaged position, ready to take the next step to elite status. They fell flat on their faces. How would they respond?
Damian Lillard’s 2018-19 season cannot be described by numbers alone. He scored 26—slightly below his prior averages—while shooting about the same percentages. Having known Lillard before, nothing in his stat line would make you blink.
Hidden in those numbers are resolve and evolution, only recognizable through the context in which he earned them.
The year prior, the Pelicans shut down the Blazers by trapping their guards. When they cut off Lillard and McCollum with two defenders, Portland crumbled. One solution would have been getting the guards more help. The Blazers weren’t in a position to do so, financially or otherwise. If they were going to overcome the hurdle, they had to improve with the players they had.
Many looked to Portland’s frontcourt trio of Nurkic, Al-Farouq Aminu, and Moe Harkless as ripe for improvement. Nurkic would, indeed, grow into a good defensive player and efficient scorer. Aminu and Harkless were more limited. They were the players they were. The prospects of solving this riddle seemed dim.
Nobody expected improvement to come from Lillard himself, clearly the best player on the team already. He was a seven-year veteran, a megawatt star besides. His position was unassailable. He could have ridden out his career claiming, quite justly, that he had done everything expected and even more.
Instead, Lillard came back from the summer hiatus with new resolve and new tricks up his sleeve. When he saw defenders closing on him Pelicans-style, he focused on dribbling out or passing early. Failing that, he went to a new and all-but unstoppable option: simply backing up until he was free to shoot.
Since his rookie year, Lillard had been proficient at 23-foot NBA three-pointers. Working with a shooting coach, he now developed range from 30 feet and beyond...increasing the distance while keeping his form. Defenders could not double him out there on a regular basis, else they’d leave compatriots playing 3-on-4. Nor could they body up on him to prevent the shot, lest he drive by them with acres of open space ahead. As long as he could hit that deep, he was practically unstoppable. Most nights, he was.
With Nurkic humming and Lillard able to break, or shoot over, defensive schemes designed to stop him, the Blazers excelled. They won 53 games, a mark they’d only reached four times since 1992.
Lillard’s evolution spoke volumes about his priorities and desires. For years, fans had chanted “MVP” when he walked to the foul line to shoot free throws. After this season, everybody knew that he had the resolve to play like one.
In the playoffs, the Blazers drew the third seed for the second year in a row, this time pulling the Oklahoma City Thunder, featuring Westbrook and Paul George. This was not a favorable matchup. Portland had struggled with the Thunder during the regular season, particularly with George, who ate them alive at both ends of the floor.
Portland had a small advantage; George came into the series with a sore shoulder and was obviously affected. This didn’t make up for Portland’s own deficit, though. Nurkic had broken his leg in a brutal injury in March and would not appear in the playoffs.
Reserve center Enes Kanter provided a huge lift in Nurkic’s absence. That was one of the main stories of the series. The other was Lillard. He willed his team to victory in three of the first four games, banishing the ghosts of New Orleans by averaging 33 points per game.
Behind Lillard and Kanter, the Blazers took a comfortable 3-1 lead into Game 5. There was little doubt they were going to advance. The only questions were how, and—just as importantly for the shorthanded team—how long it would take.
Nothing in Trail Blazers history—and few in the history of the league—could prepare observers for what would happen that night. In an unbridled scoring fest, Lillard hit 17 of 33 shots, scoring 50. His counterpart Westbrook—normally as productive, if not more so—shot only 11 of 31 for 29.
Even with Dame outscoring Russ by 21, George refused to let go. He hit an incredible 14 of 20 attempts for 36 points, keeping his team alive down to the final ticks of the clock.
With the score tied at 115, George took personal responsibility for defending Lillard on the last possession. Unlike Parsons and the Rockets, the premier defender had no intention of leaving Lillard unguarded. As it turned out, he might as well have.
Dame crossed the timeline with just under 13 seconds left. And then, this...
After the Blazers won the OKC series, they earned their big boy playoffs stripes, pushing the Denver Nuggets to seven games and emerging victorious from Round 2 as well. They would fall again to the Warriors in the Conference Finals, but the run was still glorious.
Over 16 playoffs games that spring, Lillard would average 26.9 points with 6.6 assists and 4.8 rebounds.
The 2019-20 NBA season was interrupted by COVID-19 after 66 games. Over that span, Lillard averaged a cool 28.9 points, a new career high. He attempted 10 three-pointers per contest, hitting at a 39.4% rate. He also averaged a career-high 7.8 assists. Every time you think he hasn’t got anything more in the tank, he proves that he does.
Lillard has continued to be an ambassador for the Blazers throughout the league, and for the league across the world. His advertising campaigns, charity work, accomplishments in the music field, and social media presence have made him the single most recognizable and popular figure in franchise history (give or take an Arvydas Sabonis if you count worldwide fame).
No Trail Blazers player has had as much cultural influence as Lillard has. There’s a serious argument to be made that nobody has provided better leadership. In the intangibles department, he’s the best player the Blazers have ever had by a mile.
After eight seasons with the team, Lillard ranks 2nd overall in points scored, trailing only Clyde Drexler, who accumulated his stats over a dozen years. He also ranks 3rd in assists, 1st in three-pointers attempted and made, and 4th in minutes played. His 24.0 career scoring average edges out Kiki Vandeweghe for 1st overall. He’s 4th in assists per game.
Lillard has appeared in five All-Star Games. He’s been nominated to All-NBA Teams in four seasons: one third-team, two second-teams, one first. In addition to the Rookie of the Year Award, he received the 2018-19 J. Walter Kennedy Citizenship Award, joining Brian Grant and Terry Porter as the only active Blazers recipients.
Lillard also holds the franchise record for points scored in a game three times over, with 61, 60, and 59...accomplishments so trivial compared to the rest of his story that we had to wait to tuck them in at the very end.
Throughout his career, Lillard has professed loyalty to the franchise and stuck to it. Whenever a move to more popular teams is mentioned, he’s quick to respond that he wants to win in Portland. This has endeared him to fans like no player before him.
Others have said that they want to be remembered as the greatest player in Trail Blazers history. Lillard has a legitimate chance to accomplish that. A single trip to the NBA Finals—putting his team success nearly on par with his predecessors—would do it automatically. That he may achieve his goal even without that lofty accomplishment testifies to how good he is.
For all these reasons, Damian Lillard earns the 3rd spot on our Top 100 List of Trail Blazers players and influencers. The designation comes with full acknowledgement that taste and subjective priorities are the only things distinguishing him from #1 overall. An argument could be made to put him there right now. Nobody could have predicted that when he was drafted eight years ago, but Lillard isn’t in the business of defying predictions. He exceeds them.
Share your thoughts about Damian Lillard below, and come back to hear about the top two players on our list!