Damian Lillard requesting a trade from the Portland Trail Blazers is going to alter the franchise drastically. Some of the effects can be foreseen. Others will be more subtle. The latter occupies our thoughts with today’s Blazer’s Edge Mailbag submission. Could losing Lillard actually have a bright side for Portland’s younger players?
My question is do you think removing Dame from the roster helps the speed of the younger guys development? Besides the obvious increase in minutes I’m talking not deferring to the dominant locker room personality?
No. It’s the inverse, I think.
Scoot Henderson’s play will develop more quickly in the absence of Lillard than it would have with Dame on the floor. That’s no insult to Lillard. Henderson might have developed better with Dame’s tutelage. But just counting speed, not having to live in the shadow of a great player at your position will lead to more opportunity than the constant comparison and over-the-shoulder gazing of playing alongside a superstar.
Think of it like this.
With Dame on the floor, Scoot gets to do 40% of the things, but because of boundaries and peer coaching, 80% of them will go right. Checking with my long-disused math brain, that’s 32 things going right out of 100.
With Dame gone, Scoot will get to do 90% of the things, but only 50% of them will go right. That’s still 45 things, more than would have happened under Dame. The process will be bumpier, probably worse for the team, and take longer to develop out of, but there’s no limit and no ceiling. Scoot can be everything he can possibly be, right away and always. That’s not a bad thing.
Off-court and locker room, though? That’s not so easy.
The technical aspects of the sport have evolved over decades, through the hands of many. They can be conveyed by any decent coach and picked up by almost anyone with enough repetition. This is what they basketball-industrial complex does. Every player in the league got there by participating in it.
Cultural aspects of the NBA—including conduct, conflict resolution, and how to generate that extra 10% that turns talented players into winners—is not so enshrined. Those things lie in the domain of actual NBA players.
They don’t come automatically, nor does every player understand them. Some don’t have enough experience. Some haven’t picked it up. Others just aren’t “winners”. The only way to absorb it truly is to inherit it from someone who has learned and, through word and example, passes it on.
Every franchise needs gurus, leaders whose value goes beyond on-court play. Their cultural knowledge—passed from generation to generation, adapted and evolved by each—becomes its own language.
If I learn a dialect from a native speaker, I can keep it. I might speak with a peculiar accent. I might add new words or shades of meaning. But it’s there.
If all the speakers of that language disappear, I can’t learn it anymore. There’s no way to create it out of thin air. I can forge my own language, but I’m losing the heritage and institutional knowledge inherent in the original. It’s not going to be the same. Developing a workable approximation is going to take a long time, an extended process of trial and error.
This is exactly what happened to the Portland Trail Blazers franchise around the turn of the millennium. From 1977 to about 2003, they operated under a common cultural language, spawned in an NBA Championship and spun through ensuing teams. Not all incarnations of the locker room were equally talented or successful, but it was there...from Bill Walton and Maurice Lucas, through Mychal Thompson and Jim Paxson, to Clyde and Kiki, Sabonis, Grant, and ‘Sheed. Through a string of veterans—some grown and some traded for—they passed on an expectation, a carriage, a certain approach to the game.
By the latter stages of the 1990’s, some of the bloom was fading. Having grown up with the Chicago Bulls’ championship heritage, Scottie Pippen famously commented that he couldn’t believe how casually the Blazers greeted a loss. But those late-90’s Pippen-Stoudamire-Smith teams still had it. They were veterans. You could tell when it was time to play. You could see them shift the gears for wins.
That’s where it ended, though. The dismantling of the “Jail Blazers” teams between 2003-2006 created a great cultural rift. Portland didn’t retain any of those old players. The generation right after them—a not-yet Grit and Grind Zach Randolph, Bonzi Wells, Sebastian Telfair—was deemed toxic. Those players, the last inheritors of what came before, got dispersed to the wind. The team experienced a huge cultural reboot, all at once.
The Great Resurrection of 2006-2007 brought with it new fantastic players: Brandon Roy, LaMarcus Aldridge, Greg Oden, Wesley Matthews, Rudy Fernandez, and a rising Nicolas Batum. In just a couple years, the franchise righted their toxicity issue. That, in itself, was a major miracle.
Notice, though, the complete absence of veterans among those names, let alone veterans with a winning track record in the NBA. The link with the past was broken completely. The Resurrection Generation would have to teach itself how to develop and win.
The Blazers returned to the playoffs with their new crew in 2009. On paper and by record, they were at least evenly matched with the Houston Rockets, their first round opponent that year. They may well have been better. Portland was ascending just as the creaky, veteran-laden Houston squad experienced their last light-bulb flash before going dark.
