The night before the Trail Blazers would hold their first practice of the season, the team held a dinner at The Foundry on the shores of Lake Oswego, when a player asked to have the floor.
Not surprisingly, the player was Damian Lillard.
And not surprisingly, the team captain delivered a message that lasted well after the fish and chicken dishes were digested.
This was not a team with players who needed motivation, and it was not a team that encouraged rah-rah speeches. But when Lillard stood, the room came to attention.
“When you have respect from grown men, let alone millionaires, that’s a lot. You know what I mean?’’ Ed Davis said. “And he has that respect. So when he talks, everybody listens.’’
What they heard from Lillard set the tone for the upcoming season.
The Blazers’ minds, Lillard told his teammates, had to change.
No longer should the Blazers be the cute story of culture and chemistry. No longer should close losses to top teams be acceptable. And the 44 wins that was good enough for the fifth playoff seed last season? The West won’t be that easy this season.
“What we did last season was really hard,’’ Lillard reminded. “But the fact is, that’s just not good enough no more.’’
This team, he said, should expect to win every game. This team should expect to be better than last season. But it would be even harder than it was last year.
It was a calculated message, one that he felt needed to be delivered before the first practice in order to firmly establish there would be no easing into the season, no figuring things out on the run.
Truth is, his message was spoken partially out of fear. Ever since May when the team flew back to Portland after Golden State eliminated the Blazers in the second round, he harbored uneasy feelings. A part of him didn’t like the exhale of accomplishment the team felt after a 44-win season. He worried whether there were “too many pats on the back” being doled out after the series loss to the Warriors.
So on the first official day of the season, Lillard challenged his teammates. Everything we do, Lillard told them, has to be taken to the next level. Practices. Film sessions. Workouts.
Expectations had changed, he reminded, and simply matching last season would not be good enough.
“It starts in our mind,’’ Lillard said. “However far we want to go, it has to be in your mind first.’’
It wasn’t quite the “Us versus Everybody” fire-and-brimstone speech he delivered in the Los Angeles locker room that spurred their underdog season a year ago, but to his teammates in the audience, it cut a sharp edge to the season’s start.
“I think the things he has said internally, and the way he has played (in preseason) has really set the tone for our mentality and how we are approaching this season,’’ Mason Plumlee said. “Last year was ‘Let’s get better day-by-day’ – and that’s still part of us and what we are going to do – but now we are out to win every game. There is not a team we can’t beat. That’s how we are going to approach the season.’’
By the time the team left that night, the players’ minds didn’t so much change as much as they came into focus.
“He got us back into that mindset that we have to be ready to play, and teams are going to be coming after us,’’ CJ McCollum said. “And, that nothing is going to be easy.’’
If the night showed anything, it was that for all the strengths of the Blazers roster – depth, versatility, chemistry – their greatest asset still might be Lillard and his leadership.
He has a way with these men that is easy yet powerful, for he doesn’t just stir the fire in their belly, he moves their minds. They think not of themselves, but of the team. They think not of expectations, but what is beyond. And they think not what could happen, but what will happen.
On the surface, it may seem natural that a team’s best player is its most forceful leader. But behind the scenes, Lillard’s ascension was years in the making.
Before Lillard could be the mind that moved the Blazers, his own mind had to be trained to become a leader.
And the first step was getting him to speak.
Before Lillard’s first practice with the Blazers in the fall of 2012, assistant coach David Vanterpool watched the rookie play pickup games.
He noticed a startling trait from the No. 6 overall pick: he never opened his mouth.
So Vanterpool stopped the game and made a rule: Lillard was not allowed to cross halfcourt until he said 10 words. They could be about an offensive play, or a defensive coverage, or they could be flavors from Wing Stop. It didn’t matter. Vanterpool wanted Lillard to talk.
“I always think back to rookie year … he said ‘You are too quiet to be the point guard,’’’ Lillard said.
At first, Lillard struggled to find enough words to get passage past halfcourt, but soon he was blurting out about providing help defense, and about the need to get back in transition.
It would become the first of many exercises Vanterpool would employ in addressing what became their mantra: Becoming comfortable with being uncomfortable.
They would practice shooting off the wrong leg. They would play 1-on-1 where Vanterpool had free reign to foul him, and Lillard wasn’t allowed to complain. They would complete grueling workout sessions where quitting wasn’t an option. And they would study film, noting not just Lillard’s assignments, but also the responsibilities of each teammate.
