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COLUMN: Lillard, 32, in line to have a career year with refreshed health and team lineup.

PMG FILE PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - Portland Trail Blazers' star Damian Lillard raises his hand for a high-five against the Chicago Bulls on Nov. 17, 2021, at the Moda Center.

Back on April 27, Damian Lillard tweeted a photo of him flexing on the Denver Nuggets, saying in his post: "You weirdos gone learn to respect a true beast."

The photo appears to be from game five of the 2021 playoff series with the Nuggets when Lillard scored 55 points and went 12 for 17 from beyond the arc, setting the NBA record for most 3s made in a playoff game.

However, the Blazers still lost 147-140 in double overtime and were defeated in game six to lose the series 4-2.

While GM Joe Cronin has tried this offseason to make sure the roster around Lillard is as equally beastlike, it leaves the question of what to expect of the star guard going into his age-32 season.

Lillard didn't play the second half of this past season after surgery to repair a nagging abdominal injury, one he has reportedly played through for quite some time.

And despite that lingering ab strain, Lillard put together arguably the two best offensive seasons in his career in 2019-20 and 2020-21, scoring 30 and 28.8 points per game respectively.

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After playing for Team USA in the Summer Olympics that was pushed to 2021 thanks to COVID, the injury finally caught up to Lillard this past season, evident by a slow start shooting and the guard never really finding a rhythm.

Come this October, Lillard will have just under 10 months off from his last NBA game on Dec. 31, 2021. It's the kind of break that Lillard hasn't had since his 2010-11 season at Weber State ended after 10 games due to a foot injury.

It's been 10 years of grinding on the basketball court for Lillard without much downtime, and yet his best basketball came toward the end of that stretch.

Lillard said that in previous offseason, he was always on the move with workouts and conditioning. With the injury, he's taken the time to be more decisive with his training and ensure his body is in shape and reacting the best way it can thanks to some new trainers and schedules.

"I'm coming off the longest break of my career, physically and mentally," Lillard said. "I've been able to just build myself back up and get to a place where I'm as anxious as I've ever been to get out there and make something happen."

Now rested and recovered, plus clearly from the beast tweet still having a chip on his shoulder, Lillard might be in line for a career-defining season in 2022-23.

The highest Lillard has finished in MVP voting came in the 2017-18 season when he finished fourth and James Harden took home the prize.

Lillard averaged 26.9 points per game along with 6.6 assists and 4.5 rebounds. He had the best net rating of his career at +11 (120 on offense, 109 on defense) and had his best VORP of 6.3 (Value over replacement player, think WAR in baseball).

Of course, those baseline stats fall short of Lillard's 2019-20 season where he averaged a career-high 30 points, along with eight assists (also a career high) and 4.3 rebounds. The advanced stats weren't far behind at +9 net rating and 5.9 VORP. He finished eighth in MVP voting.

I'm not saying Lillard is in line for an MVP season, there's only been 13 players 30 or older to win the award out of the 65 seasons it's been given out. But age 32 is far from a death sentence, especially for a guard like Lillard who can shoot the lights out any given night.

Kobe Bryant won his one and only MVP award at 29, his 12th year in the NBA. LeBron James last MVP award came in 2012-13, his 10th season. Steve Nash won both of his MVP honors when he was over 30 years old. Steph Curry has been a serious MVP candidate the past two seasons at age 32 and 33. And these are all guys who were on the same NBA 75 list that Lillard was named to last season.

Mix in a renewed sense of urgency with Father Time catching up and a roster featuring new players like Jerami Grant and Gary Payton II that complement Lillard well, and it could be the perfect storm for Lillard.

And, of course, the question on his contract extension is loud as well. Lillard recently signed a two-year contract extension worth $122 million, giving him a payout average over the final two seasons of $61 million.

Those two years extend the contract to five years, so those final two years will be paid out to a 35- and 36-year-old Lillard.

Paying more than $60 million a year for a guy closer to 40 than 30 is absolutely risky. No one really knows when age finally catches up with each individual athlete.

Being one of the best shooters the league has seen certainly helps extend Lillard's projected usefulness. A pure stroke doesn't deteriorate the same as athleticism and explosiveness.

Maybe as the years go on, Lillard will turn into more of a facilitator, which already has been seen since he has had his highest assists per game average the past three seasons.

Plus, the $60 million price tag looks like quite a bit now, but come four years from now it could be completely different. The NBA is only growing with the salary cap going up each year. True, $60 million is nearly half of a team's cap currently, but four years down the line it could easily be closer to a third and leave plenty of working room still for the Blazers.

The NBA is a crowded space. It's easy to forget about certain players nowadays when the league continues to produce new stars in different markets. And it seems like those outside of Portland might have forgotten the dread that comes when the clock strikes Dame Time.

There's plenty of anxiety and anticipation for the next five years of Blazers basketball. But one thing is certain: Portland is where Lillard wants to be, and he's going to be coming for a ring at all costs.

Time to warn the NBA, the beast is loose.

Austin White

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