Lillard becoming one of NBA's elite players
Damian Lillard's NBA star continues to shine brightly, as the Portland guard's play has pushed him into the MVP discussion alongside the likes of LeBron James, Nikola Jokic and Joel Embiid.
"The most feared man in basketball is Damian Lillard," TNT analyst Kenny Smith said recently. "He's still top three in terms of MVP (candidates). He's one of the top five basketball players in the world."
Ask Lillard, and he agrees.
"I see myself as the top of the league, I'm one of the best players in the league," he said.
And Lillard, playing his ninth year with the Blazers, said it's just a matter of time before he stands on top of an exclusive list as best Blazer ever.
Of course, Bill Walton won a championship, Clyde Drexler took Portland to two NBA Finals and at one time ranked behind Michael Jordan as the game's best player. But, Lillard has multiple all-star appearances, was averaging 30 points a game this season and last (along with about eight assists) and continues to improve, welcoming contributions from teammates and excelling in leadership, getting better defensively, making more plays, finishing better at the basket and consistently making shots from deep range, while overall just raising his game and competitiveness.
Also, Lillard's heart remains in Portland. (Only time will tell if he stays in the city or, like Walton and Drexler, goes elsewhere).
The greatest Blazer title? "It's important to me," he said. "When I'm done playing, I feel pretty confident I'll be the greatest Blazer to play, the greatest Blazer to put this uniform on."
For now, however, Lillard's all-star resume doesn't include a starting appearance; he was officially named a reserve Thursday for his sixth appearance and fourth in a row, and he'll be up for being picked by captains LeBron James or Kevin Durant in the all-star game draft next week.
Luka Doncic edged him out, via fan vote, for the second starting guard spot (along with Stephen Curry) among Western Conference players for the March 7 game in Atlanta. Media and players had Lillard ranked above Doncic.
Lillard, 30, planned to play in the all-star game (5 p.m. March 7) and compete in the 3-point shooting contest (3:30 p.m. March 7). He said the snub didn't bother him despite always feeling overlooked from his prep days in Oakland to Weber State to being an unheralded sixth pick in the NBA draft.
"When I was younger, I cared a lot more. That's an accomplishment, something I haven't done," Lillard said. "I wasn't surprised or upset about it. I'm not trippin', honestly.
"When younger, you're searching for that respect and want people to acknowledge what you've done. It means something to your career, contract, status in the league. I was striving to earn that respect. Now, as I've gotten older and mature in the league, my purpose is different. Not sweating it as I did as a younger player. … I'm geared toward things larger than the All-Star Game or being an all-star starter," like helping the Blazers win games.
Lillard has led the Blazers to playoff contention, even with CJ McCollum and Jusuf Nurkic injured and out. Said coach Terry Stotts: "Fan vote, take it for what it's worth. We all realize Dame is the best point guard in the league right now, and he should have been a starter."
Doncic was quoted last week saying, "I know that maybe Lillard deserved it more than me."
"I really respect Luka," TNT analyst Shaquille O'Neal said. "A lot of guys won't say that. To man up and say Dame's playing better than me, their record's better than us, he deserves to start ..."
That's OK. He's among the NBA's best now, and Lillard can earn even more respect by helping the Trail Blazers make the NBA playoffs and win.
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