On the surface, Damian Lillard’s words captured preseason platitudes about the Portland Trail Blazers and their chances to win an NBA championship this season.
“I’m optimistic. I’m a believer,” Lillard said. “And I love this organization.”
Beneath the surface, though, Lillard’s words also represented something deeper.
After the Blazers lost in the first round for the fourth time in five seasons — to a Denver team missing Jamal Murray, no less — Lillard urged the front office last summer to assemble a better roster in the hope of avoiding another early vacation.
Since then, Lillard has professed his trust once again in the franchise he has represented for his entire 11-year NBA career. Though Portland made no blockbuster deals, Lillard became encouraged with how Blazers general manager Neil Olshey improved the roster on the margins while still retaining backcourt mate, C.J. McCollum. Lillard also became empowered under first-year coach Chauncey Billups, a former NBA player and LA Clippers assistant coach that replaced Terry Stotts after his nine seasons at the helm.
“It was never out of hate or that we don’t like each other,” Lillard told NBA.com. “It was just, ‘This is how much I want to win it.’ So, once it was time to come back and I had a conversation with Chauncey and had a conversation with Neil, I’m not going to come back halfhearted. I’m going to come back and be all in.”
Lillard already impressed with Billups as new coach
Since the season has started, however, Portland has faced an uncertain trajectory.
The Trail Blazers (1-2) play the Memphis Grizzlies (2-1) Wednesday (10 p.m. ET, ESPN), only two days after losing to the LA Clippers by 30 points. Portland has nursed injuries to small forward Norman Powell (left knee) and shooting guard Tony Snell (right foot). And Lillard has averaged 17 points per game while shooting only 36% from the field and 8.3% from 3-point range — all far from his career averages of 24.6 ppg, 43.8% shooting and 37.4% on 3-pointers.
Not only have the Blazers chalked up these developments to a small sample size and early growing pains, Lillard has remained bullish that the team can be a championship contender this season.
“As long as we buy in,” Lillard said, “we could look like a completely different team on both ends of the floor.”
Lillard believes that buy-in will happen largely because of Billups’ presence.
Lillard stressed that he enjoyed playing for Stotts, which coincided with the Blazers cementing the longest active NBA streak in consecutive playoff appearances (eight) and making one appearance in the Western Conference finals (2018). Nonetheless, Lillard has become enamored with Billups’ credentials.
Billups completed a 17-year NBA career, making five All-Star appearances and three All-NBA teams. He won Finals MVP after leading the Detroit Pistons to the 2004 NBA title over the heavily-favored Los Angeles Lakers. And he spent the previous season as the Clippers’ lead assistant coach.
“You can tell with his mentality and his style, it was similar to his playing career,” Lillard said of Billups. “You can tell with the detail, his approach and just how hard he’s hammering certain things home.”
It did not take long for Lillard to develop his impression.
He described the Blazers’ preseason as “my hardest training camp since my first year in the league” because of Billups’ long practices that included plenty of running drills and concepts. Because of Billups’ resume, Lillard observed that “he automatically commands the room and has the respect of everyone because everybody knows he did this at a high level.” Lillard added he and his teammates have also become more receptive toward receiving criticism.
“I feel like I’m somebody that can help him,” Billups said of Lillard. “I’ve been in his shoes before. He wants to win. He’s a winner. He has a winning spirit, and all he cares about is doing it the right way. I can relate to that.”
Can Lillard, Blazers overcome early-season hiccups?
Billups has not talked about his own NBA playing career with his current players. Though Billups could offer plenty of insight on how he played through the highs and lows of an NBA season, Lillard considered it “powerful” Billups has abstained from such storytelling because it captures his inner confidence and humility.
It appears, however, that Lillard will listen intently to anything Billups shares about the Pistons winning the 2004 Finals over the Shaquille O’Neal, Kobe Bryant and the Lakers in five games.
“As the point guard and leader of the team, he got the most out of that Detroit team to the point they won the championship when they weren’t expected to,” Lillard said. “They had a good team. I don’t think anybody questioned that. But they get to the Finals and they’re playing against Gary Payton, Kobe, Karl Malone and Shaq.
“They were playing against basically a super team. Nobody gave them a chance in that series, but they came out and got it done. I think it wasn’t about the ability. It was about a team being together, being tough and defending and everyone just getting the job done.”
Billups has called on the Blazers to fulfill the same job description.
