Objectively, Damian Lillard is as accomplished as nearly anyone in the NBA, but the legacies of all-time greats are judged against other all-time greats. Shaquille O’Neal teases Charles Barkley on "Inside the NBA" about having won zero championships because he can. Win one, and you’re forever a member of the club. Fail to do so, and you’ll remain on the outside looking in.
Granted, being an all-time great is a good club to be a part of, but failing to win a championship can be utterly haunting. Just watch players like Barkley and Patrick Ewing talk about failing to win on the biggest stage. You hear regret in their voices. And pain. And there’s nothing they can do about it.
It’s premature to lump Lillard in with the aforementioned greats. After all, he’s still only 31, meaning he has years remaining before we can have an honest discussion about his place amongst league legends (with or without a championship). I’ll happily wait until he’s retired to assess his legacy.
What I will address now is the fact that Lillard’s inability to deliver a championship to Portland in his 10 seasons is actually not his fault. In fact, I posit that that no superstar in recent memory can be blamed less than Lillard for his team’s shortcomings. Lillard has faced a grueling uphill battle since joining the Trail Blazers as a rookie, and his presence has resulted in Portland consistently outperforming their talent.
First, let’s inventory how Lillard’s Trail Blazers have fared in the postseason. In total, Portland has missed the playoffs twice since Lillard was drafted: once during his rookie year and again in 2021-22, a season in which Lillard was shut down in late December due to abdominal surgery. Had Lillard been healthy all season, his Blazers may have made their ninth consecutive postseason appearance.
Once there, Lillard is an impactful postseason player, posting 25.7 points and 6.2 assists per game in 12 career postseason series. Across his playoff career, he’s shot 41.2% from the field, 36.9% on threes and 88.7% on free throws. He’s also had several epic shots that were either game-winners or series-enders, which probably inspired Robert Horry, an all-time great shooter himself, to recently refer to Lillard the best clutch shooter ever.
Robert Horry calls Damian Lillard the best clutch shooter ever over Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant— NBACentral (@TheNBACentral) May 13, 2022
“He has hit a clutch shot versus every team in the NBA.”https://t.co/lg34EjTZNB
Despite his heroics, Lillard’s Trail Blazers have never reached the NBA Finals. They did succeed in reaching the Western Conference Finals once in 2019. They ultimately lost to the Golden State Warriors. They also lost to the eventual champion San Antonio Spurs in the Western Conference Semifinals in 2014, the 73-9 Warriors in the Western Conference Semifinals in 2016 and the eventual champion Los Angeles Lakers in the first-round in 2020. So, four of Lillard’s eight postseason appearances ended against either the eventual champions or the dynastic Warriors.
Like Barkley and Ewing before him, Lillard has been a victim of time and circumstance, as his prime fell right in the middle of the Golden State Warriors’ historic run. But in Lillard’s case, his struggles have been about more than his opponents. After all, Lillard is not dominated by any one player like how Jordan dominated his era. His circumstances are more a result of his supporting cast, or lack thereof.