The Portland Trail Blazers are happily ensconced in Santa Barbara, California this week for their annual Training Camp. Optimism reigns as the start of the season approaches, with a new lineup and new potential configurations breathing life into what had become a fairly stale roster.
That same sense of newness also opens up questions for the Blazers that simply didn’t exist for the last decade when Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum remained pillars of constancy.
Over the next couple weeks, we’re going to examine some of those questions, particularly ones highlighted as important by Blazer’s Edge staff and readers.
We’re starting the series today with the most important question of them all, both instinctively and by popular acclaim: How will Damian Lillard fare this year?
This is the first time since Lillard was selected in the 2012 NBA Draft that he has undergone such scrutiny. Last summer speculation swirled that the franchise superstar was dissatisfied with the progress of the team and would ask for a trade. Even in the worst of that maelstrom, nobody questioned his fitness or performance potential. After nine straight years of excellence, that kind of query seemed unthinkable.
That changed when Lillard called an end to his 2021-22 season after 29 appearances, needing surgery for a long-standing abdominal issue. At that juncture he was averaging a more-than-respectable 24.0 points per game, but he clearly was not himself. His field goal percentage (40.2%) and three-point percentage (32.4%) were both career lows. His drives looked slower, his defense pained.
Throughout the Summer of 2022, Lillard has affirmed that the injury has been resolved and that a new training regimen has left him feeling better than ever. He has left no room for doubt that he is back.
But what does “back” mean?
Even if Lillard is fully restored, he’s returning as a 32-year-old veteran. That’s not particularly old by superstar point guard standards, but he’s not 26 anymore either. The 32-33 year old mark often provides an inflection point for NBA players, where athleticism and speed diminish, in favor of skill and smarts. Lillard has plenty of both, but throughout his career he’s been Mr. Everything for the Blazers. Need volume scoring, a last-second shot, assists, somebody to bend and distract the defense? Call Dame, Dame, Dame, and let’s see...Dame.
What will the Blazers look like if Lillard begins to look like a high-level star instead of a generation-transcending superstar? What happens if losing a quarter of a step also takes away his ability to drive, letting opponents hang on his hand on those long jumpers?
Hints of echoes of shadows of a possible transition in role surrounded Lillard during Trail Blazers Media Day, 2022. To a man, teammates expressed gratitude that Lillard had returned. There’s no doubt who he is and what he means to this team. Many of those same players talked about stepping up to help Lillard. For the last decade, that river has flowed the other way around. Younger players also cited Lillard as a mentor, almost a coach on the floor. That’s not a bad thing at all. It is a subtle shift in emphasis. Add in a few questions about load management, and you have enough basis to at least inquire about Dame’s continuing impact...not whether he’ll have one, but how.
Even with their new additions, the Trail Blazers will go exactly as far as Damian Lillard is able to lead them. Thus far that leadership has come via aggregate stats and highlight-reel plays. How Portland, and Lillard himself, will adjust to a different modus operandi (if one becomes necessary) remains to be seen.
It’s likely this question will be pushed off for another season or two. The signs we’ve seen so far point to nothing but confidence and restoration. But injury, age, and the rigors of an 82-game schedule—coupled with the team’s utter reliance on Lillard throughout—make a significant set of hurdles for Portland’s point guard to jump. How he clears them will be the single biggest deciding factor in the upcoming season for the Blazers. Whatever comes second isn’t even close.
Join us for even more questions each day between now and the start of the season!