“He was constantly in my ear, holding me accountable for every little thing,’’ Lillard said. “He has forced me to be a leader and to do uncomfortable things over the course of my career, and now I understand it. I see the value in it.’’
The maniacal workouts were established so he could have room to tell the next guy to work harder. And the film study provided a base in knowing how and when to direct players on the court. Meanwhile, Vanterpool would level harsh criticism to both ground Lillard and harden him.
“I would say something to him about every little thing,’’ Vanterpool said. “And he accepted the criticism. He never wavered.’’
Still, even as Lillard’s game flourished, he remained mostly muted.
In 2014, the Blazers locker room was a delicate landscape for a second-year player to navigate.
LaMarcus Aldridge was the designated leader, but he chose to lead with his play more than his mouth or his heart. Wesley Matthews was the heart and soul of the team, a brash, emotional veteran who often reminded that the right to speak was earned rather than given. And Nicolas Batum was an accomplished player who was content to stay in the shadows.
“I tried to encourage him to say more while (the veterans) were here, but there were sensitivity things going on,’’ Vanterpool said. “It was just tougher for him. But you could see that whole time that he was preparing for what he would say in each situation.’’
Vanterpool knew he had a student on his hands, so he presented Lillard with the classic “The Art of War” in hopes the book would resonate.
Although Lillard said he was able to only read parts of the book, he was drawn to the chapters on leadership and controlling the environment around you. He found that no matter how much he read, or how much he worked with Vanterpool, leading was difficult and sensitive.
The most difficult part?
“Standing up to people,’’ Lillard said. “For example, Wes would run ahead and Wes would get mad, and I would have to learn how to be in control of that situation. Instead of it being us going back and forth, I had to control and manipulate the situation. Like ‘My bad; I’ve got you … but the next time, maybe you could do this … ‘ kind of nurse the situation. That was uncomfortable. Wes had been in the league way longer than me, I don’t want to step on people’s toes … but I had to learn to confront those situations.’’
Soon, Lillard would make his breakthrough. Near the end of his second season the Blazers were on their way to winning 54 games, but in March they were caught in a four-game spiral where they couldn’t finish games.
After the fourth straight loss, in San Antonio, the locker room was silent after coach Terry Stotts finished his postgame address until two words came from the stall of Lillard: “Hold on.’’
Before he spoke, Lillard thought about what he was about to do. He thought about Vanterpool’s lessons in being comfortable being uncomfortable. And here he was, thrusting himself into an uncomfortable situation with one question to answer.
“Do I care about guys’ feelings or do I care about what’s good for the team?’’ Lillard remembered thinking. “So I just kind of went out and said what I had to say.’’
The team has kept what Lillard said that night private, but by all accounts it was an impassioned speech about caring and sticking together. It was a watershed moment for Lillard, and really, the franchise. Lillard felt freed of holding everything in, and the Blazers knew they had a special leader who was beginning to blossom.
“It was big in me being able to come forward as a leader because (the veterans) respected it, it wasn’t like people tried to go at me,’’ Lillard said. “They respected what I said and going forward I felt comfortable saying more and putting myself out there more.’’
A year and a half later, Aldridge left in free agency, beginning a dismantling of the veteran core. The rebuild was built on the foundation that Lillard would lead not only on the court, but off it.
“We had been preparing for the time it became his team,’’ Vanterpool said. “And halfway through his second season, I felt it could be his team, even if all those guys stayed because guys just wanted to follow him.
“And as soon as that door opened it was like he knew exactly what to say, he knew how to say it, when to say it,’’ Vanterpool said. “He knew how to pick one guy up while kicking him in the behind and how to pick another guy up at the same time by patting him on the back. He understood all of that.’’
Lillard’s leadership this season didn’t end with that dinner on the shores of Lake Oswego last month.
His play has been exceptional, with games of 30 and 27 points in the preseason, and his ability to gauge the mood of the team unmatched.
He approached newcomer Evan Turner after he sensed Turner was pressing and told the veteran to be himself and let the team adjust to him rather than him adjust to the team. And he continues to set the bar for work ethic, always the first to arrive for practice, and always one of the hardest and longest workers after practice.
But more than anything, he is the pulse of the team.
“I’ve seen him grab individuals when he sees slippage, or sees someone fall into a bad spot, and he’s like ‘Look that’s not the how we do it here, we have to do it this way because this is where we are going,’’’ Vanterpool said. “He grabs anybody going from the wayside and doesn’t let them get too far. He keeps them close to the group so we can keep moving in a forward direction. And everybody has taken to him. Everybody has definitely taken to him.’’