SALT LAKE CITY — Earlier this month, after Damian Lillard missed two free throws that could have beaten the Los Angeles Clippers, Paul George called out the Portland Trail Blazers star on Instagram, predicting an early exit from the playoffs. Lillard replied saltily. “Keep switching teams...running from the grind,” he wrote. “You boys is chumps.”
The Clippers are George’s third team. He joined them last offseason after Portland eliminated his previous team, the Oklahoma City Thunder, from the playoffs, and he started his career with the Indiana Pacers.
Since those missed free throws, Lillard, who has played for the Blazers his entire career, has been the best player in the NBA. He scored 185 points across four victories down the stretch, on a mix of audaciously deep 3-pointers and darts to the rim, pushing Portland to 8-2 since the restart and a postseason berth, cementing bubble MVP honors.
Beyond the scoring, he endears fans with charming contradictions: he’s small but unstoppable, stone-faced but prone to dizzying displays of ballhandling and shotmaking. He may be the league’s most feared one-on-one scorer, but he is also known as its best and most loyal teammate. The question he’ll try to answer this postseason — including in Game 2 of a first-round series against the Los Angeles Lakers on Thursday — is whether loyalty can bring more than moral victories in the modern NBA.
Lillard has told the basketball world he’s not going anywhere. In July 2019, he signed a four-season contract extension with Portland, the franchise that drafted him sixth overall out of Weber State University in 2012. “I think we’ve built something special,” he said of a team that he had already led to six straight playoff appearances. “It’s real genuine. The environment we’ve created is something I’ve been a part of and something I want to continue to be a part of.”
That commitment is rare in the modern NBA, where many top players not only form super-teams but, on occasion, seek shorter deals so they can hop to the next super-team. Last summer alone, George and Kawhi Leonard, the reigning Finals MVP with the Toronto Raptors, inked deals to team up with the Clippers, and Anthony Davis leveraged a trade to the Lakers to play with LeBron James. The recent history of the league can be told by way of its offseason power shifts: James to the Miami Heat, back to Cleveland, on to L.A.; Kevin Durant to Golden State and then to Brooklyn.
The approach has won championships; it also lets players cash in on a rising salary cap and gives them greater autonomy within a league structure that historically has favored ownership. But to Lillard, it is anathema to the spirit of the game. “He’s been recruited by other players to come form a super team,” Randy Rahe, Lillard’s coach at Weber State, says. “He absolutely does not like that stuff. It’s not the way he thinks it should be. You should stay with your team and try to get your team to a championship.”
Lillard grew up in Oakland, California, the progeny of Houston Lillard and Gina Johnson, and a basketball tradition that has produced a long line of rebar-tough guards. Lillard’s parents separated when he was in high school but remained close, and each drilled him on certain principles. Effort is absolute, loyalty paramount. “It’s through the family,” Orlando Watkins, Lillard’s coach at Oakland High School, says. “He’s very loyal, trustworthy, honest, has your back through thick and thin. A stand-up guy.”
As a sophomore, Lillard attended St. Joseph Notre Dame, a private high school that counts NBA Hall of Famer Jason Kidd among its alums, at his father’s behest. He was biding his time on a talent-stacked roster, but he held little regard for the renown and recruiting possibilities attached to St. Joe’s, and ached to play with the kids he had grown up with, who attended nearby Oakland High. The next year, he got his way. “It wasn’t like we were winning city championships or anything like that,” Watkins recalls. “It was just, ‘I want to play with my friends.’”
Lillard excelled, earning All-League honors his junior and senior seasons, but his team remained a rung below the city’s elite. Despite shining statistics and too many big games to count — his near-halfcourt “logo shot” put scares into higher-ranked opponents — he didn’t attract much attention from major colleges. His parents and coaches counseled him that the best opportunity is not always the biggest one. When he accepted a scholarship offer from Weber State in Ogden, Utah, larger programs came calling, convinced they had missed an opportunity. But Lillard held to his word.
Weber State, like Oakland High, didn’t provide the brightest stage. The Wildcats failed to reach the NCAA Tournament in his time there, from 2008 to 2012. Still, Rahe watched Lillard grow, his talent sharpening into skill, good habits building up into better ones. Lillard had an undeniable edge.
