Portland Trail Blazers superstar is all the news this NBA off-season following his trade request from the only franchise he’s played for during his 11-season career. If Portland does trade Lillard and he never plays another game for Rip City, how will the dust settle on his time with the franchise?
Will the seven-time All-Star go down as the greatest Blazer in franchise history?
It’s a proclamation that has seemingly become widely regarded as basketball fact after Lillard set the all-time franchise scoring record last December, passing Clyde Drexler and boosting his total to 19,376 points by season’s end.
But on his latest podcast, The Ringer’s Bill Simmons said not so fast! In an eight-minute monologue, the NBA historian and Boston sports fanatic argued Lillard wasn’t even the first or second best in franchise history.
“I’m gonna be the old guy for a second. There’s been a lot of stuff about Damian Lillard being the greatest Blazer of all time. I’ve seen it in multiple places. I’ve heard people say it on TV that I thought follow basketball. I’ve seen it in print. It seems to be the general consensus he’s the best Blazer ever. He’s the third best Blazer ever.”
When looking at the top spot in Blazers history, Simmons said people must consider the only player to ever bring a championship to the franchise: legendary center Bill Walton, who played for the Blazers from 1974 through 1978.
“I think [Bill Walton] is the greatest ‘what-if?’ guy of the last 50 years. He was the best player on the planet for 18 months. How we feel about Jokic right now, we felt about Bill Walton all of the ‘77 season into the first 60 games of ‘78 when they went 50-10 and he got hurt, and that was it. When I did [“The Book of Basketball”] I had him in I think in the low 30s [of greatest NBA player rankings] because [of] the fact he won a title in Portland with a team built around everything that he was great at. On paper, maybe the great center ever in terms of total package. [Bill] Russell is the greatest center. [Kareem Abdul-Jabbar] is the second best center. But if you’re just talking about tools and ceiling and what a center can do on both ends, everything, doing the stuff [Nikola] Jokic did in the playoffs combined with shot-blocking and rebounding — he has to be the greatest Blazer ever. He’s the only one that won them a title. I’m sorry. That wins.”
Going down the list, Simmons said not only did Lillard not take the team the farthest its ever reached, but he also didn’t have the greatest sustained career in Portland. For that answer, Simmons turned to Drexler, who took Portland to two NBA Finals during more than 11 seasons with the franchise from 1983 to 1995.
“This is where I become the old guy. What the [expletive]? Clyde Drexler. Were any of you there for that? Clyde Drexler was awesome. I have Clyde Drexler right now on my pyramid as 52 and I have Dame in the low 70s. Clyde was the MVP runner-up in ‘92 to Jordan. I think [Lillard] was fourth once. Clyde made two Finals in 1990 and ‘92 during I think the single most competitive time in the history of the league: 1990 to 1993. Clyde and the Blazers beat the Lakers, they dethroned the Lakers. Only two teams did that in the entire ‘80s in the West: the ‘86 Rockets who were a complete fluke with [Ralph] Sampson and Hakeem [Olajuwon], and then the ‘90 Blazers. Clyde was basically 25 [points], seven [rebounds] and seven [assists] for it felt like eight [or] nine years. ... He was the second-best guard of [Michael] Jordan’s entire generation. He made the All-NBA Team — First Team once, Second-Team twice, Third Team three times.”
... “He’s one of those guys who’s a little like Dame. If he’s your best guy, I’m not sure you’re winning the title, but if he’s your second best guy like he was in Houston in ‘95, he’s overqualified. He’s like that 1B superstar.”
After propping up Drexler’s All-NBA accolades as evidence for his argument, it should be noted Simmons didn’t mention Lillard’s All-NBA Team selections, which include one First Team selection, four Second Team selections and two Third Team selections.
Simmons concluded his argument with a brief public service announcement about recency bias, and a look at some of Lillard’s legacy achievements and how they stack up. Note: Lillard has played in 769 games with Portland over 11 seasons, while Drexler played in 869 games over approximately 11.5 seasons with Portland.
“The Point is, we have to stop acting like basketball started when LeBron [James] or Kobe [Bryant] came into the league. You can’t say Dame is the best Portland Trail Blazer ever when Drexler was on the Portland Trail Blazers. Dame has never won a game in the conference finals, so he made the conference finals once, they got swept. His career just wasn’t as good as Clyde’s so far, and he’s actually played less years than Clyde did in Portland. He had the two walk-off playoff series winning shots, he’s one of the best 3-point shooters of all time. They’ve had some bad luck on the team from a roster standpoint, and I’m not dinging Dame on that, but when people start throwing ‘greatest’ around just do some research. Clyde Drexler was awesome. ... We always talk about ‘legacy, legacy, legacy.’ Drexler’s legacy was really good, and we’re talking about it incorrectly, so maybe legacy doesn’t matter as much as we thought.”
The “Great Blazer Ever” debate is one that may have no objective answer and will likely continue to be argued until the end of time. But what do you think of Simmons’ take on the subject? Is he on the money, or is he a Blazers outsider who doesn’t fully grasp the nuances of the franchise and the discussion?
Sound off in the comments below.