Last year, Damian Lillard responded to his All-Star snub by dominating the second half of the season, lifting the Portland Trail Blazers into the playoffs and advancing to the second round by defeating the Clippers. After the 2016 All-Star break, Lillard averaged 26.3 points, 6.0 assists and 3.5 rebounds, which earned him a spot on the All-NBA Second Team.
Now, the 26-year-old is once again putting up similar numbers. Through 41 games, Lillard is averaging a career-high 26.2 points (which is eighth-best in the NBA) as well as 5.9 assists and 4.8 rebounds. He has also been more efficient, shooting a career-best 44.5 percent from the field and 89.6 percent from the free-throw line.
As has been the case every season of his NBA career, Lillard is in the running for the Western Conference All-Star team. Stephen Curry and James Harden were just announced as the squad’s starting guards, leaving Lillard, Russell Westbrook, Chris Paul, Klay Thompson, Mike Conley and (Lillard’s teammate) CJ McCollum among others to battle for the reserve spots in the backcourt. This year, the NBA opened All-Star voting up to the players and Lillard received 33 starting votes from his peers – the fourth-most among West guards behind only Westbrook, Harden and Curry.
The Blazers are currently 19-27, which puts them just outside of the playoff picture in the Western Conference. The team got off to a strong start this season, but they have struggled as of late, losing 16 of their last 22 contests.
HoopsHype recently sat down with Lillard for a one-on-one chat about what the Blazers must do to turn things around, his long-term commitment to Portland, how he approaches trade rumors, the talent at the point guard position around the league, whether he’s one of the NBA’s best players and much more.
I interview a lot of high school and college players who aren’t getting the recognition they feel they deserve, and I’ve noticed many of those players point to you as inspiration since you didn’t get a lot of attention in high school and then had to make a name for yourself at a smaller school (Weber State). What’s it like being someone who provides that kind of inspiration to all the underdogs?
Damian Lillard: It’s really cool because you realize that you have a way to touch people who are coming from a tough situation. When you’re in that kind of position, you need motivation and you need inspiration. I’m somebody who’s young and they witnessed me taking that same route to success. It’s a good feeling, knowing that I can provide that kind of hope for underdogs.
How much did last year’s postseason experience against the LA Clippers and Golden State Warriors help your team? You had been in the playoffs before, obviously, but how important and valuable was that additional experience for you and for the team as a whole?
DL: I think that playoff experience is extremely valuable because it puts you in a position where teams are more locked in since you’re the only team they have to worry about. You’re playing that same team four, five, six or seven times in a row, so they know your plays. The scouting report and all of those things kind of go out the window; you know the other team’s plays, you know their style of play, you know what each guy likes to do and the players just have to play. That’s one thing about the playoffs: The players have to do what they do and there’s [no excuses]. There’s no back-to-backs or anything like that. Your sets will be taken away because the other team knows your plays, so the players have to do what they do. That experience – and having to fight against that challenge in different series – makes you a better team.
CJ McCollum has really come into his own over the last two years. He’s now averaging 23.5 points, 3.7 assists, 3.5 rebounds and 1.2 steals, while shooting 41.8 percent from three-point range. How has his progression helped you as his backcourt partner and how has it helped the team as a whole?
DL: It helps me because he’s another guard out there with the skill set to do the same things I can do – scoring, creating his own shot, creating for other guys. He takes pressure off me because I don’t have all of that responsibility [solely] on me. We can share that responsibility. He can play at a high level. From day one, I always knew that he was capable of being this type of player, it was just a matter of how much opportunity he got.
Players usually talk about the game slowing down for them as they gain NBA experience. When did that start happening for you, and do you notice things continuing to get easier?
DL: Each year that I’ve been in the league, the game has gotten slower. This season, being my fifth year, it’s the slowest it’s ever been. I think it’s just because, over time, you learn coverages, you learn NBA terminology, you learn what specific teams like to do and how they’re going to try to guard you, you learn player tendencies and things like that. Because you know those things, you’re able to make decisions quickly or see a play coming or know what’s going to be available before it actually happens. That’s what players mean by the game slowing down. You don’t feel like you have to make split-second decisions – you see everything as it develops because you’ve seen the same thing so many times before.
You’ve been selected to several All-NBA teams and you’ve made two All-Star appearances. Also, I know you work incredibly hard on your game and you pride yourself on being a strong leader for your team. Taking all of that stuff into account, do you feel you’ve earned the right to be considered one of the best players in the NBA?
