While Portland skidded to a 27- 55 record — the third-worst in the NBA’s Western Conference last year — All-Star point guard Damian Lillard was at home recuperating from surgery to repair a nagging abdominal injury. It was the first time the Blazers missed the playoffs in nine years and the first postseason absence since Lillard’s rookie season, when Portland was attempting to rebuild the team.
This year, the Trail Blazers are again rebuilding, in hopes of making a quick return to the postseason with Lillard leading the way. The last several months have brought a series of trades, draft picks and free agent signings, giving the Blazers a significantly overhauled roster.
But a key component of Portland’s on-court performance will be Lillard, who sat behind a microphone on Monday in a white Blazers jersey, calmly answering reporters’ questions, after a nine-month flurry of changes for the franchise. For his part, Lillard said his time away from the game offered some perspective.
“So stepping away, it allowed me to be excited to play again,” Lillard said on Monday.
No one notices the changes to the team more than Lillard. The star guard is returning to a familiar sport and a familiar league, but a distinctly different team. The most notable loss is CJ McCollum, Lillard’s longtime backcourt mate and close friend. The Blazers traded McCollum last spring to the New Orleans Pelicans in time for him to help his new team reach the playoffs.
Lillard agreed in response to a reporter’s question that being in Portland, playing for the Blazers, without McCollum will feel “a little bit weird.”
“I was so used to him being around and his locker being across from mine, talking to him after games, at practice. I was just used to it, that was pretty much my whole career,” Lillard said. “Seeing him on another team, then them being in the playoffs and even when I saw him this summer, you know, in the gym a few times… we’re just not on the same team [...] and I just kind of came to grips with that.”
At the same time, the rejuvenation Lillard feels returning to the basketball court is amplified by what he’s seeing from new and returning players on the Blazers roster. He said he’s been impressed with the team’s size, athleticism and conditioning, making specific mention of several players.
Lillard weighs in on Blazer teammates
Lillard said 20-year-old Keon Johnson, acquired last February from the Los Angeles Clippers, is “the most impressive player from last year to this year, just development-wise and seeing how he’s approaching the game.”
Lillard said he worked out over the summer with Nassir Little, a 2019 Blazers’ draft pick who had shoulder surgery last winter, a few weeks after Lillard had his abdomen operation. Lillard said he appreciates Little’s genuine energy.
“[Other players in the NBA] just bring fake energy, you know, they just, they know that people want you to have energy so they pretend to be excited and they make noise and they do all these things,” Lillard said. “But the energy that [Little] brings is like that’s really who he is as a person.”
But some of Lillard’s highest praise was for enigmatic rookie Shaedon Sharpe. The 19-year-old rookie has been largely invisible to fans and NBA observers over the last couple of years after he enrolled at the University of Kentucky but didn’t play. He joined the Blazers’ summer league team but got an injury early on.
“I think the talent is off the charts and when I watch him work out, everything is just easy for him,” Lillard said. He described a play to reporters, in which Sharpe contested a dunk attempt by Nassir Little, far above the basketball rim. Lillard called it an example of one “super athlete” competing against another “super athlete.”
Lillard’s focus remains on winning a title
At age 32, Lillard is entering his 11th NBA season. His financial future appears largely taken care of, having signed a contract extension through the 2026-27 season reportedly worth $225 million. But Lillard, who’s been named to the NBA All-Star team six times and was included in the NBA’s Top 75 players of all-time, says his time away further cemented his focus on one remaining goal: winning an NBA championship.
“When I’m done and when this is really my life, I want to be able to look back and know that I experienced the top and just knowing that I do things the right way and know I work hard and I do everything that I’m supposed to do to give myself a chance,” Lillard said.
Lillard said he watched last year’s NBA playoffs and appreciated how the eventual champion Golden State Warriors were able to get back to the top of the league when others doubted them.
“Not playing last season and seeing, Golden State have a few down seasons and a few bad seasons and then, you know, them show that they were still connected and have some young guys come in and step up and go out there and do what nobody expected them to do,” Lillard said.
Lillard has said as recently as this past summer, that he wants to win a title in Portland rather than force a move to another team. He said winning a title elsewhere would be less fulfilling. He has also said that he has faith in the efforts general manager Joe Cronin is making to improve the team. After working out with his new and returning teammates in recent practices, Lillard says he likes the balance of youth and experience, talent and toughness that he sees.
“I think a lot of the more successful teams that you see in the league now have that type of makeup, you know, they got the length, they got the toughness, they got athleticism, they got some youth, they got some experience, and they’re together, they’re connected, they believe,” Lillard said, in response to a question about whether the team’s recent moves have set them up for a title run.
“I think that’s definitely the path that we’re on now.”