First there was Bill Walton, then there was Clyde Drexler, then there was Brandon Roy and, with his series-winning buzzer beater against Oklahoma City last week, now there is Damian Lillard.
Lillard is the closest thing the League has to Stephen Curry, who is unanimously known as the greatest shooter to ever lace them up at this point. However, Lillard is much more than just a prolific shooter; Lillard represents the feverish dreams of every small-market franchise in the league. His cold-blooded stepback three over a Defensive Player of the Year candidate Paul George to send the Blazers to the Western Conference Semifinals symbolized his will to overcome adversity when other superstars would have likely already given in.
To understand what Lillard and his shot meant for Portland, the frustrations of a seemingly snake-bitten franchise must also first be understood. The Blazers franchise won the 1977 NBA Championship led by Hall of Famer and MVP Bill Walton. That success did not last long, as Walton would suffer a devastating injury in 1978 and would then demand a trade afterwards. The Blazers would fail to make it back to the Finals until 1990, led by another Hall of Famer in Clyde Drexler.
Unfortunately, the Blazers would be defeated by the dynasty of the time, the Detroit Pistons. Drexler led the Blazers back to the Finals again in 1992 but they fell victim to Michael Jordan’s Bulls. This loss was especially painful, as the Blazers had a chance to select Jordan with the second pick in the 1984 draft but instead took Sam Bowie, yet another big man who succumbed to injuries.
The Blazers would go onto struggle throughout the 2000’s before beginning a new era around Brandon Roy, Greg Oden and LaMarcus Aldridge. In the all-too-common fashion, that young core fell apart. Roy started out strong but declined thanks to a bad knee, and the Blazers selected Oden one pick ahead of eventual champion and MVP Kevin Durant. Although Oden had immense potential his career was also derailed by injury. Aldridge would go onto star in Portland for quite some time and formed an All-Star duo with a young Damian Lillard. But that too fell apart in an untimely manner, as Aldridge as well every other starter on the team moved on from the franchise in the summer of 2015.
Following that tumultuous summer, the Damian Lillard era began in earnest in 2016. Most pundits wrote off the Blazers following a disastrous offseason, but Lillard embraced the challenge and began to mold himself into one of the finest leaders the NBA has ever seen. CJ McCollum was considered a bust after failing to make an impact in his first two seasons on a team filled with veterans. But after all of the departures from the team, Lillard took McCollum under his wing and helped him win the Most Improved Player award.
Lillard elevated the level of play for the entire roster and led a Blazers team that many projected to be among the worst in the league all the way to the Conference Semifinals, where they lost a tightly contested series against the Golden State Warriors that was much closer than the 4-1 margin made it appear.
The road to success was rocky, however, as the Blazers would proceed to get swept in the first round in both 2017 and 2018. Speculation rose that Lillard could possibly demand a trade, with the team not appearing to move forward, and his reputation tanking.
But that’s what separates Lillard from all of the other stars who have come and gone through Portland. Amidst all the controversy, Lillard has done nothing but consistently commit to the team that took a chance on a four-year player from Weber State University. Lillard has stated that he refuses to “sell-out” and join a superteam and that he would rather retire without a ring than turn his back on the Blazers.
That magical shot over Paul George was the dividend of years of faith and perseverance on the part of Lillard. Against his heated rival Russell Westbrook, Lillard proved that he belongs amongst the greatest to ever lace them up not only in talent level, but in heart as well.