Shortly after he was handed the keys to the Portland Trail Blazers franchise, Damian Lillard made one thing clear.
If you’re looking for Superman, call Shaquille O’Neal.
“I’m not too interested in all this leadership talk to be honest with you,” he said the day before training camp opened. “It’s kind of funny that it has become the story. Everything that we’re doing is going to be based on the group. I’m not going to be the hero.”
Lillard might shun the label of a leader, but after signing a 5-year, $120 million extension in the summer, it’s fair to say the Blazers expect big things from the new face of the franchise.
This season will be a roller coaster. The Blazers are young but have the athleticism to play fast and score in bunches. Whether there are more ups than downs will depend largely on Lillard, whether he likes it or not.
We know Lillard can shoot. We know Lillard can score. But the true measure of Lillard as a leader likely won’t be seen in the nightly box score.
Take Portland’s final preseason game against the Los Angeles Clippers on Thursday. In 38 minutes Lillard scored 39 points. Not bad, right?
Well, Lillard took 30 shots, more than he did during any game last season. Portland blew a 35-point lead and lost.
Simply shooting a lot won’t benefit Lillard or the Blazers. Lillard the leader will be measured on how he facilitates the growth of other players on the court.
Portland has only three players older than 25. Some, such as Noah Vonleh, are talented but raw. Others, like C.J. McCollum and Meyers Leonard, have been key players in spurts. In the right situation, each could develop into a long-term starter for the Blazers.
But Lillard’s 6.2 assists per game ranked behind 13 other point guards last year. Granted that was with a different lineup, but getting everyone involved in the offense will help this year’s team win in the short term and grow in the long term.
Defense is key
Lillard the leader will also be measured on defense, something that has been a liability for him since he entered the league. Lillard has gotten better on defense, but says he needs to do more.
“It comes down to effort,” he said. “It’s tough coming off pick and rolls, making plays and having to score, then you gotta go down and defend the best position in basketball. With me it’s just competing hard in practice instead of taking practices and saying I don’t need to be out there every possession.”
Lillard the leader will also be measured on whether he’s a steadying force in the locker room. There will be rough patches during this season where no expert is picking Portland to make the playoffs.
Lillard took a large leadership step when he coordinated a five-day offseason workout in San Diego where the new Blazers could get to know each other. But it’s easy to get along at the beach. It’s harder on a five-game road trip when you’re mired in a losing streak.
The Blazers might not make the playoffs this year. But whether they do in the following years will depend a lot on Lillard and how he molds this young, raw group.
Micah Rice is The Columbian’s Sports Editor. Reach him at 360-735-4548, firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter @col_mrice.