When the Portland Trail Blazers traded Damian Lillard to the Milwaukee Bucks on the afternoon of Wednesday, September 27th, 2023, they lost more than a 30-point-per-game All-Star. Lillard had been the face of the franchise for at least eight seasons, its most charismatic player since the day he walked in the door. Over the course of eleven years, Lillard became the leading scorer in Trail Blazers history, eclipsing Clyde Drexler on a rise to iconic status. Along the way he created more smiles, and more fans, than any player in recent memory.
Portland got recompense from the trade, more than anyone expected. Every player and pick comes with an admission attached: Dame can never be replaced. He didn’t just play through his era, he redefined it.
Little of this was foreshadowed back in 2012, when Lillard was just a plucky guard from tiny Weber State University in Ogden, Utah. In a draft highlighted by first-overall pick Anthony Davis, Lillard—the sixth pick—was underexposed. Pundits whispered about his skill set, but few knew who he was.
That was about to change.
To understand Lillard’s magnetic power, you also have to understand the state of the Trail Blazers when they selected him. On the heels of the infamous “Jailblazers” Era in the early 2000’s, Portland had been resurrected by a trio of draft picks: Rookie of the Year Brandon Roy and All-Star forward LaMarcus Aldridge in 2006, followed by generational center Greg Oden in 2007. In just two drafts, the Blazers had gone from pariahs to darlings. Momentum pointed towards a long and glorious run atop the conference, if not the league.
Two realities derailed the dream. The first was an inability to find the right point guard to lead the high-profile lineup. Steve Blake, Sergio Rodriguez, Jerryd Bayless, Andre Miller, and Patty Mills all got shots, Blake three times over. None of them provided the necessary gel.
The second, and far more devastating, was the loss of Roy and Oden via chronic knee injuries. Just when the train got moving, the wheels fell off.
By the time Lillard came on the scene, two of three star players and nearly all the veterans brought in to support them had departed the franchise. Lillard didn’t walk into a rebuild as much as a wake. Aldridge remained, but Portland’s prospects lie more in the ruins of the past than the hope of the future.
Lillard gave a much-needed breath of fresh air to a team on life support. He duplicated Roy’s achievement from 2016, winning Rookie of the Year. He followed that up with two straight All-Star appearances. In 2014, he competed in all of the All-Star Saturday competitions, demonstrating that nothing was beyond his grasp. The national attention gained by stepping into the building with that kind of confidence became the seed that would eventually swell into a global phenomenon.
If the 2014 All-Star appearance was the powder in the keg, the striking match came on May 2nd of that year as the Blazers faced the Houston Rockets in Game 6 of their first-round playoffs series. Portland led 3-2 overall, but trailed this game 98-96 with just 0.9 seconds remaining. Coming from the far side of the court, Lillard curled off of a screen, desperately calling for the ball to be inbounded into his hands. He got the toss, and then this happened...
It was every playground hack’s dream: down two, final second, a three-pointer to win it all. Damian Lillard announced early (and often) that he was in the business of making dreams come true.
Though the Blazers would go on to lose to the San Antonio Spurs in the second round that year, they had several things that had eluded them for more than a decade: a playoffs series victory, an unquestionably-talented point guard, and a seemingly-bright future, all wrapped in a glittery veneer. That single shot brought the attention of Blazers fans, and the world, away from the rear-view mirror and straight on the current product, now stamped with the Lillard brand.
That brand would prove inexorable as Lillard accumulated a collection of staccato highlights over the next few years: game winners, titanic threes, the occasional limit-bending dunk. Blazermania and Rip City faded like worn tapestries as “Dame Time” became the cry of a new generation. They didn’t have to debate the relative merits of their star with adherents from the past. They could simply click the YouTube video and smile.
It wasn’t all roses, Lillard would face more challenges as his career blossomed. After a disappointing showing in the 2015 NBA Playoffs, Aldridge departed for San Antonio in free agency. That left the point guard and his franchise adrift, cobbling together bits and pieces of the old lineup in what looked like a possible repeat of the degeneration from 2010-2012, just before Lillard arrived.
Instead of crumbling, though Portland won 44 games and made the 2015 NBA Playoffs. They defeated the heavily-injured Los Angeles Clippers in the first round before falling to the Golden State Warriors dynasty in the second. For a team projected to win 30, it was quite a feat. It was also all the approbation needed to declare the Blazers Lillard’s team officially. Co-star CJ McCollum and center Jusuf Nurkic would fill out the legs of the triangle as a new team formed, but Lillard held the unquestioned high seat.
