When Damian Lillard appeared on the concourse at the Moda Center for Trail Blazers Media Day on Monday it wasn't to the cadence of trumpets and horns. He wasn't wearing a crown and he didn't have keys to a car in his hand. The point guard, who is entering his fourth season in the NBA, dawned his white jersey, which sported his number zero, same as always.
It's been a busy offseason for Lillard. He signed a five-year, $120 million extension, he released tracks that will appear on his rap album, he traveled the world promoting the Adidas brand and he was anointed as the quintessential leader of the franchise.
Sure, he has all of the credentials: Rookie of the Year, two-time All-Star, All-NBA third team and a clean record to go along with it.
This offseason also saw 80% of its starting lineup leave via trade or in free agency. And while losing LaMarcus Aldridge was out of their hands, the rest was by design and Lillard became the chosen one. The Trail Blazers are all in on him. And Lillard is answering the call. Though, it's not like it's anything new.
"Everything I hear is like, 'Oh, the new leadership,' Lillard said. "I’ve been a leader on this team since I’ve been here. It just hasn’t been me as the only All-Star. So now it’s jumped to the front, but that’s not what it is."
Lillard's quest as the prime leader of the franchise "began" in San Diego, a trip that has widely been publicized where 11 players on the current roster all got together to learn about one another, both on and off the court. The idea spawned from a conversation with teammate CJ McCollum. At the time, by Lillard's approximation, there were only six players on the roster. So once the roster became more defined, it only made perfect sense for everyone who could make it to get together to workout and build chemistry well before the first day of training camp.
The former sixth overall pick in the 2012 NBA Draft provides a lot of insight for a new team which brings in 12 new faces this upcoming season. Heading into 2014, there were 13 players to return.
Lillard, along with teammate Meyers Leonard, picked No. 11 in the 2012 NBA Draft, are the longest tenured players on the roster, so his knowledge, along with his familiarity with head coach Terry Stotts' system, is vital to the team's overall success.
Lillard is coming off of a career year where he averaged the most points, increased his assist total from the previous year as well as his steals per game. He's never missed a regular season or postseason game, either.
He is the model Trail Blazer.
"It’s obvious that Damian has really excelled and been a leader for us," Meyers Leonard said. "The success of Damian has nothing to do with the kind of guy he is. He’s as humble now as he was [the night I met him]. Dame taking young guys aside… I saw him talking to Luis [Montero] the other day for a good 15-20 minutes, working out hard with CJ [McCollum], Tim [Frazier] and Allen [Crabbe]. Coming over and talking to me or pulling me aside after a pickup game and saying what he sees even in our pickup games and how we can navigate pick-and-rolls. He not only sees the game, but everything else in a different way and I really appreciate the humble approach he takes."
Lillard's teammates, time and time again, have backed Leonard's point. While Lillard has had a lot of success in the NBA, which has led to great riches on and off the court, he hasn't transformed who he is, though he has done everything that has been asked of him and followed through when it mattered most.
"All I have to do is be myself," Lillard said in regards to his leadership. "The first thing I said in being a leader is you’ve got to take care of your own stuff. And that’s working hard and being coachable and allowing coaches to challenge you and allowing your teammates to hold you accountable. As long as I can be that guy and I know that I’m going to be that guy everyday, then everybody will respect that. There will be times when I may need to step up and say something to somebody on the team. And there may be a time where someone has to say something to me. But it’s not like I’m stepping into this role where I have to control everything and do everything. It’s not that."
Head coach Terry Stotts, who arrived in Portland with Lillard in 2012, will be challenged this year, but he knows he can lean on his point guard.
"The biggest area we’re looking at for Damian is making his teammates better and obviously his leadership is going to be important," Stotts said on Trail Blazers Courtside. "And I think he’s embraced both of those. He’s going to have the ball in his hands and have the chance to run the show, just like he has. We’re going to need him to do that, but I think like most great players, is how he can impact his teammates and how he makes his teammates better and thus making the team better."
Winning 50-plus games for a third straight year is a tall order. Almost too tall. Lillard will be looked upon for his leadership, his veteran experience, but that's not something he'll let weigh him down.
"You know, I’m not too interested in all of this leadership talk, to be honest with you. It’s just kind of funny that that’s become the story when everything we do this season is going to be based on our group. I’m not going to be the hero. It’s more about how well we can come together. How much we’re going to listen to each other, how much we’re going to trust each other. It’s not about me or Meyers [Leonard] or CJ [McCollum] coming out here and be these leaders or anything like that."
Call it leadership, call it being a good teammate, call it making something good out of a less than ideal situation. Call it whatever you like. But one thing one can certainly call Lillard heading this season is a "Model Trail Blazer," one that others can only hope to emulate.