Damian Lillard changed the NBA landscape on February 26th, 2023 when he scored 71 points against the Houston Rockets. On that night, Lillard set the Trail Blazers’ franchise record for points scored, equaling the eighth-best performance in NBA history besides.
Doing so, Lillard also reignited an age-old debate with new verve. That’s the subject of today’s Blazer’s Edge Mailbag.
Your fellow media members have been fighting with fans to argue who’s the best Blazer ever. It’s getting salty and it appears to be generational with older people still holding on to Clyde or Walton but the modern fan holding up Dame. I think it’s clearly Dame too but I don’t think the old guys can get out of their nostalgia. Nobody’s hit 71 before. Nobody has this kind of efficiency or production. It can’t be anyone else. I want to know which side you stand with, the sane or the curmudgeons.
So I have to choose between being old and hip, huh?
Wait. The use of the word “hip” probably puts me in Camp Curmudgeon automatically, right? Then again, what’s a spring chicken like you doing using the word “curmudgeon”?
I’ve been doing this 17 years now. I may be aging, but I’m no Dwight Jaynes or Kerry Eggers yet. They got another quarter century on me, easy. I’m not in complete agreement with them or the Moldy Oldie set, but I can see their point.
Truth is, I don’t think we can determine a Greatest Trail Blazers Player of All Time for everyone, everywhere, even yet. I can tell you why each candidate matters, though.
If you’re looking at this like a single-click snapshot, the decision is already made. The answer is Bill Walton. Not only did he bring the Blazers a title, he did it while playing against the best center of all time in Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. At least for a stretch of 100 games or so, Walton exceeded the legend. Kareem was always going to be in the discussion—and probably was going to be the answer—but for a season or so, people legitimately thought that Bill Walton was the best player in the world. Not All-Star, not All-NBA, but flat-out THE one.
They had a strong argument too. Walton possessed an all-around game unmatched by either of his “Best Blazer” competitors. The only players who might have dared to topple him would be a young Arvydas Sabonis or a more superstar-oriented Rasheed Wallace. The Blazers didn’t get either of those things, and nobody else has come close.
Walton could run, shoot, jump, defend, score, block shots, rebound, pass, and make julienne fries. He turned Maurice Lucas and a cast of players few would recognize into All-Stars, franchise legends, and champions.
Nobody has lifted a Blazers team the way Bill did. If you want to see how, look what happened to Portland the one season he was healthy, then look what happened to the same team that next year as soon as he went down. They went from almost-guaranteed repeat champs to afterthoughts with one tweak of a foot.
In the process, Walton became a cultural icon, known to basketball fans outside the confines of Rip City. He also spearheaded BlazerMania, the force that would keep the team moving long enough for Clyde Drexler to pick it up a generation later.
The problem is, the argument for Walton only works if you freeze each player at the exact moment of their peak. Neither basketball nor life work like that.
We can call Walton the Best Blazer the same way we can look at our early romantic relationships and say, “That was the most fun I had...” or, “That was when my heart soared highest...” Granted. But you didn’t end up together with that person. Or if you did, it didn’t last.
Defining that short-term experience as “The Best” is accurate as long as you keep it in isolation, favoring altitude over duration. But Rose survived on that plank that Jack sunk under. The movie also makes clear that she actually married someone after. I get the sentimentality of the whole “Dancing in Heaven” scene, but excuse me? If you can watch them waltz without asking, “And where’s the guy who changed diapers, rocked sick kids to sleep, helped do dishes, struggled through the fights and arguments, and still made it work instead of just drawing people like French girls and refusing to get on the damn board???” then your vision of romance might need some expanding.
Clyde “The Glide” Drexler is a heck of a place to expand to. He was the most athletic of the three candidates, imposing his will with a physicality nobody could stop. At his peak, the only player in the league who exceeded Drexler was Michael Jordan. Clyde was never better than Mike, but he did make it to Number Two for a year. That puts him in a category with Walton, apart from everybody else who’s ever put on the uniform.
Clyde also led the Blazers to their greatest sustained run of success. He took his teams to the 1990 and 1992 NBA Finals. In between, Drexler and company posted the best regular-season win total in franchise history. They were crushed to only make it to the Western Conference Finals that year without actually winning it.
That 1992 Finals trip came courtesy of sheer willpower by Clyde. People forget this, but in the Summer of 1991, Drexler was 28. The Blazers had tried twice for a ring via the team approach, having fallen just short. They knew that the upcoming ‘91-’92 season would be their last chance, at least in that incarnation. If they couldn’t do it this time, it couldn’t be done.
