The Damian Lillard era is underway in Portland.
The two-time All-Star is unquestionably the centerpiece of the Trail Blazers. In fact, general manager Neil Olshey has even said that Portland will only target players who complement Lillard’s skill set and are on the same career arc as the 25-year-old point guard.
Portland’s front office has been extremely active this summer. Gone are veterans like LaMarcus Aldridge, Wesley Matthews, Nicolas Batum and Robin Lopez, replaced by younger players like Mason Plumlee, Ed Davis, Noah Vonleh, Al-Farouq Aminu and Maurice Harkless among others. Lillard is the lone returning starter for the Blazers, and he’s ready to carry the franchise on his shoulders.
Like the Blazers, Lillard has been incredibly busy this offseason as well. He signed a five-year, $120 million extension to stay with the Blazers long-term. He traveled across the globe promoting his signature adidas shoes. He dropped five rap tracks under his stage name Dame Dolla. He ran his annual Lillard Camp in Oregon. Not to mention, he’s put in extensive work with his trainer to improve his game.
With so much going on, Basketball Insiders’ Alex Kennedy recently caught up with Lillard to discuss the Blazers’ additions, LaMarcus Aldridge’s decision to join the San Antonio Spurs, Lillard’s contract extension, Portland’s expectations for next season and, of course, Dame Dolla’s success in the rap game. Here is the full Q&A:
Basketball Insiders: The Blazers have been very active this summer, adding Mason Plumlee, Ed Davis, Al-Farouq Aminu, Noah Vonleh, Gerald Henderson and Maurice Harkless among others. What do you think of the new additions and how they’ll fit alongside you?
Damian Lillard: “I like all of them. I’ve always been a huge fan of Moe Harkless. I really like Ed Davis. Overall, put all of them together, and I love the size and length and athleticism that they offer. Obviously all of them are younger, which means we can all grow and get better together. We’ll have time to get more familiar with each other and get comfortable with each other, so I like that part of it.”
Basketball Insiders: Ed Davis recently told me that one of the main reasons he wanted to join the Blazers was to play with you. Have you ever recruited free agents and is that something you’re open to doing in the future?
Damian Lillard: “I have never recruited anyone. I’ve spoken to guys with games that I like to see if they wanted to be in a different place and things like that – guys I thought would fit with our team. That was that, but I’ve never gone out and recruited people. I’ve always felt like people will go where they want to be, where they feel most wanted, where they can most benefit and benefit the team, so I let people make their own decisions. It’s kind of up to the player. If you go out there and you recruit somebody and, I guess, butter them up and they come and it’s not what you made them believe it to be then that can be bad, so you got to let people feel it out for themselves and work it out that way.”
Basketball Insiders: You signed a five-year extension with Portland this summer – congratulations, by the way. Lately, a lot of players have been signing shorter deals so that they can hit free agency again sooner. Why did you want to lock in the longest deal possible with the Blazers?
Damian Lillard: “First of all, as much as you want to have the greatest financial situation possible, I don’t play the game for money. I’m not trying to have a plan like, ‘Oh, I can make this much money and I can do this and this.’ I know right now I qualified for what I signed for and I know that I’m playing where I want to be playing at, and I know that the team I’m playing for wants me here. I think both sides just committed to another. It wasn’t about free agency and all those things like that. I don’t play that game.”
Basketball Insiders: I know Blazers fans were thrilled when you signed that deal. If all goes as planned, can you see yourself finishing your career in Portland?
Damian Lillard: “Definitely. I mean, I love it here. I love living here. I love the people here. This is just my kind of place. After growing up where I grew up, you just want to be in a nice, peaceful place. You want to be somewhere where people respect you and somewhere that you have built something. And I feel like I’ve built something great in my first three years here and I will continue to build on it. I consider this a second home. As long as they’ll have me, I’ll be here.”
Basketball Insiders: During Summer League, Neil Olshey said that he expects you guys to play more of an up-tempo style since you have a lot of young athletes on the roster. Are you excited about that?
Damian Lillard: “I am. I think playing faster is going to be the best thing for our team. We have a lot of really athletic guys that can really run. It’s not like we can play the same way [as last year] because we don’t have the same personnel. So I really like that idea of playing a faster game because of where we’re at. It’s something we can really take advantage of, and it’s something that we can do well. It’s going to be a lot of fun.”
Basketball Insiders: Because the roster features so many young players, some people are writing you guys off entering next season. Does that motivate you and do you think this group will surprise people?