Regardless, Houston came out in Game 1 and gave the Little Red Riding Hood Blazers a big, bad smack right in the nose. Despite their talent and enthusiasm, Portland never recovered, dropping the series 2-4. They had the parts. They just didn’t know how to use them.
The Roy-Aldridge-Oden Blazers would continue to develop throughout the early 2010’s, picking up what they needed, teaching themselves how to win. Progress was slow and uneven, made even more so by the injuries that took out two of the three main players in the triumvirate.
Eventually, the injuries would take out Roy and Oden entirely. Only Aldridge remained, plus a couple of his wing cohorts. By then, they were capable of leading the team as veterans, but they had all been self-taught, re-creating a language that the best teams in the league already knew. The lake was wide, but only a couple feet deep. Winning, when it came, was fragile. If everything went right, it was glorious. When something went wrong, Portland lacked the cultural reservoir to cope.
That’s the environment that Damian Lillard walked into when he was drafted in 2012. He rose among the remnants of the Resurrection Era, infusing another dose of talent and new life. Some would argue this was even better than before. But he still inherited a bespoke culture just six years old, maybe three in terms of measurable success.
Nor would that incarnation last. In 2015, just three years into Lillard’s career, Aldridge left for the San Antonio Spurs. Matthews went down with an Achilles injury and was let go in free agency. Batum got traded.
Once again the field opened up entire, this time for Lillard and backcourt mate CJ McCollum. They would welcome center Jusuf Nurkic in 2016, yet another young, promising player who hadn’t had a chance to spread his wings fully.
Like the Roy-Aldridge-Oden generation, the Lillard-McCollum-Nurkic Blazers were forced to learn on the fly, authoring their own language and culture for winning. They had no prominent veterans to co-lead, no heritage of success from which to draw. They started over, forging their own path.
Also like their predecessors, this generation was only mildly successful. It took them years to learn how to win, years more to establish whether they could sustain it. At no time did they rise to prominence, let alone dominance. Thanks to Lillard’s ethic and personal magnetism, they did a good job re-inventing the wheel, but never got the car up to speed.
Which brings us to today, and the premise of the question at hand.
Lillard is now the self-taught veteran, passing on knowledge and culture to the players around him. It’s not perfect. It’s a far cry from the language Jack Ramsay and Clyde Drexler fostered. Being only a decade old, that’s to be expected.
But Dame is moving on, looking to finish his career with a franchise that carries the traditional, winning culture he missed out on. He’ll be able to add to his new team, but he’ll also be able to pick up missing pieces he couldn’t in Portland, from lack of environmental support, if nothing else.
Side Note: Nurkic will probably depart along with Lillard. McCollum was traded two years ago.
If you’ve followed along to this point, you’ll understand that this leaves the Blazers in a similar situation to 2006 and 2015. The main link to the past, now embodied by just one person, will be cut.
Scoot Henderson, Shaedon Sharpe, perhaps Anfernee Simons and Jerami Grant will become the new loci of talent and/or team leadership. They’re all talented, but three are young, two completely inexperienced. Grant, the veteran among them, has only 35 post-season games to his credit in nine seasons of play, with just one deep postseason run. His most recent playoffs experience came four years ago. He’s not been beyond the lottery since.
None of the new leadership quartet has played a major role in any playoffs victories in Portland. They have precious few regular-season victories to their credit either.
This will be another drastic cultural restart, the third since the giant rift of the Jail Blazers era. Whatever you think of their on-floor skills, the new locker room is going to go backwards and have to learn the hard way again, just as the Roy/Aldridge and Lillard/McCollum squads did.
This isn’t an automatic disaster. In fact, it may turn out to be for the best in the long run. But saying that Lillard’s departure leaves room for the young players to grow culturally is exactly backwards. It’s going to hurt them significantly in that way, breaking apart another link in the chain that they’ve been trying to re-forge since 2003.
The new language of Henderson, Sharpe, Simons, and company may be a great one someday. It’s going to take them longer to develop, and they’re going to hit more curbs and speed bumps, than if the team had cultural continuity and an unbroken line of at least semi-success the way it once did.
The Blazers can renew talent in each new generation, but until they start putting it together into actual victories, re-learn how to make a championship push, and preserve enough continuity to pass on those things, these generational resets are going to end up more CTRL-ALT-DEL than enduring legacy. It’s hard to win that way, period, let alone win it all.
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