Can Blazers ever live up to Lillard's ideals?
Before Thursday's season-ending 126-115 Game 6 loss to the Denver Nuggets, Trail Blazers star Damian Lillard was honored at midcourt as the Twyman-Stokes Teammate of the Year as voted on by his fellow NBA players.
It's no surprise to fans of the NBA and especially of the Blazers, who've seen Lillard's consummate professionalism and unparalleled leadership leave a massive imprint on the city and franchise.
One would think it's about time the Portland franchise started returning the favor to, arguably, its all-time greatest player.
Lillard is a pillar of the community, a father, a family man, and a shining example of virtuous character to people from all walks of life, whether they be sports fans or not. He is also an all-time great basketball player with a supernova 3-point stroke, elite competitive spirit, and prolific scoring ability.
The Blazers' roster and coaching staff didn't get it done, which even Lillard frustratingly admits, even as the Blazers made the playoffs for the eighth consecutive season. Full stop. It's becoming more difficult for Portland to settle or make excuses when the man wearing No. 0 never does either.
"To describe it is hard because he does so many things, just from a human being standpoint," Jusuf Nurkic said of Lillard's leadership. "On the court, he obviously brings us together. I will never take for granted his friendship and who he is as a person."
This is an age of fluctuation in the NBA. Rosters turn over, stars change teams, talent gets clustered in ways it never has before. So, for Portland to boast about mid-level exception signings (or promising draft choices that never seem to see the floor) year after year, it's a difficult strategy for a team serious about contending.
The teams that might lack personnel either go and get it, or they get the best out of what they have. The Blazers acquired Norman Powell near the trade deadline, but injuries and inconsistent play — see: defense — made for a season in which the Blazers had trouble beating winning teams.
The regular season showed glimmers of hope for Portland, as its role players stepped up in the absence of Nurkic and CJ McCollum during their injuries. Lillard looked like the league MVP himself for a stretch. Powell, at times, seemed like a missing piece this team has desperately been seeking.
But, in the end, another disappointment, and another failure to live up to Lillard's ideals. The Blazers went 10-2 to close the regular season, and then exited the playoffs in the first round for the fourth time in the past five seasons.
"I told them after the game, we put ourselves in a great position," coach Terry Stotts said. "It's disappointing to lose in the playoffs. Denver is a good team, and (Nikola) Jokic is a great player. … I couldn't be more proud of what we did to get ourselves to the sixth seed, but I'm disappointed with the result."
Portland's struggles take nothing away from the scrappy Nuggets or the individual greatness of probable MVP Jokic, as they earned a convincing victory in the first-round series. Portland had more talent on paper because of injuries to Denver guards Jamal Murray and Will Barton, and forward P.J. Dozier, but on the hardwood the Blazers were outplayed. Even a historic 55-point explosion from Lillard in Game 5 wasn't enough to secure a victory.
There will be plenty of evaluation in the coming days and weeks, including about coaching, players, roster construction, the offensive system, defense, etc.
Lillard has always said he wants to win a championship in Portland. He's never made a reference to wanting to leave the Blazers. So, among potential changes this offseason, Lillard departing would be a surprise.
"I came into the playoffs healthy with my mind right and ready to go," Lillard said. "That was the only thing I was concerned with coming into these playoffs. For our season to end on our home floor is disappointing. I'm not thinking about any of the other (stuff), change or whatever.
"We didn't win a championship, so where we are now isn't good enough. I don't know what a shakeup looks like or what changes will be made. As is, it wasn't good enough. Where we are isn't good enough to win a championship if it isn't good enough to get out of a first-round series with two or three of (Denver's) best players out."
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