Normally, when there is talk about a player’s most important season, that means that he and the team are usually in position to make noise and maybe make it to the NBA Finals. Sometimes it may also be that player’s time to have a breakout season early on in his career.
This case is different. Damian Lillard, entering his fourth season, is in for the biggest and most important year of his career thus far. I say this because this year will be imperative to understand what kind of player and leader Lillard can be. Since he came into the league, LaMarcus Aldridge has been the face and leader of the Portland Trail Blazers. Everyone knew who the number one option was and Lillard himself would defer to Aldridge most times.
Lillard was a leader in the sense that as point guard he needed to run and initiate the offense, but he hasn’t had to be the number one guy. Now, with the departure of Wes Matthews, LaMarcus Aldridge, Nicolas Batum, and Robin Lopez, Lillard is the face of the team.
Let’s say the starting five features Lillard, C.J. McCollum, Gerald Henderson, Mason Plumlee, and Meyers Leonard. There is a distinct difference between that starting five and the one the Blazers had last season. Not only are they younger, but there are also a lot of new faces. One aspect the Blazers seemed to excel in was team chemistry. All of these new faces on the team means that they hit a reset button on the team chemistry they had before.
This is where Damian Lillard already started showing some promising signs of his leadership. He organized a trip for the team so that they could bond and get to know each other before training camp started. Lillard wanted to regain the kind of chemistry they had before and this was a great first step to take. Via the Blazer’s website:
“I thought it would be good for us all to get together and know each other before we came in here for camp,” said Lillard, who came up with the idea. “Just getting familiar and getting comfortable with each other.”
“I thought it would be a good idea so I reached out to all the guys on the team to see who could make it and who was available,” said Lillard. “Eleven guys made it out, the guys who could make it out made it out. We worked out together every morning, we hooped together in the afternoon. I took everybody out to lunch, went to dinner a few times, we went to a Padres game together. Just kind of bonding and putting some work in together, building that foundation, because we’re going to be together.”
He also referenced the chemistry he had with the guys who left:
“When Wes (Matthews) would yell at me, I could take it because I know Wes,” said Lillard. “Me and Wes are boys and we had been on the same team for three years, so I could take that from Wes. If one of these dudes come in here and try to yell at me, I don’t know how I’d respond to it if I had never met them before. We spent that time in San Diego and now I can come in here like ‘What up Ed?’ shake his hand, shove him, whatever because we shared a week together. We actually spent time around each other. It definitely helps, and this definitely feels like a different environment. It just feels so fresh, everybody is so receptive.”
To take the importance of this leadership a step further, Neil Olshey, the Blazers GM, said that they purposefully went out and got players who matched Lillard’s career arc. They wanted younger guys who could gel and develop a great relationship with one another. That means that even the GM and other Blazers brass are putting their faith in Lillard becoming the leader that they need. If you ask me, I believe Lillard will go beyond expectations and become a great leader for this squad.
World, meet Damian Lillard, the star player and undisputed leader of the new look Portland Trail Blazers.