Through the years following, the team grew in fits and starts. They’d surge forward, then lapse back. The front office signed, traded for, and drafted a host of forwards to support the Dame Show. Their fit was no more secure than the pre-Lillard point guards had been in the Brandon Roy era. It became apparent that this team would go just as far as Lillard would take it.
The crowning moment of Lillard’s tenure came in the 2019 NBA Playoffs. Portland faced the Oklahoma City Thunder in the first round that year. In a bookend highlight to 2014, Lillard launched a 40-foot heave over forward Paul George with the score tied at 115, the clock at two seconds, and advancement to the second round awaiting. This shot was deeper and more spectacular than 2014’s. It was as if Leonardo DaVinci painted the Mona Lisa, then five years later came out with the Mona Patty, and it was even better.
If the 0.9 highlight grew Lillard from a Blazers point guard to an NBA phenomenon, this shot took him from NBA wizard to global star:
Even better for Portland, Lillard and McCollum would lead the Blazers past the Denver Nuggets in the second round of the playoffs, carrying them to the Western Conference Finals for the first time since 2000. They’d lose to the Warriors once again, but the run was seen as proof that Lillard lineups really could work. Team success seemed destined to follow individual, finally.
Unfortunately chronic injuries and a lack of incoming talent would conspire to keep the Blazers from reaching their high-water mark again. Lillard would continue to produce career highlights aplenty. He averaged 30 in a season, then began churning out 50- and 60-point games like they were trivial. On February 26th, 2023, he’d score a career- and franchise-high 71 points against the Houston Rockets, one of the ten best scoring games in NBA history.
At the same time, his team was sinking back into the muck from which he had originally rescued it. A first-round playoffs loss to the Los Angeles Lakers in the COVID bubble in 2020 was followed by another to the Nuggets in 2021. The latter was particularly disappointing, as the Blazers were finally at full strength (or close enough) and in their prime, yet they didn’t even come close to downing Denver...the same team they had vanquished two years prior.
The next year, the Blazers ended up in the NBA lottery after Lillard exited mid-season to repair a long-standing abdomen injury. He came back in 2022-23 ready to resume the march, but his team failed to make any impact. A second straight losing year would prove his last in Portland.
Through it all, up until the final weeks, Lillard’s talent was unquestioned, his commitment legendary. He wasn’t just a great player. He carried himself like a great person, around whom his franchise could unite. That’s exactly what they did, for good or ill.
Lillard brought the Blazers to life in his early years. He gave them more playoffs runs than any superstar player outside of Drexler and Rasheed Wallace, both of whom had superior rosters around them. If overall team success eluded Dame most years, we also have to remember that he was tasked with dragging the Blazers from zero (or even less) to something. He never got a full chance to build on that “something” and turn it into greatness. That’s exactly the opportunity he sought with the 2023 trade request that ultimately landed him with the Milwaukee Bucks.
Every bright phenomenon has a shadow side. Lillard’s talent and charisma allowed the Blazers to coast through seasons in which they needed to build. If i’s possible for a franchise to become over-identified with a single player, the Blazers may have done it with Dame. As long as he was around, everything was ok, even when it wasn’t. Tickets moved, ESPN Top 10 reels were filled. The right words were said, and the requisite amount of hope injected into next season. The box looked enticing, but the ingredient list was 80% sugar and high-fructose corn syrup.
An argument can be made that Lillard’s stance changed when he realized the shell game that he was a part of—maybe even the face for—and he decided he wanted to chase greatness instead of compensate for the lack of it.
Be that as it may, Lillard leaves behind him an incomparable string of highlights, records which will likely stand for decades, and plenty of happy memories in an era that, but for him, might have turned out much worse.
If Damian Lillard couldn’t lead the Trail Blazers to the Promised Land, he at least imbued old bones with new life. For that, Trail Blazers fans of this generation can be grateful. They’ll be able to stand tall with their parents who revered Clyde Drexler and their grandparents who lift up Bill Walton as the ultimate paragon. They’ll be able to tells stories of nifty drives, limitless three-point range, prolific point production, and one of the greatest clutch shots in NBA history.
Eleven seasons is a long professional sports career, period. Eleven years with the same team qualifies a player as a franchise legend. To be beloved for all eleven years—adored enough to make a fan base forget everything but how much they enjoy watching you and the game of basketball—is an ultra-rare achievement. Damian Lillard has done all that and more. We don’t have to ask if he’ll now take his place among Trail Blazers greats. He’s redefined the franchise and its fans enough that greatness is now measured against him. That’s a rare thing, and more than enough for that young man from Weber State to have given his franchise and the world.