Damian Lillard, the high-scoring, All-Star and All-NBA guard, has become synonymous with the Portland Trail Blazers over the past few years. However, playoff disappointments have marked his stint with the team more often than not.
As he takes part in exhibitions and practices with the U.S. Men’s National Team in Las Vegas in preparation for the Tokyo Olympics, Lillard spoke with Chris Haynes of Yahoo Sports and voiced some of his frustrations with the Blazers’ playoff exits.
A four-time All-Star, Lillard just wrapped up his ninth NBA season. The closest he’s come to a title was a quick trip to the West finals in 2019.
The wide-ranging Q&A addressed Lillard’s time with Team USA and whether or not he feels the Blazers are reciprocating the same level of commitment he has to the franchise to put him in position to win his first NBA tile.
“I feel like I’ve experienced everything with the Trail Blazers, and I’ve worn that jersey as a badge of honor and with a lot of pride and care. I never felt like my job was to go in and critique what other people were doing in the organization,” Lillard said. “Even when I’m playing well and we come up short at the end of the season, I go home and the first thing I do is look in the mirror and tell myself we didn’t win a championship. Or if I didn’t play as well as I should have, I’ve had to look in the mirror and tell myself that my performance was unacceptable and I have to do better. And then you go do better.
“I think that’s the stage we’re at as a team where we all, not just me, not just my teammates, not just our new coaching staff, the front office, everybody in this organization must look in the mirror because we’ve constantly come up short. We have to look in the mirror and say I have to be better because whatever it is we’re doing is not working and it’s not giving us the shot to compete on the level that we want to compete on.”
Lillard denied reports that he will be requesting a trade in the upcoming days. “It’s not true,” Lillard said after Team USA practice. “I haven’t made any firm decision on what my future will be.”
Portland finished the regular season 42-30 and earned the sixth seed in the Western Conference. The team was riding momentum, having won 10 of its final 12 regular-season games.
The Blazers were also healthy, with both big man Jusuf Nurkic and guard CJ McCollum back from extended absences because of injuries.
But once again, the playoff trip was brief. Lillard averaged a league-best 34.3 points and 10.2 assists in the playoffs, after averaging 28.8 points and 7.5 assists during the regular season.
He had 55 points, including a playoff record 12 3-pointers and 10 assists in Game 5 against the Nuggets, but Portland still lost 147-140 in double overtime. The Nuggets ousted the Blazers in six games.
Haynes, who has known Lillard for years, asked him why this is a pivotal moment for he and the team. The Blazers star responded by saying:
“There are few reasons: One being I’m not getting any younger. Our environment has always been great. We’re not losing a lot, but we were eliminated by a shorthanded Denver team that I felt we should have beat. I just walked away from that really disappointed. I was like, ‘Man, this just isn’t going to work.’ We’re not winning the championship, but we’ve got a successful organization. We’re not a franchise that’s just out here losing every year and getting divided. We have positive seasons; we just don’t end up with a championship. So I feel like at this point, I basically made the decision that if you do what you’ve always done, you’ll always be where you’ve always been. Just like I hold myself accountable for a bad performance or hold myself accountable to make sure that I work my ass off when I’m training, I must be accountable for saying what needs to be said even if it’s not popular. And that just comes with age. When I was younger, I felt like maybe I’ll be out of place, but I feel like I’ve earned the right to say we must do better. We must do better if we want to win on that level.”
Nurkic, who averaged 11.5 points and nine rebounds but missed time with a fractured right wrist, has one year left on his contract — but only $4 million is guaranteed. He didn’t sound committed to returning next season, explaining it had to be the “right situation.”
McCollum, Lillard’s backcourt teammate, averaged 21.3 points this season, his best since joining the league in 2013. But he missed games with a fractured foot.
Ten-time All-Star Carmelo Anthony, who filled a key role off the bench for Portland this season, will be an unrestricted free agent, along with Enes Kanter. Norman Powell has a player option for next season.
Portland recently hired Chauncey Billups as their new coach in late June as he replaced Terry Stotts, who was let go after nine years (and eight seasons) on the job.
Billups, a five-time NBA All-Star over a 17-year playing career, has never been a head coach. He has served as an assistant with the LA Clippers for the past season.
The Blazers settled on Billups after an interview process where several people — San Antonio Spurs assistant Becky Hammon among them — were talked to about the job. Others known to have been on Portland’s list were Brooklyn assistant Mike D’Antoni and Los Angeles Lakers assistant Jason Kidd, who withdrew his name from consideration.
Blazers GM Neil Olshey praised Hammon, who has been with the Spurs as an assistant under Gregg Popovich for seven seasons. At one point, Hammon was said to be the favorite of Jody Allen, owner of the Blazers and sister of the late Paul Allen.
Information from The Associated Press was used in this report.