If you Google the definition of Trailblazer, you’ll find phrases such as innovator, mould breaker, someone who finds a new path, who does something for the first time. There is perhaps, then, no better description, nor a team than Trailblazer for Damian Lillard.
Portland’s star player has suffered enough disrespect already over his young career. He was overlooked in his transition from high-school to college and underestimated in his jump to the professional ranks. But Lillard doesn’t care for the limitations others try to put on him. He only cares about winning.
Before the 2012 draft, consensus number one pick Anthony Davis, was already being anointed Rookie of the Year. No one could plausibly challenge the phenomenon set to change the league that was (and is) the ‘Brow. No one, of course, except the actual 2012-13 RoY – Damian Lillard.
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His unwillingness to back down from any challenge, his ridiculous athleticism and his penchant for knocking down shots just when you need them propelled Lillard into the league’s spotlight.
The 6'3" point guard is exactly the kind of star the NBA needs. He’s an organic and accessible star who regularly interacts with fans and detractors alike. Proving that in this era, you can build a successful brand in any market if you have the right blend of game and personality.
A little over 12 months ago, Portland were on the verge of becoming a Western Conference powerhouse. A team with an extremely bright future in the shape of a young core who could challenge for years to come. At least publicly anyway.
Behind the scenes, then franchise player LaMarcus Aldridge was becoming disillusioned with life so far away from his home state of Texas. Some media outlets even alleged that the big man was becoming jealous of Lillard’s growing popularity.
Whatever the case, it became clear to management that Aldridge was not willing to commit to the organisation. Contingency and rebuild strategies needed to be implemented.
Sure enough, LaMarcus headed for San Antonio and within a few short months the Trail Blazers roster contained just five players from the 2014-15 campaign. Just one had been a starter. Lillard.
The Blazers were written off. Destined for a high lottery pick. Either Dame didn’t get the memo or people really don’t realise how you cannot dictate the ceiling of his own success to him. Portland’s projected wins for the season were around the 20-25 mark. That’s Lakers bad.
At the time of February’s All-Star game, Rip City already had 27 wins under their belt and Lillard was averaging 24.3 ppg, 7.3 assists and one steal. Portland was a must-watch League Pass team – exciting and energetic every night.
Still, the public and the league failed to recognise, overlooking the two-time All-Star for a spot on this year's edition. Lillard’s response was his standard. Continue to work hard and your efforts will pay off.
In March, in the first game after the All-Star break, Portland played host to the defending champion Golden State Warriors. In the midst of their historic run to 73 wins, the Dubs were heavy favourites.
What they met that night in the Moda Centre, instead, was their heaviest defeat of the season and a scorching hot Lillard.
Corralling a career-high 51 points on 18-of-28 shooting (including nine threes), Big Game Dame outduelled the league’s MVP Steph Curry. Warriors head coach, Steve Kerr said: “He looked like Steph out there”.
For many, this would be considered praise, but for a man whose career has been marginalised at almost every opportunity, this was not a compliment.
“I'm my own man… You telling me I'm impersonating somebody by doing well at my job is disrespectful,” he said to the Oregonian.
That’s the thing with Lillard, he’s not satisfied with being second fiddle to anyone or anything. He wants to be the best.
He carried a predicted lottery team to 44 wins and a second-round playoff defeat at the hands of an all-time great team in the Warriors. He’s evolved into an elite scoring threat, a franchise player and, most importantly, a respected leader.
And finally, his efforts were recognised with a spot on the All-NBA second team – the first time a non-All-Star has made the team since Pistol Pete Maravich in 1975-76. But do you really think he’s satisfied with that?
So the moral of the story is; think carefully before you put a cap on what Lillard and his team can do next season. Because he will likely blaze a trail right through and leave your predictions in his wake.