Portland Trail Blazers guard Damian Lillard is known for his deep three point shots, his clutch, game-winning moments, and his ability to bring his team back from a deficit. Beyond that, he’s clearly stepped into his role as THE leader among his teammates, both on and off the court. Countless stories paint Lillard reaching out to new teammates when they come to the Blazers, Whether they’re a rookie or a seasoned veteran coming in from another team, Portland’s star is known to offer new players his phone number, his home, his guidance, and his friendship.
Jusuf Nurkic was no exception when he came to the Blazers in a mid-season trade in 2017. This wasn’t the Nurkic that Portland has come to know and love. The center was struggling after his time in Denver, riddled with the reputation of being discontent, lazy, somewhat of a pouter. Something had to change.
One night in November of 2017, just a few months after Nurkic joined the Blazers, the change came. The stage was a halftime locker room in Sacramento; the Trail Blazers were struggling. As the rest of the team hit the court to warm up for the second half, Nurkic sat sullenly on the bench. It didn’t take long for Lillard to join him and offer encouragement. Unfortunately, the Blazers still lost that night. The two talked on the plane ride home that night, in conversation that was both critique and compliment. It seemed to do the trick. After scoring only 4 points and struggling against the Kings, Nurkic came out with a strong performance two days later. (source: NBC Sports)
Building genuine, real relationships with his teammates is Lillard’s approach. The Trail Blazers’ culture highlights trust and teamwork, largely due to Lillard’s leadership and encouragement.
Back in 2016, Lillard told Kevin Arnovitz of ESPN, “When they think about leadership, most people think you just follow one person. But you build a tribe. You give people something to believe in. You give them hope. They don’t become a follower. They join your tribe. It’s more important to believe in what we’re working toward as a tribe than it is getting them to follow what I want them to follow. Our purpose becomes the same.” To this day, Lillard practices what he preaches in a big way.
The relationship between Lillard and Nurkic has deepened and intensified over the last few years. From that relationship—centered around Lillard’s ability to build bonds that allow him to speak frankly and honestly with his teammates—Nurkic has gone from an afterthought to a crucial part of Portland’s starting line up.
The relationship remains on full display. In 2017, Nurkic told Jason Quick of NBC Sports, “I definitely feel it. I definitely feel it. I’ve never had somebody like this, somebody like Dame,. He is there for me, no matter if I’m good or bad. He is an amazing person, and he will make me better.’’
Nurkic’s difficult years in Denver are easily forgotten now that he’s excelling in Portland. In his 3.5 years with the Blazers, Nurkic has played an average of 28 minutes per game, compared to the 17 minutes per game he was averaging in Denver. Before coming to the Blazers, Nurkic averaged 7.7 points a game. In Portland, he’s averaged 15.7, twice as much. 5.8 rebounds in Denver have morphed to a full 10 sin Portland. Nurkic has become a much more valuable player since landing with the Trail Blazers.
In the process, “Nurk Fever” has taken over the Moda Center. The “Bosnian Beast” has become a fan favorite in Portland. His constant sense of humor and love for his teammates coupled with his dominating play have made him popular among the fans. This transformation in production and personality wasn’t about his personal qualities alone. Portland’s culture helped him transition from the player he was to the player he was meant to be.
Lillard seems to make everyone around him better. His teammates, both past and present, have nothing but praise for him and his leadership. Portland has fielded plenty of big talent in their history, but Lillard stands apart...largely due to his ability to build a culture of trust and teamwork. Not only is he a star himself, he makes everyone around him better versions of themselves.
Michael Jordan once said “Talent wins games, but teamwork and intelligence win championships.” Raw skill and pure talent are inarguable components to a winning team. Superstars are the driving force in bringing a team a championship. But once that talent threshold has been reached, small differences pay big dividends. Ultimately chemistry, relationships and trust amongst teammates are also important in the race for a ring. Lillard and Nurkic wouldn’t be the first teammates to make a solid case that chemistry, trust, and teamwork can take a player—or a franchise—from good to great, but they are my favorite example. Winning is always an incredible feeling, and for any team and their subsequent fan base, that’s the ultimate goal. But watching a team come together like the Trail Blazers do both on the court and off the court is absolute magic.
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