While he may not be the type to admit it, the last few games are proof that Damian Lillard heard all the noise from the last few seasons.
After a solid 2019-2020 where Lillard averaged a career-high 30.0 points on career-bests of 46.3 field goal percent shooting and 40.1 percent 3-point shooting, his scoring and efficiency fell off in the next two seasons, with the six-time All-Star ending his 2021-2022 season 29 games in after undergoing surgery to repair what was a lingering abdominal injury.
Prior to that, Lillard had never missed more than nine games, and one would have to go back to 2010, when Lillard prematurely ended his sophomore season at Weber State University due to a foot injury.
The long layoff was obviously a difficult one, considering that Lillard would have wanted to have been on the court winning games, but he and the Portland Trail Blazers were playing the long game with his health. It surely wasn’t helpful seeing his backcourt mate of nearly a decade in CJ McCollum being shipped away to the New Orleans Pelicans, with the perennial star player movement within the league certainly becoming more enticing to join with every loss.
Yet, Lillard has continued to preach patience and belief in the Blazers organization. The time away allowed the Oakland native to step back and truly assess how he wanted to chart the rest of his career. At 32, he certainly didn’t have much time left yet he’s still in his prime and Lillard didn’t want to put that to waste. In the end, he decided to stay put in Portland, signing a two-year, $122-million contract extension on top of the remaining three years and $136.9 million he still has left in his current deal.
With a clean bill of health and future secured, it was thus unsurprising to see Lillard off to the races.
Through four games, Lillard is averaging a career-high 33.3 points on 50.0/40.0/91.7 shooting splits, along with 5.5 rebounds and 5.3 assists. The 2020 Tokyo Olympics gold medallist is also attempting career-bests in field goal and free throw attempts, shouldering a heavier load on offense now that he is injury-free.
This also comes as Lillard and the Blazers have gone 4-0 through what was quite the gauntlet to start the season, with the likes of the Phoenix Suns, Denver Nuggets, the winless Sacramento Kings, and the winless yet still talented Los Angeles Lakers having all fallen to Portland.
Lillard has always been a prime-time performer, with his exploits in the clutch arguably the stuff of legends and memes. But for the Blazers and perhaps even the rest of the NBA, he is a model citizen and consummate leader (and teammate), unfazed by the pressure and willing to go fight through hardship and not run away from it.
Will he be able to keep this pace up for the remaining 78 games? Days off will likely be on the table because of his age, maintenance days for injuries, and for those times Portland would want to preserve Lillard for what they hope will be a long postseason run.
Thankfully, Lillard has a supporting cast that can help him achieve his championship aspirations. McCollum may be out, but the void he left has so far been filled by Anfernee Simons, who has averaged 19.8 points (a career-high), 3.0 assists, 1.3 steals, and combined with Lillard for 60 points in the Blazers’ most recent win over the Nuggets.
Josh Hart complements both Lillard and Simons in that he can take on the defensive assignment on the opposing team’s best player and can do the little things such as rebound, set screens, and make the right pass aside from putting in some points. Jusuf Nurkic has always been a great big man partner for Lillard, as both create for one another from different spots on the court. Meanwhile the addition of Jerami Grant, who was Lillard’s teammate on Team USA, provides another steady two-way presence.
Damian Lillard has so far bucked the trend of NBA superstars joining forces by forging his own path with the Portland Trail Blazers. With a nagging injury behind him and a rejigged supporting cast, Lillard has led the Blazers to another strong start and all signs currently point to a strong finish.