“Every team in the league can take from what we did as a team in 2004 with the way that we played together and the way we cared about one another,” Billups said. “We were selfless on both ends of the floor and nobody cared who scored the most points or was the All-Star on the team.”
The main priority involves bolstering a team defense that finished 29th out of 30 teams last season in defensive rating (115.3) and 25th in defensive field-goal percentage (47.3%). This season, Portland ranks 16th this season in defensive rating (106.8) and 24th in defensive field-goal percentage (47.1%). Beyond the small sample size, though, the Blazers have reasons to believe they will improve that area significantly.
Beyond expressing optimism that Billups will hold players more accountable in that area, the Trail Blazers made improvements by replacing Carmelo Anthony and Enes Kanter with Larry Nance Jr. and Cody Zeller. Lillard expressed optimism that Nance and Zeller will bolster the team’s defense with their energy, athleticism and unselfishness.
“That’s a key to us being a level team that we want to be,” Lillard said. “Obviously people are going to look at me to lead that and be a part of it. I got to take that challenge and not just say I’ll take a challenge, but go out there and do it. I accept that.”
The other priority: ensuring that Portland’s offense does not just hinge on Lillard and McCollum.
Lillard anticipated the burden will become lighter because center Jusuf Nurkic has entered the season healthy and Powell is expected to return to the lineup soon. Lillard also projected that Ben McLemore and Snell will offer dependable outside shooting. But Billups has also prioritized more ball movement. The Blazers have averaged 289.3 passes per game, a strong improvement last season’s team that ranked last in passes per game (244.6).
The Blazers have not benefited from that change in philosophy yet partly because it has coincided with Lillard entering the season in a shooting slump. He failed to make a 3 against both Sacramento (0-of-9) and the Clippers (0-of-8).
“I think Dame is probably in the middle of trying to play and do some of the new things that we’re asking, but also [figuring] out when to really be aggressive,” Billups said. “He’s one of the best players in the game for a reason. You play through him, and everything kind of works itself out.
“But he’s such a selfless player and such a great teammate that he’s trying to make sure everyone else is okay, knowing he can always kind of get his. But what happens is you can play yourself out of a rhythm that way when you take plays, and you’re not aggressive. We want Dame to be aggressive all game, no matter what.”
The Blazers anticipate that will happen soon, perhaps as quickly as Wednesday’s game in Memphis.
“He’s getting some quality looks,” McCollum said. “He’s a tough shot maker. So, we’re used to him making shots. Obviously, he hasn’t shot the ball the way he normally shoots it. But it’s an 82-game season. When you don’t shoot the ball particularly well, you know that it’s only a matter of time before it turns around and he’s hitting 30-footers again.”
Championship remains sole focus for Lillard in 2021-22
After all, Lillard was named to the NBA 75th Anniversary Team for a reason. According to Second Spectrum, Lillard has logged the most 30-footers in the past six seasons (136). He has made six All-Star teams and All-NBA teams and ranks 10th on the NBA’s all-time 3-point list (2,053).
“I was shocked,” Lillard said. “It was an unbelievable accomplishment and probably the best accomplishment of my career so far to be considered one of the 75 best in the 75-year history of so many great players. Especially with how many great players didn’t make that list, I’m just thankful.”
Lillard won’t feel as surprised with another upcoming accomplishment. With 16,866 career points, Lillard is expected to become the Blazers’ all-time leading scorer sometime this season. Lillard trails only fellow 75th Anniversary Team member Clyde Drexler, who scored 18,040 points through 12 seasons in Portland.
“It means a lot. I’ve always said I want to be the greatest Trail Blazers and best player that comes through here, on the floor and off the floor,” Lillard said. “I take the most pride in putting this uniform on and representing this city. It’s become home to me now.”
Even if Lillard also hopes to win the Kia MVP by remaining one of the league’s best point guards, those accomplishments won’t mean as much to Lillard as it would to collect some championship hardware.
“I wanted to see us improve. I wanted to know that our focus as an organization was on winning the championship, and not just being a winning team,” Lillard said. “We’re making the playoffs every year. But there are few teams around the league that actually want to win a championship and are doing everything to do that. I wanted us to be one of those teams.”
Lillard has since become convinced the Blazers have the commitment to become one of those teams. Despite Portland’s rough start, Lillard also remains optimistic he and the rest of the organization will follow through on their vision.
“I think it’ll just continue to get better,” Lillard said. “I think it’s a great opportunity for me to see something different and to learn. [Billups] knows the way to help myself and him, as a coach, to become a champion.”