At that point, Drexler shrugged off the restraints he had operated under since 1989, trying to form a perfect union with his teammates. He Clyded his way through the whole season, carrying the team with talent that left commentators and opponents speechless. His per-minute scoring, rebounding, and assists all rose, plus he improved his three-point shot, without losing much off of his overall percentages.
That’s how good Clyde was. He could turn it up from superstar to otherworldly with a thought.
People will claim that Drexler had a better supporting cast than Lillard or Walton. That may be true, but it’s also a bit of a circular argument. We’re able to say that Drexler had better teammates because Drexler made his teammates better. Terry Porter and Kevin Duckworth became All-Stars alongside him. That would not have happened without defenses getting bent and crushed by Clyde. They didn’t sniff that kind of performance in their non-Blazers careers. Nor did the Blazers succeed after Drexler went to Houston.
Of all the Blazers during Drexler’s apex, only Buck Williams and Danny Ainge had claims to All-Star-level careers without him. Buck was pushing 30 and Danny was well over before they came to Portland. They were past their peak. Playing with Clyde helped extend their longevity and relevance. He made them better too.
Nobody in Portland has done these things at the same level, for so long as Drexler did. Before Lillard came, he was Portland’s greatest scorer. Aside from Walton, he took the Blazers higher than anyone else ever has. He nearly equaled Walton in that respect and he did it for far longer. His victory total blows Lillard out of the water.
Throw in his immortally-highlighted dunks, 13 seasons of duty, and the resurrection of excellence after a decade of relative mediocrity, and you can see why people still consider Clyde the best ever.
On the other hand, Drexler did not get a ring in Portland. His impact on the court was never matched by his personal charisma or his footprint in popular consciousness. He didn’t leave the same celebrity stamp as Walton or Lillard. In some ways, getting close and not quite making it feels worse than not getting close at all. The “No title like Bill, eclipsed in scoring by Dame” thing makes it hard to say that Drexler is a clear #1 in this company unless you count exactly what we mentioned: wins over time. In that area, he’s unmatched.
If Walton was the snapshot and Drexler the full-length video, Damian Lillard is the highlight reel. We hardly need to rehearse his accolades in modern company. He’s the franchise leader in points, second in assists and headed to first, a runaway winner in points per game, fourth in assists per game, second in minutes played, third in games played, and he has double the number of three-pointers hit as the second most prolific distance shooter, CJ McCollum.
Lillard has hit NBA scoring like a meteor. That 71-point game provides all the testimony needed, but there are also 30-point games,, 40-point games, 50-point games, 60-point games. Statisticians are starting to speak Lillard’s name alongside greats like Kobe Bryant and David Thompson.
Lillard is averaging 32.3 points per game over 53 appearances this season. If that holds up, it’ll obliterate the old single-season franchise record of 30.0. And guess what? That was Dame’s too.
Lillard is the most skilled scorer in franchise history and the best shooter by far. There’s no argument possible for either of those assertions.
Lillard is also the best clutch player Portland has ever known. Drexler and Walton distributed last-second shots. That was smart and suitable. Nobody in the universe expects anybody but Dame to take the buzzer-beater. Defenses have been prepped for years. He still makes them.
If you had to bet your life on one possession, one shot, the Trail Blazers player you’d give the ball to is Damian Lillard. That’s a strong argument.
Lillard is also, by far, the most charismatic and well-known player in franchise history. His brand is bigger than that of the team itself. Yet every time the spotlight shines on him, he finds appealing things to say. Lillard lives with a fortitude and transparency that prior superstars either couldn’t or didn’t care to show.
Let’s put it this way. At no time during his 11-year NBA career has Damian Lillard been mentioned as the best player in the league. Not even close. Just considering point guards, Steph Curry ruled the early part of Lillard’s journey. Luka Doncic and Ja Morant are encroaching upon his latter years. Along the way you’ve also had Durants and LeBrons, Giannises and Jokiceses. Lillard has had a year or two—including this one—where he could peek through statistically, potentially being named First-Team All-NBA. But he hasn’t ever gotten, and likely won’t ever get, serious consideration for NBA MVP.
Despite that, if you ask casual fans to name five good NBA players, there’s a decent chance Lillard will be among them. Ask them to name good people, good leaders, in the NBA and Lillard might just top the list. When it comes to professional athletes, we never know the full story. But based on what we’ve seen, Lillard projects enough genuine warmth, stability, and loyalty to be unforgettable. That matters too.
Along with skill, scoring, and recognizable leadership come a couple of caveats.
