Sure, his Portland Trail Blazers may be headed to the NBA Draft
Lottery for the first time in eight years. And yes, along with
Norman Powell and Robert Covington, CJ McCollum was traded
But the best days are ahead in Portland. That is, if you’re to
take Damian Lillard’s word for it.
According to the 31-year-old superstar, the "best is yet to
come" for both him and the Blazers franchise, and a championship
remains the goal.
It may appear unlikely for the lottery-bound Blazers, but in a
recent sitdown with Chris Haynes of Yahoo
Sports, Lillard’s message was clear: Be afraid — of him and
Portland, that is.
“It's the first time that I can say I was pain-free since maybe
2016, 2017,” Lillard revealed during his sitdown with
“I think that's when I first started having issues. That was the
last time I was probably moving freely, easily and just flowing the
way I am right now.”
Despite living with and playing through the pain between the
2018 and 2021 seasons, Lillard has both been named an All-Star and
to the All-NBA First and Second Teams. And although he wasn’t able
to fully participate with his Blazers this year, he is looking
forward to the challenge of continuing to lead the franchise,
especially with the seldom-seen financial flexibility they’re
expected to have after some midseason moves — the most notable of
which saw McCollum traded to the New Orleans Pelicans.
“We've positioned ourselves to do something that we haven't been
able to do since I've been here, which is we’ve opened up money,”
“We got picks, we got a $22 million trade exception, we got a $6
million trade exception, we got the full Mid-Level (Exception), we
got the Bi-Annual (Exception). We have an opportunity, and we got
Still, though, Lillard realizes that nothing is guaranteed, and
that the team has to be able to sell both him and its vision to
players. Ultimately, that will be Portland's challenge this summer.
But the silver lining in Dame’s extended absence has been the
opportunity it’s afforded to some of the team’s lesser-known (and
inexperienced) players to get repetitions — and, for some, prove
that they belong in the NBA.
Anfernee Simons, for example, is stepping up admirably. In 57
games (30 starts), the 22-year-old has turned in career-high
numbers nearly across the board: 17.3 points, 2.6 rebounds and 3.9
assists in 29.5 minutes per game. He’s also connected on 44.3% of
his field goals, including 40.5% from three-point territory.
Aside from Simons, head coach Chauncey Billups has found value
in the likes of Drew Eubanks, Trendon Watford, Brandon Williams and
CJ Elleby. They haven’t necessarily led Portland to as many wins as
the team would have liked, but each has shown flashes of potential
and given Billups productive minutes. The hope is that they will
improve to the point where they can join Josh Hart, Justise
Winslow, Jusuf Nurkic and, of course, Lillard as members of the
That being said, Lillard isn't naive to the fact that whatever
happens in Portland will start and end with him. And though he
would be considered “older” on the youth spectrum, he draws
optimism from many of his elders who are still playing at a high
level. Think about DeMar DeRozan (32), Kevin Durant (33), Steph
Curry (34), Chris Paul (36) and LeBron James (37), just to name a
“It seems like after I announced that I was having surgery,
people were like, ‘Oh, he's 31 and having this done.’ Man, 31 is
not old,” Lillard said.
“We have guys around the league older than me that are still
playing at a high level... My game will age well, and I don't have
a history of injuries,” Dame defiantly added, passively pointing
out the fact that, during his first seven seasons, he appeared in
95.5% of his career games.
Sure, the last three seasons have been a different story — he
will have missed 66 games in all — but he’s confident that the
abdominal issue that’s hampered him will become a distant
“The [injury] that I just had is not a bad injury to have,”
“I'm going to come back and be fine... Like I said, my best is
yet to come.”
Citing winning the league MVP and a championship as his
priorities during the interview, the rest
of the NBA should certainly wonder just how much better Damian
Lillard could be.
If he could even return as the same player we last saw, much
less an improved version of himself, with a good move or two,
there’s plenty of reason to believe that Portland can become a
contender once again — and in short order.
If you’re to take Lillard’s word for it, it’ll be sooner rather
For the 31-year-old superstar, eager to put the 2021-22 campaign
behind him, next season simply can’t come soon enough.