Dame Lillard Offers an Inspiring Message Despite Struggles, Controversy

Matt Slocum/Associated Press

This isn’t the first bad stretch of Damian Lillard’s career, but it’s his first one since he reached his current stature.

When Lillard went through rough patches early in his career, he was a young player trying to find his way. Even when he became the unquestioned face of the Portland Trail Blazers in 2015, cold streaks were the price of carrying a team that had no business winning as many regular-season games as it did, let alone making the Western Conference Finals in 2019.

Now, Lillard is an unquestioned top-10 superstar, and the guy the entire NBA world just spent an offseason trying unsuccessfully to will into demanding a trade out of Portland. And in his response to the continued shooting struggles that have dampened the start of his 10th season, he’s shown exactly why he’s a one-of-a-kind star.

“I always look at struggles as an opportunity to show my true character,” Lillard told reporters in Philadelphia after shooting 7-of-20 from the field and 2-of-9 from three-point range in a loss to the Sixers. “When things go great, there’s a lot of praise that goes along with that. A lot of people give you a lot of credit. They speak highly of you on social media, TV. ‘Oh Dame had 60, Dame had 50.’ They speak really highly of you. 

“But I think it says more when you’re going through something and s–t is kind of hitting the fan and you’re struggling and everybody’s got something to say. And to me, the real ones, they can keep on trucking and keep on going and still find a way to get the job done.”

This, or some version of it, has been Lillard’s message for as long as he’s been in the public eye. He’s built his reputation, and his brand, on consistency and loyalty. There have been nine years of media coverage built around the admirability of his refusal to join a superteam. 

And after the two months this summer when it seemed like that commitment was wavering (whatever he says now, the various press conferences he gave during the Olympics were decidedly non-committal about his future), he came back publicly doubling down harder than he ever has on his desire to remain in Portland.

From references to retiring with one franchise on his latest album, to his comments on media day about “going out on my shield,” to even stronger comments in subsequent days during training camp, he’s been clear about where he stands.

It’s why the other viral moment from Monday’s game—Sixers fans chanting “We want Lillard”—was something for him to laugh about afterward, not something for anyone in Portland to worry about.

NBC Sports Philadelphia @NBCSPhilly

Yes, Sixers fans, Dame heard the chants… 👀 https://t.co/Ba2flttZrv

From the beginning, Lillard has understood the assignment of being a franchise player better than anyone. Not just the big stuff, like taking accountability after losses and public declarations of loyalty. More subtle things, too, like being outspoken about not wanting to push for teammates to be traded because he values their friendship. 

Being loyal to a fault might keep him from ever winning a championship in Portland. As he’s made clear over and over, whenever he continues to be asked about it, he’s made the calculation in his head that the path he’s on is the right one.

On the season, Lillard is averaging 18.6 points per game and shooting 34.9 percent from the field and 23.9 percent from three-point range, all easily career lows. He wasn’t the sole reason they lost on Monday to a Sixers team down Joel Embiid and Tobias Harris (not to mention Ben Simmons), or why they’ve started the season 3-4, but it isn’t helping.

No one who’s been around Lillard or seen how he operates doubts that his shot will come around, and he’s found other ways to be useful in the early season. Despite the shooting struggles, he’s visibly been more engaged defensively than ever before, and he’s averaging a career-high 8.6 assists per game. Someone who’s shot this well for this long didn’t forget how to shoot overnight. It will come back.

Matt Slocum/Associated Press

But until it does, the rest of the Blazers and new coach Chauncey Billups need to figure something else out.

For years now, the Blazers franchise has gotten so much mileage out of the assumption that Lillard will always find a way to shoot them out of whatever injury woes or flawed roster construction they’ve thrown at him. 

When those shots don’t fall for a couple of weeks at a time and they don’t have that safety net to fall back on, it lays bare just how far they are from the league’s elite—a group some in the organization thought they were simply a coaching change away from joining.

Everyone has to be better, including Lillard. He’ll be the first to tell you, and he’s earned the benefit of the doubt that it’s not lip service.

 

Sean Highkin covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. He is a graduate of the University of Oregon and lives in Portland. His work has been honored by the Pro Basketball Writers’ Association. Follow him on Twitter, Instagram and in the B/R App.

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