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To Have and to Hold

The Blazers and Damian Lillard are tied to one another, for better or worse

AP Images/Ringer illustration
AP Images/Ringer illustration

After a long summer of topless championship parades, free-agency meetings in the Hamptons, Snapchat mishaps, and gold medals, the NBA is finally, truly, really, almost back. The start of training camp marks the beginning of our NBA Preview.

This is Squad Goals Week. We’re looking at a bunch of teams and asking one question: What constitutes success for this franchise?

There’s this story my pastor used to tell about two hunters. Through retellings the names of the hunters have changed from Jed and Sam to John and Ted, and finally to two other one-syllable names I can’t remember, which I’ll take to mean the names aren’t all that important, so we’ll call them Hunter One and Hunter Two.

As the story goes, the game warden for the county the two hunters live in offers a $5,000 bounty for any wolf captured, dead or alive (for whatever reason; let’s call it overpopulation). The two hunters scour the woods for hours on end looking for wolves, and when they eventually come up empty, they call it a day and set up camp. They get a fire going, they eat, they close their eyes to try again tomorrow. And then, in the middle of the night, Hunter One is roused to find the camp surrounded by 50 wolves. So he shakes Hunter Two and says, “Wake up! We’re rich!”

Damian Lillard is Hunter One.

The story is broadly about spiritual warfare, but more specifically about how opportunities for greatness can come disguised as moments of great adversity. Like playing in the Western Conference, which was recently cratered by the somewhat unexpected union between the Golden State Warriors and one Kevin Wayne Durant. Two weeks ago, in an interview on SiriusXM NBA Radio, Lillard, standing with a straightened back in Golden State’s gargantuan shadow, took a familiar “Well, I Could Never” stance on superteams:

“You get to take a monster down, and that’s always fun.” I read that and thought two things: (1) “Man, I woulda been gone through my contacts to lure another superstar to my team. Does that make me a huge wuss?” And (2) “Yooooo, Damian Lillard really thinks he can make it out of the West.”

Maybe he can.

Back in the summer of ’15, after getting ground to dust by the Memphis Grizzlies in the playoffs, Portland had a fire sale. Nicolas Batum went to Charlotte, yielding a return of Gerald Henderson and an extremely raw Noah Vonleh; Robin Lopez, Wesley Matthews, and LaMarcus Aldridge went elsewhere for big paydays. With literally everyone else gone, the Blazers went all in on the upstart rookie turned regional-star-and-face-of-the-franchise, Damian Lillard.

In this era of flexibility and rainy-day caches of assets, a time when teams are generally encouraged to “think about next year,” if not “wait until 2020,” the Blazers just chose their hill to die on, or their cornerstone to build on, depending on whom you ask. It was different than the “please God, don’t leave us” three-year, $85.6 million deal the Thunder threw together for Russell Westbrook after Durant left. The Blazers dated their high school significant other all through college, got married to him right after graduation, and then built an offense perfectly suited for him. They added free-agent signings Ed Davis and Al-Farouq Aminu, and with the advent of C.J. McCollum, ultimately, that mass exodus amounted to only 10 fewer wins than the year before. But Portland putting together a 44-win season and a run into the second round of the playoffs was thanks mostly to Lillard white-knuckling it and constantly rising to the occasion.

Watch him in tense, late-game situations, when he finds himself, figuratively, between a rock and a much larger and harder rock. That’s when he hits that hidden sixth gear and becomes even more dangerous. Doubling over, a little winded from three-ish quarters of OK shooting, he bunches his shorts up in his hands, and then a renewed calm washes over him as if he’s decided, “You know what? It’s Lillard Time.” (He almost definitely says this to himself.) Take, for instance, Game 2 of last season’s Western Conference semifinals when, after leading by as much as 17, the Trail Blazers found their comfort margin hacked to pieces by one of those soul-crushing, third-quarter runs the Warriors tend to go on. But Lillard, who simply wasn’t Going Out Like That, lost his mind for about seven minutes, scoring 16 points and keeping the ship afloat almost completely by himself, a screen from Mason Plumlee here and a dish to Moe Harkless there notwithstanding.

These late-game takeovers have happened time and again. Like when the Blazers were trailing the Utah Jazz 62–49 during the regular season and Lillard went on a 12–1 run all by his onesie. That Jazz game also happened to be in the same weekend that he took out his All-Star snub frustrations on the Warriors, hitching them to the back of his chariot and dragging them for 51 points, including an 11–0 solo run.

Facing down likely-to-certain death, with the multiplying villainies swarming upon him, Lillard will block out the noise, snarl into that about-his-business face, and go on an I’ll do this by my DAMN self scoring run, shooting first, second, third, last, forever, always, never stopping to ask any questions at all. He’s the kind of dude to stare at that towering, unscalable rock, tell it, “You ain’t shit,” and set about clambering toward the peak with bare hands and no safety harness.

But that’s on offense. On defense, well, Lillard treats defense sort of like you might treat dental checkups or oil changes. They’re things you’re definitely supposed to be doing on a consistent basis, but like, how bad could missing one of those appointments be, really? In two regular-season games against the Detroit Pistons last season, Lillard got fricasseed by Reggie Jackson, which isn’t the biggest indictment, since Jackson is pretty talented and even good, when he isn’t dribbling in circles for 19 seconds and throwing up leaning, offhand 15-footers. But it really is damning when you watch Lillard’s struggles together all at once. He can’t stay in front of Jackson and gets lost on screens, and pick-and-rolls seem totally illegible to him.

So, he’s not an especially great two-way player. And Lillard’s mustard-seed faith in the Next One Falling occasionally leads to missing in volume (he was 8-of-20 in that Game 2 loss), but Portland should count itself blessed to have his blind confidence (obstinance?). For better or for defensive plays taken off, in sickness and in health, the Trail Blazers are married to him, at least until his current five-year, $140 million extension runs out in 2021. With C.J. McCollum’s $106 million contract extension this offseason, along with the acquisitions of Evan Turner and Festus Ezeli, the Trail Blazers are now locked into this thing, wherever it leads. Lillard seems to think the answer is “the Western Conference finals,” and it’s not all that far-fetched. They nearly made it there last year with fewer pieces.

It’s hard to imagine they’ll get much further, what with the adamantium-coated death machine clicking and whirring 600-some-odd miles south of Portland, and it’ll be this way for the foreseeable future. Lillard is going into this season with his chest puffed out, same as he has each year since he was drafted in 2012; the best until proved otherwise. Again, he is Hunter One. But what about coming up short for five straight years, which could be a very real possibility by 2021, barring serious injury to Durant or Curry or, like, an extinction-level asteroid impact? He’ll be 31 years old then and could well change his tune about “superteams.” Kevin Durant did, after all.