DL: Definitely. There are a lot of really good players in the league, but I think when you talk about the best players, they’re the ones who can do it every night. People talk about it being a long season and some nights your body isn’t really up to playing, you’re traveling a lot because of the schedule, teams are locking in on you and stuff like that, but your team needs you to produce every night. Some guys can’t do it every night, either because they don’t have the mental capacity or they don’t have the want-to to be able to bring it at an elite level. I think every year I’ve been in the league, I’ve done that. When I’ve been out there, I’ve been up to that challenge and I’ve performed at that level. Even if I struggled sometimes, I still found a way to be productive from day one. I averaged 20 points in year one and my numbers have gotten better each year. I think that’s what the best players in the NBA do.
And as a point guard, there aren’t many easy nights either. There’s so much talent at the position that you’re facing a star in most games.
DL: Yeah, it’s even harder to do it as a point guard! You have a tough matchup every night. It’s really hard. You’re up against the biggest challenge every night. Your guy may be the guy who’s [heavily relied on] for his team to win, and you have to win that battle. You have to win that battle every night in order to put your team in position to win. It’s a lot of pressure and a lot of responsibility on your shoulders when you take on that challenge for 82 games.
Knowing you, I doubt you ever feel like the player across from you is better than you. I can’t imagine you thinking like that, regardless of the opponent. With that being said, where would you rank yourself among the NBA’s point guards?
DL: I don’t really care about rankings. I think if you ask 10 different people, you’ll get 10 different answers. But while the order of each list would be different, you’d have the same guys [somewhere on each list] and I’m in that group of guys. When I go out there, I don’t think anybody is better than me. I go out there and feel like I’m going to be the best player, and that’s the way it should be.
By now, everyone knows you can drop 50 points on any given night and you have a reputation as a scorer. Have there been times when you sense a defender’s fear or notice that they’re a bit intimidated? Can you sense when a defender is vulnerable like that?
DL: Yeah, I have. There have been certain situations where I’ll try to get a lesser defender to switch onto me [because I sense it]. And there are times where a team will go into certain coverages and go out of their way to make sure that lesser defender isn’t guarding me. I notice it.
As a team, you guys have struggled lately. What does the team need to do to turn things around?
DL: I mean, we have to be more consistent. I think we do too many things in spurts and we don’t have the luxury to do that. We have to be sharper more often. There are too many lapses. I think the more consistent we are, the better chance we give ourselves down the stretch of games. We just haven’t been consistent enough. We’re fortunate to be in the position that we’re in, where we’re still fighting for a playoff spot. It’s going to come down to which team can move forward, keep working and stay with it for the long haul. I think we definitely have that in us.
We’re entering trade season. You’ve never really been mentioned in trade rumors, but do you pay attention to rumors involving your team? Like when someone says that the Blazers need to trade for a big man or if your team is linked to a certain guy, do you follow that stuff? I know some players stay up-to-date on all of the rumors, but I know others ignore it. What’s your approach?
DL: I hear stuff, but I don’t go searching for it. I know it’s out there and sometimes people mention it to me. I’ve never heard my name mentioned in a trade rumor. But even if it was, it’s out of my control. I know my team knows my value to the organization, so I just play. Whatever people decide to do, it is what it is.
There have been a number of times where people have tweeted at you saying you should leave Portland for bigger market or that you should join their favorite team, and you’ve responded and shot it down. Can you see yourself playing your entire career with the Blazers?
DL: Definitely. I like living in Portland and I like the organization. It’s a great organization and they take care of us in every way possible. I’m happy with the situation that I’m in, and my family is happy with the situation and where we’re living. It’s a place where I’d want to play my entire career. Obviously, with this being a business, people’s feelings change about players. And players’ feelings change about organizations; I don’t think mine will, though, because I really like where I am and where I live and stuff like that. But you just never know.
In your opinion, who are the best defenders in the NBA?
DL: I’d say Kawhi Leonard, Avery Bradley, Jrue Holiday and Trevor Ariza. They are all really good defenders.
What is your process when it comes to making music? When do you write lyrics and put tracks together?
DL: : On the plane, I’m usually listening to beats and stuff. Sometimes I’m at home and I just randomly write. I just work on it when I feel like it.
Did the release of your first album, “The Letter O,” go the way you hoped? And do you have plans for a second album?
DL: : It turned out great. I was definitely happy that it was received well. A lot of people really enjoyed it and I appreciated that I could do my music and people would listen to it and appreciate it rather than try to hate on it. I think it was a good product. I’m proud of that. I definitely plan on continuing with the music, but I haven’t really thought about [my second album].
Who are some of your favorite rappers that inspire you creatively?
DL: Chance the Rapper, Drake, Nas, J. Cole and Kendrick Lamar. I like them dudes.
You’re from Oakland and it just became official that the Raiders have applied to move the team to Las Vegas. Are you a Raiders fan, and what do you think of the move?
DL: I grew up – and still am – a Raiders fan. It’s sad to see all of the teams leaving the city after how much support they’ve given all of them. But money drives everything these days.
Is there a certain NBA player you want HoopsHype to interview? Send Alex Kennedy a tweet to let him know.