Nobody gave this team a chance. They lost their franchise player in LaMarcus Aldridge in free agency, traded Nicolas Batum, and let injured Wesley Matthews walk. After a questionable rookie campaign, C.J. McCollum was going to be forced into a starting spot. The deep bench players the Blazers had boasted the year before, were being forced into starting roles. And nobody was sure whether or not Damian Lillard could be do it by himself.
Boy, were we all wrong.
Damian Lillard is the exact person Portland needed to become its leader. A person that was always doubted, since high school Lillard has been an afterthought. Always working to prove something to someone, and he liked it that way, he wanted to earn everything. So when he arrived in Portland with an already established star in Aldridge, he deflected all the glory onto his teams’ “leader”. But when Aldridge spurred (pun intended) Portland for San Antonio this offseason, Lillard grasped the leadership role for his team and they would begin to flourish. Many predicted the Trail Blazers to finish as one of the worst teams in the Western Conference, and rightfully so. The team had just lost three key players on their team and had essentially no proven players to fill those spots.
Many around the NBA were unsure if Lillard could be the type of player to carry a team for an entire season, especially a team as gutted as the Blazers were coming into the 2015-2016 season. But Lillard was confident in his abilities, as Adrian Wojnarowski explained in his Yahoo Column Thursday, the former rookie of the year knew he had to create the correct culture for success. He started by gathering all his teammates to San Diego before the season started in order to build a strong sense of “inclusion”. Making everyone on that Portland squad feel like they belonged and had a role to fill, which was true, ‘Rip City’ was in desperate need of some help.
Lillard was the leader Portland had been missing with Aldridge, simply because he gave the city his heart. Damian is the type of person who thrives in roles where he can create his own path. Where he has to take a group of people and not only make himself better, but make his team better. C.J. McCollum morphed from a struggling rookie to a bona-fide NBA stud who can get his own shot, all which had to do with Lillard allowing the young star find his way during games. Guys Maurice Harkless and Al Farouq-Aminu had gone from outcasts to key role players on this team due to Lillard and his ability to find looks for his guys. Blazers assistant coach David Vanterpool told The Vertical. “He never leads by making anyone feel inferior – he leads with inclusion.” And it was that type of leadership that made this Trail Blazers team become one of the most respected in the NBA during this season.
And when Lillard was snubbed from the All-Star game this season, it wasn’t him that was up in arms, but his teammates who were upset about their captain not getting the recognition he deserved. But it didn’t bother Lillard, to him it was just another chance to prove the critics wrong again. “He wants to be comfortable with being uncomfortable.” Vanterpool said about his point guard. His desire to prove something, to bring a winning culture to the small market of Portland is something that you just don’t find in the NBA anymore. The franchise guard was probably the only person in the locker room disappointed to find out about Chris Paul’s injury which kept him out of the Clippers/Blazers playoff series. He wants to prosper in this league, and he knows you can only get better by playing the best every night. People want to play for a guy like Damian Lillard, he has your back no matter what, and the guy is hungry for success. He has turned himself into one of the best players in the league, while also elevating the play of the people around him. Only LeBron James has been able to do what Lillard has done to the same level of success.
So, that’s why you can see him and McCollum after their Game 5 loss to the Warriors taking everything in stride. Not sulking. Not complaining about calls or key plays. Just taking in the moment and preparing for their next run. This team never surrendered, even when they lost their lead late in the 4th quarter of Wednesday night’s loss. They never saw this match up as a patchwork group young players against the two-time reigning MVP and his World Champion squad. Portland was going to give the Warriors hell, and even though they only won a single game, everyone in the NBA is paying attention now. And it’s because of Damian Lillard the Trail Blazers are now, and for the foreseeable future, going to be considered one of the top teams the NBA has to offer. Just don’t expect Lillard and Co. to be satisfied with an A for effort.