Damian Lillard: “I do think we can definitely surprise people. I’m not sure why they would expect anything. We have myself, who’s been doubted. This is not my first time being doubted and second-guessed. And then we have a lot of young guys who are going to be put in certain roles and situations that they haven’t been in the past. Their responsibility is going to change. I think things like that is why we’ve been second-guessed or written off, but I think we’ll be fine.”
Basketball Insiders: With so many of last year’s veterans gone, are you looking forward to taking on an increased role next season?
Damian Lillard: “Definitely. I mean, the way I see it, anytime you get an opportunity to rise, grow and face a challenge, I’m all for that. This will be my first time being in that position in the NBA. It kind of reminds me of my sophomore year in college. I played my freshman year with a lot of good players and the MVP of the league and then everybody left. A new group of guys came in and I ended up being the leader right away. I did what I had to do. I just embraced the situation and took it for what it was. People have no expectations for us, so I mean that takes the pressure off. We’re just going to see what happens.”
Basketball Insiders: How much of an adjustment will it be not having guys like LaMarcus, Wesley, Nic and Robin around on and off the court? I know you were close with some of those guys.
Damian Lillard: “I mean, it’s definitely going to be an adjustment because you take a four-time All-Star out of the picture, you take a small forward who can do everything out of the picture, you take a shooting guard who is a lights out shooter and great defender out of the picture you take out a center who is as low maintenance as they come, who just wants to rebound, protect the paint and just cares about the team wining. You take guys like that away and of course everything changes. But like I said, the position we’re in, it’s all a part of growth. We just got to embrace that. Embrace the fact that the challenge is in front of us and this is what we’re faced with. We just got to step up to it like men and if it does work out, great; if it doesn’t go perfect, then that’s what it is. We just got to be ready to embrace the challenge.”
Basketball Insiders: Were you surprised to see LaMarcus leave to go to the Spurs?
Damian Lillard: “No, it didn’t surprise me. He spent nine years of his career in Portland. Last year we went to the second round, and this past year we lost in the first round and he’s at that point in his career where he’s thinking about a championship. Not that we couldn’t win it, but it’s not uncommon for a guy at his age to make changes for themselves and for what they want for their careers, so I wasn’t surprised by it at all.”
Basketball Insiders: What aspects of your game have you been working to improve this offseason?
Damian Lillard: “I’ve been doing a lot of stuff. Just working on different spots, different types of shots in different spots. I’m working on my balance, my core, ball-handling, my passing, things like that – a lot of stuff that’s going to allow me to make things easier for myself. Like you said, all the threats that I’ve had around me these first three seasons [have left] so now I’ll get a lot more attention on the offensive end. I have to be able to do other things, whether that’s getting to a certain spot on the floor, making the play to pass the ball out and sprint to another spot for an open shot instead passing the ball out, standing out and watching. I’ve been working on a lot of stuff like that.”
Basketball Insiders: Let’s talk about your rapping. First of all, you are ridiculously talented. Are you putting out an album and is there a timetable for that to drop?
Damian Lillard: “Well, I plan on putting out a short album. I want to do it way before the season is even creeping up on us; I want to get something done early. But it’s already done. If I do put something out, it’s not something that I need to do now, it’s already done. I recorded a lot stuff. But the crazy thing is, I don’t spent a lot of time doing it. I have things that I do. I work out twice a day, I get my lift in, I hang out with my family and I’ve just been relaxing a lot. But some nights, I decide to go the studio and do some music just to give myself some balance, to put my mind in a different place and kind of put my emotions out there a little bit. I don’t spend a lot of time doing it, so it’s been kind of funny to see people like, ‘Oh he better get in the gym!’
Basketball Insiders: I hate people who say stuff like that, like you guys are supposed to live in the gym.
Damian Lillard: “This is how I can break that down to you. So, they want us as professionals to be humble, right? They like for us to be humble and not act like we’re this and that, but at the same time you need to treat us like a normal person. Put it like this, for my mom growing up, she had two jobs. You praise the average person for working two jobs. But the fact that I have like a second career, possibly, people want to say just focus on [basketball]. So it’s kind of like you’re automatically making me not a normal person. You’re almost, in a way, taking my normalcy away by saying just focus on one thing, when you praise the average person for having a second job. That just doesn’t make sense!”
Basketball Insiders: Finally, I want to ask you about Lillard Camp. You go all out for this – working directly with the kids, bringing in talented coaches and even taking all of the campers to a movie theater to see Ant-Man! What made you want to do this camp and take it to that level?
Damian Lillard: “People pay their money to come get a great camp, and for their kids to learn something. I just want to give people what they signed up for and [what they paid for]. I just want to have that presence [at the camp] because making an impact on the kids is everything, man.”
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