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Lillard on finishing his career in Portland: ‘I’m also willing to die on that hill’

Michael Smith praises Damian Lillard's recent high-scoring performances, including when he scored 71 points vs. the Rockets, and explains why Lillard will always be respected in the NBA even without championship rings.

Damian Lillard has done nothing — in words or actions — to suggest he is anything but loyal to the Portland Trail Blazers.

Yet every team has a list of “superstars that may come available” tucked away in a drawer (or in some cases, written on a whiteboard in view of everyone in the room), and Lillard is always near the top of it. And in an increasingly transaction-driven NBA, fans around the league are constantly eying him and asking questions.

Lillard’s answer to ESPN’s Baxter Holmes on this question is another lesson from him in loyalty.

Lillard seems to change, becoming more serious. He believes in the journey, as he says. He appreciates what he’s achieved. He knows there is more to do, and he makes eye contact, giving the sense that whatever he says next is something he believes down to the marrow of his bones. “To that point,” Lillard said, “I’m also willing to die on that hill.”

Portland has paid Lillard handsomely to be loyal, he has four years, $216.2 million guaranteed on his contract after this season, with the last year of that — his age 36 season — being about $63.2 million (the exact number depends on the salary cap when the contract extension he signed this summer kicks in). However, he would not be the first NBA superstar to take the money and then ask out of town soon after.

That’s just not how Lillard sees himself — he wants to win it all with the franchise he has been loyal to, the way Dirk Nowitzki did in Dallas or Giannis Antetokounmpo has in Milwaukee. Lillard said in the interview he doesn’t see jumping ship as a sure way to a title either.

Lillard considers the uncertainty from both angles, the good and the bad. “Then you look at Phoenix,” he said. “They lose a championship [2021], come back next year, have another great season, then they don’t make it out of the playoffs. Now, they’re struggling. They’re in the same boat as us. Boston lost last year, then they come out on fire, what if they come up short? What if somebody knocks them off in the first round or the second round after this great season? We’re struggling right now, but what if we hit our stride at the right time?”

Lillard has lived up to his massive contract this season, averaging 32.2 points and 7.3 assists per game, and his 3-point game is sharp as he showed during All-Star weekend. His insane 71-point performance over the weekend turned heads around the NBA.

The difference between the situations of Nowitzki and Antetokounmpo versus Lillard is those organizations built teams that could contend around their superstar. That hasn’t happened with Lillard in Portland. Or, at least not yet. This is a team poised this summer — with coveted young players such as Shaedon Sharpe and Anfernee Simons, not to mention plenty of draft picks — to be in the trade mix for the next superstar to become available. One that could fit with Lillard and lead Portland back to being a contender.

Maybe that sounds like a longshot to people outside the Pacific Northwest, but no longer a shot than Lillard leaving Portland.