I am, and long have been, among the most diehard Damian Lillard fans. I am the guy who, at the start of 2021, tweeted that Lillard had become what Stephen Curry used to be. It was an insane take for which I was deservedly roasted, but what can I say? In my house, it was Dame Time all the time. I trumpeted him as an MVP player before such a stance became common, and I would still, even given his struggles to start this season, take Dame over any point guard in the world not named Curry. He is a stone-cold star, and he deserves a real shot at a title.
He’s also a big part of the problem in Portland.
Last June, now-former Trail Blazers GM Neil Olshey infamously scapegoated ex-Blazers coach Terry Stotts for Portland’s 29th-ranked defense in 2020-21. Things would be different, Olshey intimated, with Chauncey Billups, his prized hire, on the sideline. He was right. Under Billups, the Blazers are no longer the 29th-ranked defense in the league. Entering play on Monday, they’re 30th. Dead last.
Turns out, this is a roster problem, loathe as Olshey was to shoulder even a shred of blame. And the roster starts with Lillard, who for the duration of his career has been an apathetic defender at best, and mostly an actively harmful one. Should Olshey have shown a greater dedication to building a roster suited to compensate for Lillard’s defensive shortcomings? I think we can all agree the answer is yes, and perhaps the most obvious starting point would’ve been trading CJ McCollum rather than extending him a max contract that has made him decidedly less tradable.
According to Shams Charania and Sam Amick of The Athletic, Olshey did discuss the “the framework” of a deal that would’ve sent McCollum to the 76ers for Ben Simmons, but Daryl Morey wanted more future draft capital than Olshey was willing to include. Olshey should’ve been more aggressive in making that deal happen.
It was the last basketball straw for a GM that clung to McCollum for too long. McCollum was the guy Olshey drafted and paid huge money, and stubborn and prickly as he was, or is, I believe he was adamant to get the last word on those who dared to question his roster construction. Before you even get to the toxic workplace and reported intimidation and bullying of employees, Olshey’s firing was warranted for purely basketball reasons.
But that doesn’t exonerate Lillard, who sets the tone for this entire franchise. And for too long, that tone has been deaf to defense. Let’s say this Simmons deal does eventually happen and the Blazers suddenly become a contender on paper. Would Lillard then start to pull his weight, or would he just expect Simmons to do his dirty work for him? You can’t hide forever in the NBA. Playoff offenses, certainly in deeper rounds, are going to spotlight the weakest link.
For all the defenders the Warriors have put on the floor in becoming a championship organization, Steph Curry could’ve been the leak that sunk the Warriors. But he didn’t let that happen. He possesses the same physical limitations that Lillard does, arguably more, but he has turned himself into a legitimately helpful defender.
Curry tries, first and foremost. He’s almost always in the right spot. He has active hands. He relishes his opportunities to take on the tougher assignments and is visibly frustrated when he falls short. Yes, the Warriors have surrounded Curry with a properly supportive roster, but he does his part. He has taken on that challenge with real pride.
Lillard has not. He is a defensive doormat, plain and simple, and it has never seemed to bother him enough to do anything about it. He doesn’t contain penetration. He doesn’t stay focused for full possessions. He doesn’t consistently fight over or through screens. He’s often out of position, even if it’s just a step or two, somewhere between over-helping and not-helping at all. He doesn’t sprint back in transition.
These are things for which other stars who’ve consistently come up short get killed. James Harden, a long-running defensive joke, got the blame in Houston and he’ll be at the top of the list for similar slander if Brooklyn craps out this season. Chris Paul has been saddled with the loser label for the last decade. Russell Westbrook is endlessly mocked. Meanwhile, the romance of Lillard’s loyalty to Portland has almost entirely shielded him from criticism.
When Lillard comes up short, it’s always a team problem. He gets the credit when the Blazers win, but shares in no blame when they lose. I assure you, it is not an accident that Portland opponents are shooting 39.3 percent from 3 this season, per Cleaning the Glass, which registers as the worst defensive mark in the league, or that they surrender a greater percentage of corner 3s than all but three other teams.
Lillard heads a backcourt that is constantly beat at the point of attack, putting everyone else in scramble mode to help down on the penetration while still covering out shooters. It’s a suicide mission. A couple passes, and offenses can get any shot they want against the Blazers, who are starting every possession in an 0-2 hole, thanks to Lillard and McCollum.
That doesn’t mean they should get all the blame. Jusuf Nurkic isn’t a particularly good pick-and-roll defender, and Billups asking him to play at the level of screens isn’t exactly putting him in position to succeed. Robert Covington is not a very good on-ball defender. Norman Powell tries and has long arms, but he’s often undersized in his matchups as well. You can’t blame Lillard for the 145 points Portland gave up to the Celtics on Saturday. He didn’t play.
Again, Olshey designed a roster entirely dependent on scoring, but I will actually agree with him that the Blazers should not be the worst defense in the league. Covington is more than useful. Larry Nance and Nassir Little are plus-defenders. Nurkic has moments. Should the Blazers be a top-15 or even top-20 defense? Perhaps not. If Lillard were even a passable defender, even with McCollum being as bad as he is, they wouldn’t be dead-last.
And at the end of the day, we have to hold Lillard to a higher standard than McCollum. This is Dame’s franchise. We can’t continue to laud Lillard’s leadership when night after night, year after year, he’s setting a half-hearted example. Even if he is limited as a defender personally, his effort would trickle down. When role players see their superstar giving maximum effort, paying attention to the details, when they see him competing for stops the same way he competes for buckets, they tend to follow suit. And vice versa.
At the end of the day, Lillard is great enough to only try on one end of the court and still win. His team doesn’t have that luxury. And those are the operative words: His team. For better or worse, who and what the Blazers are begins and ends with Damian Lillard. He has yet to be held to that level of accountability.