In supporting the Celtics most of my life, I don’t often see Western Conference All-Stars play at The Garden. Through 15+ years of season tickets (thanks dad!), I’ll take a look at the season ahead and pick a few games to attend. When looking through the season, my eye is immediately drawn to the Portland game when Damian Lillard comes to town.
Despite the fact he tears the Celtics apart, I can’t help but be in awe of what Lillard can do. Dame is only ever a couple of buckets away from catching fire and taking over a game. No lead is safe when he’s on the other side.
But why is Dame often overlooked as being one of the top guys in the NBA? In his 8-year career, the man has the following credentials to his name:
- 5x NBA All Star
- 4 NBA All Team (1 First, 2 Second, 1 Third)
- Rookie of the Year in 2013
- One of 6 NBA Players to average 25+ points since 2015
So why no love for Dame? You need look no farther than his absolute drubbing of the Mavs defense the other night.
The reality is Lillard is cut from a different cloth than most NBA stars. Let’s dive a little deeper into the Trail Blazers All-Star and see what makes him so special.
High School and College Obscurity
Coming out of high school, Dame wasn’t a highly-touted prospect. College offers were few and far between but he landed at Weber State in Utah. Not exactly known for deep tournament runs and producing NBA talent, Lillard was fighting an uphill battle.
Despite all that, Lillard elevated his game every year in college, finishing his junior season averaging 24.5 points on 51/41/89% shooting splits. In a pretty thin 2012 NBA Draft, Lillard was coming out as the top PG prospect. However, few people were talking about Dame, as all attention was on eventual #1 pick Anthony Davis.
Lillard went to an underperforming Portland team with the 6th overall pick, joining a prime LaMarcus Aldridge on a team that finished 11th in the Western Conference. Despite boasting some All-Star and future Star talent, the challenge of playing in the West would haunt Lillard’s career.
A Loaded Western Conference
Outside of his rookie season, Portland has made the playoffs every year. However, they’ve never been considered conference favorites, often finishing in the 4th or 5th spot in the playoff race. This has set them up with early match-ups against the likes of Golden State and… Well, we know how those turned out. Portland has been steam-rolled 3 times by better teams that would eventually go on to win the West.
- Semifinals, Western Conference vs San Antonio in 2014
- Semifinals, Western Conference vs Golden State in 2016
- First Round vs Golden State in 2017
- Finals, Western Conference vs Golden State in 2019
Even with some heroics by Dame, it’s been clear that Portland didn’t have what it takes to make it out of the West. Whether through injuries to key stars or trading of top talent, Portland has never entered the playoff race with enough firepower to run through the West. They seemed to have gotten closer in recent years with two 3rd place finishes in the West, but even the emergence of young star CJ McCollum hasn’t helped them over the hump.
So in the age of super teams, why has Dame stayed? In that question, we truly see what makes Lillard so special.
Dedication to Portland
Plain and simple, Lillard is a grinder. He has a dedication and commitment to his team that’s rarely seen in today’s NBA. While the NBA salary cap system does incentivize players staying with the hometown team, it’s rare to see a star actually ride it out when things get tough. James, Durant, AD, and countless others have all fled for greener pastures.
His name often comes up at the trade deadline and in the offseason as potential trade bait that would pair him with another superstar. But Dame made it clear he wasn’t going anywhere when he signed the supermax extension with Portland last summer. Portland is his home until 2025 but:
- Can he convince another superstar to join him?
- Can Portland afford another star?
Outside of his perhaps ill-advised rap career, you never see Dame in the news. His face is plastered across countless advertisements. He’s not attempting to make crappy movies to expand his empire (looking at you Bron Bron and Kyrie). Dame is here to win – and win in Portland.
What’s Next for Dame?
I’d love nothing more than to see Lillard lift the O’Brien trophy. It feels like that’s the one accolade that will lift him into the conversation of generational talents. Personally, I’d love to see Giannis flee to Portland but only time will tell what’s in store for Lillard and the Blazers.
Until then, let’s just sit back and watch some highights of one of this league’s greats.
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