First, and less importantly, the game is set up for players like Lillard to excel nowadays. He’s posted unique achievements, but he’s not peerless in today’s NBA. Lots of players are scoring big. The man produces plenty of syrup, but the league is pure Canada.
This is not a fatal flaw. Drexler excelled in the time of shooting guards, Walton when centers were the franchise cornerstones. But modern rules and the extreme emphasis on the three-pointer set the table for Lillard in a way his predecessors didn’t benefit from.
Second, and perhaps more critically, Lillard’s achievements have come in a relative vacuum of success compared to Drexler and Walton. Lillard has reached the NBA playoffs eight times, making it to the second round thrice, to the Conference Finals once, only to be swept there by Curry and the Golden State Warriors. Lillard’s greatest level of team success was heartbreaking tragedy for Walton and Drexler.
Some will argue that Lillard had lesser teammates than those other stars. Perhaps. Dave Twardzik and Bob Gross weren’t exactly household names. Even if we pass over LaMarcus Aldridge as coming too early in Lillard’s tenure, CJ McCollum was one of the franchise’s leading players. Jerami Grant has been pretty good. Josh Hart and Jusuf Nurkic are nothing to sneeze at.
Some also point at the 2019 Conference Finals run as proof that Lillard makes teammates better in the same way Drexler and Walton did. How else would Al-Farouq Aminu and Moe Harkless make it to the third round of the playoffs? As it turned out, narrowly. But putting that aside, we have to be careful about unintended consequences of the claim.
Damian Lillard is still Damian Lillard. By most accounts, he’s playing the best basketball of his career right now. If that includes lifting teammates, we have to presume he’s still doing it, maybe better than ever. Yet the Blazers aren’t succeeding despite Lillard’s prowess. That means his current teammates must be un-liftable...not just worse than Aminu and Harkless, but so much worse that they create the kind of drag that drops a team from the Conference Finals to the lottery. I’m not sure I’d look at Nurkic, Grant, Hart, and Anfernee Simons and make that claim.
This is why some still suggest that, despite the obvious scoring power, Lillard’s primacy in the history of the franchise might yet be in debate.
If that rubs you the wrong way, remember, it hardly matters. What if I asked you to name the greatest king of Gondor. You know, Lord of the Rings? Middle Earth? Quick! Who was it?
You said Aragorn, didn’t you? He wasn’t. That honor probably goes to those old-time kings who got carved into statues that still make people pee their pants when they float by on the river. But Aragorn is the one we remember because he’s the one who got celebrated most, who became the center of the story.
That’s Damian Lillard. It doesn’t matter if his kingdom doesn’t stretch as far as it did in ancient days. He’s still got that crown and he looks damn fine wearing it. When the movie about the Portland Trail Blazers gets made, he’ll be in the starring role.
Damian Lillard will be the face of the Portland Trail Blazers for the next few generations. It’s hard to imagine anybody displacing him. When you’re talking “Greatest Ever”, that weighs as much as anything.
A while back, Lillard himself—an avowed fan of WWE wrestling—took on the challenge of making pro wrestling’s Mt. Rushmore. He gave four names, but he had to backtrack and add soon after, facing critique and augmentation from fans.
Turns out, it’s a trick question. You can’t. It depends on what you’re looking for. If you name people who changed the brand, it’s probably Hulk Hogan, Steve Austin, John Cena, and The Undertaker, with a side-eyed apology to Bruno Sammartino. But none of those are going to go down as the greatest technical wrestlers in WWE history. That’d probably be something like Kurt Angle, Bret Hart, Shawn Michaels, and a wrestler we won’t name here. But then what do you do with Ric Flair’s, “Whoooo!” and his billion title reigns? Or Andre the Giant, who, in reality, could probably sit on your mountain and crumble the whole thing? Rey Mysterio’s flying? The Rock’s celebrity? Macho Man’s invitation to imitation, or Roddy Piper making that overwhelming “something” out of very little, or Triple-H’s longevity at the top?
Greatness depends on the lens you view it through. Shift priorities and you’re going to shuffle the order. Call the Hulkster one of the greatest technical geniuses ever and you’re going to be laughed off of the group chat. Ask if you’d even have seen your favorite technical wizard had Hogan not existed and you might get a different answer.
The Trail Blazers are blessed with the same problem...or at least their three historical stars are. One way to look at it would be, “None of them excelled enough to stand out clearly.” The other way is, we’ve got a pretty fun debate on our hands and—absent Lillard winning a title—that’s going to continue until the next candidate steps up, and maybe even beyond.
Good for us. Have at it. Enjoy.
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