Early in Lillard’s freshman season, after the team put in subpar effort in a loss to in-state rival BYU, Rahe arranged a series of severe 6 a.m. practices designed to gauge his players’ commitment; he anticipated a number of them would quit. “We were just beating them up pretty good,” he says, “and, man, (Lillard) went crazy. He loved it, he got competitive, he challenged guys. We walked out of that practice, and I said, ‘Guys, we got us one.’”
As he would later in Portland, one of the smaller NBA cities, Lillard took to the relaxed atmosphere on Weber State’s small campus. “The people here just treated him like a normal person, because he’s a good dude, not because he could score 20 points a game,” Rahe says. Lillard repaid the care. Scott Bamforth, a college teammate, recalls an episode when a group of players sat around the locker room trading meanspirited jokes about another student. Lillard sat quietly for a time, then commanded them to quit. “He shut the whole thing down just by saying a simple sentence,” Bamforth says. “You can just feel what kind of person he is.”
Lillard spent evenings in the gym with team managers, honing his extra-long-range shots. (Phil Beckner, then an assistant at Weber State, remains his trainer.) He bulked up, tightened his dribbling, and by his sophomore season emerged as the team’s best player. He was the team’s top scorer by a wide margin, its driving force and determining factor. He held those around him to his own high standards. In that regard, Bamforth compares Lillard to Michael Jordan, citing “The Last Dance” — with a caveat. “Jordan did it his own way, like, ‘I don’t care how you feel, I just want results,’” Bamforth says. “Dame’s the type of person, like, ‘I care how you feel, but I want results too. So let’s get them.’”
The results have come, in some measure, on and off the court. Lillard’s Blazers have made the conference Finals just once, losing last summer, but he has been named Rookie of the Year, a five-time All-Star, and, following the 2017-18 season, first team All-NBA. Last year, he won the J. Walter Kennedy Citizenship Award for service to the community; prior to this season, the league’s general managers voted him the NBA’s best leader.
Sports talk trends towards absolutism and hard numbers — how many championships have you won? But Lillard makes his own meaning. He told The Athletic that a primary goal in signing his contract extension was ensuring the job security of his coach, Terry Stotts, and his Portland teammates. And this summer, as protests of racial injustice and police brutality unfolded across the United States, Lillard joined marches in Portland, joining arms with demonstrators and lending his fame to the cause.
Rahe can attest to the strength of Lillard’s allegiance, channeling Lillard’s mindset: “Portland drafted me. They trusted me to draft me at No. 5. They put the ball in my hands from Day 1. They paid me. My job, now, is to bring a championship to Portland.” Lillard still returns to Ogden each offseason to work out and be among a community that embraced him. Training sessions that have taken on legendary status in basketball circles — hours hoisting shots from the court’s far reaches — are conducted in the gym he first walked into as a teenager on a recruiting visit, as yet unwanted by other schools.
Those closest to Lillard insist that bigger wins are still to come. His career may be seen as an investment in basketball’s ineffable qualities, in the power of team chemistry and total buy-in. Rahe observes that many players who shoot as often as Lillard does incur the envy of their teammates, but that the Blazers, to a man, speak glowingly of their franchise player. CJ McCollum, Portland’s second-leading scorer and Lillard’s backcourt-mate of seven years, recently told The Ringer, “If I can trust you on the court and off the court, it’s a breeze in the fourth quarter. There’s no animosity at all.”
Recent history hints at long odds. Only one of the last five NBA Finals MVPs were playing for the same franchise that drafted them; the exception was James, during his second stint with the Cleveland Cavaliers. The trend speaks to the competitive advantage of building teams via big-name trades and free-agent acquisitions.
With the score tied and three minutes left in Game 1 against James and the Lakers on Tuesday night, Lillard dribbled idly, some 40 feet from the basket. All of a sudden, he stepped behind a teammate’s screen, set his feet, and launched a jumper: shoulders over shoetops, wrist craned — textbook form from a ridiculous distance. The shot fell, and the P.A. system in Orlando played a few bars of “Blow the Whistle,” a track by Bay Area rapper Too $hort. Lillard started dancing, which he later explained as a tribute. “East Oakland was being represented in the arena,” he said, “so I had to show my love.” Even — especially — in the most tense moments of his career, Lillard stands with those who have stood with him.
That shot helped Portland to a 1-0 series lead over the top seed. When the buzzer sounded, Lillard could be seen instructing his teammates to temper their celebrations: One upset win isn’t the goal.