It was the drama of the summer for Rip City: would Damian Lillard stay with the Portland Trail Blazers, or would the promise of a more immediate championship lure him somewhere else? According to Chris Haynes of Yahoo! Sports, Lillard met with LeBron James and Anthony Davis over the summer as he weighed his options in order to hear about their experiences in joining the Los Angeles Lakers.
“’Bron asked what I was thinking with my situation, and I told him what I’m telling you: that I just want to be in a position to win it all,” Lillard told Yahoo Sports. “He painted the picture to me that if I were to leave, the situation could look like this. He didn’t tell me to come to L.A., and he didn’t say anything to me that I didn’t already know other than what it could look like. I told him, ‘I know if I were to play with y’all, I know it would work out because of my skill set,’ and who I am and who they are.”
Haynes reports that Lillard was hesitant about a super team.
“I was just saying, I don’t know if this is the route I wanted to go,” Lillard told Yahoo Sports. “And that was pretty much how the conversation went.”
Haynes says that Lillard considered trying something different.
“The whole time I knew I was a Trail Blazer, but obviously coming off that playoff loss, I was like, ‘We got to do something to show we’re actually trying to win it,’ ” Lillard told Yahoo Sports of his conversation with management. “There are so many teams in the league where some want to tank; some teams just want to be a playoff team and see if they can make things interesting; and then there are a few teams with the mindset of winning a championship.
“So for me, I was in that position where I was wondering if we’re actually trying to win a championship. I want to be a part of something where winning a title is everybody’s mission. I was asking my team, ‘Is that what we’re really trying to do? What are we doing to show that’s what we really want?’ Those were my questions, and I presented them that way. Like, ‘What are we doing? How are we honestly saying we want to win it all? What steps are we taking?’ I just had a decision to make.”
According to Haynes, Lillard describes a deep attachment to Portland and the Trail Blazers.
“When I was like, ‘Man, what if I’m not back in Portland?’ When I actually had that thought, it just runs so deep with me to win here,” Lillard told Yahoo Sports. “I want to win here. I’ve attached myself to the history of this organization and this city. Just in thinking about how long it’s been since they’ve won, I want to be a part of that coming to an end. I want people to say, ‘When Dame came through here, he rode all the way out for us through the good and the bad. He was ready to sink with the ship.’
“When I think about how I want the people around me to be like, I try to be that as a Trail Blazer. It’s not always going to be peaches and cream. It’s not always going to look good. You’re not going to get the praise. It’s a small market. You’re going to miss out on certain things. S***, you may never win. But if I did decide to go do something else, there’s also no guarantee that I’m going to win it by moving on.
“So, my best bet is to stick to my guns and do what I care about in my heart. Now, if I was to move on and I get there and it doesn’t work out and then they decide to blow it up, and now I’m a part of a deal going somewhere else. You look at some of the dudes around the league that was at the top of their game and they made one move and now they’re on this team, next year on another team and now they’re somewhere completely different. As much as I want to win, I want to do it my way.”
The arrival of new coach Chauncey Billups on the scene helped Lillard realize he wanted to stay.
“When I started to interact more and more with Chauncey, I haven’t met a lot of people when I talk to them where our lenses are the same,” Lillard told Yahoo Sports. “The way we see stuff, it was just lining up and I could tell he wasn’t trying to line his up with mine. It was organic, and my history of knowing him, he’s always been like that. That, combined with his success as a player and him playing my position, I decided to stick to what I’ve always been and what I’ve always said, and I’m willing to live with the results of that.”
Billups recognizes what he has in Dame.
“Obviously, things were unstable for a second,” Billups told Yahoo Sports. “I didn’t know what would happen, but it was a dream for me to get my first job coaching the best point guard in basketball. I felt like he could help me as a coach, and I could help him as a player. To me, it was the perfect marriage. There were obviously things a lot bigger than me coming in that Dame had to think about, but for him to recommit to the fan base, the city and the team, that’s just reassuring for all of us.
“But we all owe it to Dame to try to do the best we can do. I said it before, there are two teams in the NBA: teams that are looking for a superstar; and teams that have one. We have one of the best, and we need to win for him.”
Lillard believes the Blazers can win without attracting another current All-Star.
“The conversations I’ve had with Neil, he didn’t promise me we’re about to get LeBron,” Lillard told Yahoo Sports. “They didn’t tell me we’re about to go get a superstar player because I don’t think you need all superstar players to win. We’ve got C.J. [McCollum]. He’s an All-Star-level player. We’ve got [Jusuf] Nurkic. He’s one of the best centers in the league. It’s the way you piece the team together.
“If you look at Phoenix, they don’t have a bunch of stars. They got people who are really good at what they do and understand their roles. Chris Paul and Devin Booker are All-Stars, but Deandre Ayton is a quality center, Jae Crowder is an experienced, quality stretch-four man that’s tough, Cam Johnson is nice and Mikal Bridges is my favorite small forward in the league. You just look at how that team is put together and they’re in the Finals coming out of the West. That’s what my vision is.
“I don’t see us just landing star players. I’m Dame Lillard, and C.J. is C.J. McCollum. We have the core pieces to do the same thing that Phoenix did. It’s just how you fill that in. We just got on the same page. Me, Chauncey and Neil. We all spoke and we got on the same page as far as what my thoughts were and how I feel like we can win it. That was good enough for me. I had trust in that. But, we’ll see. They can’t guarantee me anything and I can’t guarantee anything to them, but we got on the same page.”
For Lillard, he knows where his heart is: Rip City.
“I’m sure it would be great to play with LeBron and AD and play in a big market, but as attractive as it sounded and as fun as that might be, I don’t feel in my heart that that’s who I am or where I belong. And one thing I want to emphasize is that this decision wasn’t made out of comfort. I’m not afraid to be out of my comfort zone because I’m going to live here when I’m done playing regardless. I made my decision based on what I actually want to do.”
Lillard’s father had a distinct impact on his son’s decision to stay with Portland.
“I can tell my dad wasn’t really into me leaving,” Lillard told Yahoo Sports. “My dad felt where I was coming from in thinking about leaving. But in our conversations, I could tell by his reactions and energy that he was never a fan of going somewhere else. Any time I’ve ever brought something up to my dad, if he supported it, he would be like, ‘To hell with them. Go.’ I guarantee that would be his exact words: ‘To hell with their ass.’ And if he was in support of me doing something different, that would have been his response.
“But I knew he really preferred me to stay put and see it through how I’ve always felt from the beginning because he never even made a comment about me going somewhere else. And then when I told him I was going to stay in Portland and told him how much I liked Chauncey and the staff, he was happy to hear it. That made me more comfortable with my decision.”
One surprising factor in Lillard’s considerations: Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Milwaukee Bucks’ 2021 NBA Championship.
“Usually when people win championships and start getting all emotional, I’m always wondering if they’re really moved like that,” Lillard told Yahoo Sports. “Is that real emotions? Does he really feel like that? Because I’ve been in big moments and people would expect me to be emotional and I’m not. So I question the authenticity of how emotional they are in some situations.
“But when I watched Giannis, he was really looking around like, ‘Damn, what if I really left Milwaukee? This was worth it.’ So for me, I put myself in his shoes. Sometimes it seems like this is impossible and it’s never going to happen, and I’m sure he was there before, too.
“If I was to get that championship for Portland, I would cry, bruh. Bruh, on the spot. I would really cry, bro. I want to win a championship here. And because of how strongly I feel about that, I don’t know how rewarding it would feel for me at this point if I won somewhere else. Winning it here would be a lifetime achievement for me.”
Dame, we would cry too.
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