Damian Lillard Embracing Leadership

When Paul Allen and Neil Olshey walked out of a June meeting with LaMarcus Aldridge, thePortland Trail Blazers’ owner and general manager were uneasy with the two words that had been ominously absent from Aldridge’s lips: Damian Lillard.

Before the start of free agency, the exhausting, contradictory nature of Aldridge left Blazers officials uneasy. When Olshey had arrived as general manager five years ago, Aldridge was a star stranded on a lottery team. Surround me with talent, Aldridge implored. Olshey dipped into the next NBA draft and delivered Lillard, an All-Star point-guard talent with character for miles.

For all of Aldridge’s personal success and the Blazers’ winning over the next three years, for every way in which Lillard tried to be a deferential co-star – passing on praise in the locker room and assertion on the court – Aldridge treated Lillard like a competitor, as someone stealing his spotlight.

Aldridge walked out the door, Olshey reassembled the roster, and Lillard signed a five-year, $120 million extension with one hand and clutched something else with the other: The responsibility that goes with a max deal, with a franchise star’s stature.

And back then, here’s something that no one could’ve imagined: Aldridge’s season could end only 24 hours after Lillard’s, with the Spurs in Oklahoma City for Game 6 Thursday.

The Blazers’ season ended Wednesday night in Oakland, and Portland’s loss of LaMarcus Aldridge exposed Lillard for the truth: The kid’s a magnificent player, a powerful leader and a decent rapper. Franchise players are there in good times and bad, and they take responsibility every waking hour.

Perhaps no player and no team earned the respect around the league as Lillard and these young Blazers. Olshey didn’t win NBA Executive of the Year, and Terry Stotts didn’t win Coach of the Year. Lillard still wasn’t chosen as an All-Star, and some people picked the Blazers to finish last in the Western Conference. Truth be told, the Blazers are developing one of the best winning cultures in the NBA, born of a GM and coach forging one of the league’s most formidable partnerships.

Most of all, though: Lillard did it.

“It wasn’t so much about not making the All-Star team, as I think Damian was invested in the team’s success – and what he could do to elevate the team,” Stotts told The Vertical. “Everybody here in Portland felt he was slighted by not making the All-Star team, but he handled it better than the people around him.”

It is no coincidence that C.J. McCollum blossomed beside Lillard, that he gave his young teammate the platform to prosper.

After Aldridge bailed on the Blazers in the Western Conference playoffs a year ago – mailing in his first-round performance and blowing out of Memphis on a private jet without his teammates – those around Lillard will tell you that he vowed to march into that leadership gap.

More than a month before the start of training camp, Lillard organized his teammates for an informal training camp in San Diego. He made sure every player spent his September in Portland, working at the Blazers’ facility. “Special,” Stotts told The Vertical. “Just very unique.”

Suddenly, the Blazers had a strong voice and a strong supporter. With Aldridge, the Blazers could’ve been Western Conference championship contenders. Without him, Lillard understood that his presence had to transcend his performance. The Blazers needed more out of him, and deep down, he always believed he had the capacity to deliver it.

“Fundamentally, he’s an inclusive person,” Blazers assistant coach David Vanterpool told The Vertical. “He brought these guys together in San Diego, and his thought was this: ‘This is my family now. And I’m going to take care of these guys. I’m going to include them.’ He never leads by making anyone feel inferior – he leads with inclusion.”

Aldridge gave the Blazers 20 and 10 every night, big shots, big rebounds – a magnificent offensive talent. He never gave them his heart, though. Never his spirit. Lillard had to be better for these Blazers – and he played the best ball of his life. He had to push harder this season, set a higher standard, and the coaching staff admired how he pushed himself in fresh ways.

In the past, Lillard had struggled with low-post defense. Point guards liked to back him down or post him up, and film study with the coaching staff convinced Lillard he had to get better. So, he did.

“He wants to be comfortable being uncomfortable,” Vanterpool said. “If there’s a shot that he’s not making or footwork that isn’t down pat, then that’s what the workout will entail.”

Around Lillard, they will tell you: He found no joy in the Clippers losing Chris Paul in the conference’s first-round series – nor had he been rooting for Steph Curry to remain out in the West semis.

The joy of Damian Lillard is the way in which he loves to compete. He loves the Blazers, embraces the small market and carves out his identity around the bigger, broader successes. This is the burden, the opportunity – everything – that Lillard wanted with these Trail Blazers. And once it came, once it all belonged to him, he treated it like a precious jewel, because these days, in this league, it is the most precious of all.

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