I am, and long have been, among the most diehard Damian Lillard fans. I am the guy who, at the start of 2021, tweeted that Lillard had become what Stephen Curry used to be. It was an insane take for which I was deservedly roasted, but what can I say? In my house, it was Dame Time all the time. I trumpeted him as an MVP player before such a stance became common, and I would still, even given his struggles to start this season, take Dame over any point guard in the world not named Curry. He is a stone-cold star, and he deserves a real shot at a title.
He’s also a big part of the problem in Portland.
Last June, now-former Trail Blazers GM Neil Olshey infamously scapegoated ex-Blazers coach Terry Stotts for Portland’s 29th-ranked defense in 2020-21. Things would be different, Olshey intimated, with Chauncey Billups, his prized hire, on the sideline. He was right. Under Billups, the Blazers are no longer the 29th-ranked defense in the league. Entering play on Monday, they’re 30th. Dead last.
Turns out, this is a roster problem, loathe as Olshey was to shoulder even a shred of blame. And the roster starts with Lillard, who for the duration of his career has been an apathetic defender at best, and mostly an actively harmful one. Should Olshey have shown a greater dedication to building a roster suited to compensate for Lillard’s defensive shortcomings? I think we can all agree the answer is yes, and perhaps it should’ve started with trading CJ McCollum rather than extending him a max contract that has made him decidedly less tradable.
Olshey and the Blazers did reportedly discuss the framework of a trade to acquire Ben Simmons, who Lillard wants to play with, per Shams Charania and Sam Amick of The Athletic. Ultimately, Olshey’s offer — which did include McCollum and a first-rounder — was not enough to acquire the disgruntled 76ers star, and since he had confidence in the roster he assembled in Portland, he rejected Philadelphia’s counteroffer.
But that doesn’t exonerate Lillard, who sets the tone for this entire franchise. And for too long, that tone has been deaf to defense. Stephen Curry possesses the same physical limitations as a defender that Lillard does, arguably even more, but Curry has turned himself into a legitimately helpful defender. He tries, first and foremost. He’s almost always in the right spot. He has active hands. Yes, the Warriors have surrounded Curry with plus-defenders, but he does his part. He has taken on that challenge with real pride.
Lillard has not. He is a defensive doormat, plain and simple, and it has never seemed to bother him enough to do anything about it. He doesn’t contain penetration. He doesn’t stay focused for full possessions. He doesn’t consistently fight over or through screens. He’s often out of position, even if it’s just a step or two, somewhere between over-helping and not-helping at all. He doesn’t sprint back in transition.
These are things for which other stars who’ve consistently come up short get killed. James Harden, a long-running defensive joke, got the blame in Houston and he’ll be at the top of the list for similar slander if Brooklyn craps out this season. Chris Paul has been saddled with the loser label for the last decade. Russell Westbrook is endlessly mocked. Meanwhile. the romance of Lillard’s loyalty to Portland has almost entirely shielded him from criticism.
When Lillard comes up short, it’s always a team problem. He gets the credit when the Blazers win, but shares in no blame when they lose. I assure you, it is not an accident that Portland opponents are shooting 39.3 percent from 3 this season, per Cleaning the Glass, which registers as the worst defensive mark in the league, or that they surrender a greater percentage of corner 3s than all but three other teams.
Lillard heads a backcourt that is constantly beat at the point of attack, putting everyone else in scramble mode to help down on the penetration while still covering out shooters. It’s a suicide mission. A couple passes, and offenses can get any shot they want against the Blazers, who are starting every possession in an 0-2 hole, thanks to Lillard and McCollum.
That doesn’t mean they should get all the blame. Jusuf Nurkic isn’t a particularly good pick-and-roll defender, and Billups asking him to play at the level of screens isn’t exactly putting him in position to succeed. Robert Covington is not a very good on-ball defender. Norman Powell tries and has long arms, but he’s often undersized in his matchups as well. You can’t blame Lillard for the 145 points Portland gave up to the Celtics on Saturday. He didn’t play.
Again, Olshey designed a roster entirely dependent on scoring, but I will actually agree with him that the Blazers should not be the worst defense in the league. Covington is more than useful. Larry Nance and Nassir Little are plus-defenders. Nurkic has moments. Should the Blazers be a top-15 or even top-20 defense? Perhaps not. If Lillard were even a passable defender, even with McCollum being as bad as he is, they wouldn’t be dead-last.
And at the end of the day, we have to hold Lillard to a higher standard than McCollum. This is Dame’s franchise. We can’t continue to laud Lillard’s leadership when night after night, year after year, he’s setting a half-hearted example. Even if he is limited as a defender personally, his effort would trickle down. When role players see their superstar giving maximum effort, paying attention to the details, when they see him competing for stops the same way he competes for buckets, they tend to follow suit. And vice versa.
At the end of the day, Lillard is great enough to only try on one end of the court and still win. His team doesn’t have that luxury. And those are the operative words: His team. For better or worse, who and what the Blazers are begins and ends with Damian Lillard. He has yet to be held to that level of accountability.