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With a new contract and what appears new resolve, the Blazers guard could be better than ever in 2022-23.

JAIME VALDEZ-PAMPLIN MEDIA - Damian Lillard during a game earlier last season. The all-star guard is happy and healthy and looking to make an impact this season.And we're off!

The Portland Trail Blazers opened their 2022-23 slate of play Oct. 3 and, in the process, marked the debut of what I believe will be an even better version of the team's All-Star guard and franchise's best player.

Damian Lillard is back. And while the game with the Los Angeles Clippers was just one of a handful of preseason contests leading up to what will be a very curious Blazers regular season, it also feels like a reset for a guy who in recent years has been battling himself.

Dame is a fighter.

He's loyal.

And he loves Portland.

But for the better part of the last couple of years, fans, players and talking heads around the league and country have been incessantly pitting the transcendent talent against himself.

I don't believe Lillard has ever really wanted to leave the Rose City. And in fact, he's told us as much at every turn.

The more Portland loses, the more people in and around the NBA want him to leave Portland to find success — perhaps linking up with mega-famous, uber-talented buddies on one of the NBA's so-called superteams. But those people don't understand what makes him tick.

By now, fans should know this about the guard from Weber State: He wants to earn it. And to be clear, it's all he's ever known.

Lillard fought for playing time in high school, saw little interest from colleges in the recruiting process, and spent the bulk of his pre-NBA career flying under the radar in Ogden, Utah, where he twice earned Big Sky Player of the Year honors. Since then, all he's done is win the NBA's Rookie of the Year award, earn All-Star honors six times, be named to an All-NBA First Team, and make the NBA 75th Anniversary Team — all prestigious honors, especially for an undersized player in a very oversized league.

Lillard doesn't want to quit on the Blazers. But there's no question he has been the team's best player since putting on the jersey — maybe the best in franchise history. And at times, he has had to put the team on his back and carry it alone.

That can weigh heavily on a person. It can lead to mental fatigue, which in turn can take a physical toll. We saw that last year when Lillard played but 29 games and sat for the remainder of a season that may be looked back upon as the tipping point for a player looking for peace.

Now, in the wake of signing a contract extension worth an additional $225 million, in the midst of building a new home in the West Linn area, and again healthy, both physically and mentally, Damian Lillard the commodity can get back to being Damian Lillard the player, who has one goal: winning a championship.

Lillard played 26 minutes in the preseason opener against the Clippers and scored 16 points on 5-of-13 shooting. He was rusty early but seemed much more himself late, making four of his final seven shots en route to a team-high 16 points.

"I just felt relaxed just coming out and having fun just hooping again," Lillard said. "When I got out there, I just felt good. I was moving around well."

He went on to speak to the clarity he's now playing and living with, and he alluded to how heavily last year's injury and the factors surrounding his "impending departure" have weighed upon him.

"I didn't have anything on my mind other than just playing," Lillard said. "I settled into the game pretty quickly."

That's good news for Lillard, and even better news for fans of the team he hopes to take to the top.

Can he? Conventional wisdom says no. After all, the Blazers are 125-1 to win the NBA championship this season, and few would bet on Portland to inch much closer in the years to come.

But while the smart money may not be on Rip City, it should be on Lillard, who is again healthy, relaxed, and doesn't seem to be going anywhere soon — and I'll never bet against that guy.


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