How can the leader of an NBA team help keep order in an ever-chaotic league? In the first episode of our second season, Portland’s Damian Lillard takes Breakaway into the locker room to better understand what keeps teams together and what pulls them apart. Lillard also discusses his fallout with LaMarcus Aldridge, the lessons he applied upon Jusuf Nurkic's arrival and what it takes to be a leader in the NBA on and off the court.
You can listen to the full episode below. Subscribe to Breakaway now on iTunes or Art19 to get every new episode, and be sure to scroll through the feed for any episodes you may have missed last season.
Rob Mahoney: Beyond everything else, the NBA is a workplace. Reminders of that fact are everywhere—and they’re a big part of what drives interest in the league. These are unbelievable athletes playing the highest-level basketball in the world, but they’re also coworkers doing all the things that coworkers do. Tensions can flare between two All-Stars who used to work together. A veteran will roll his eyes at something a teammate said. If you were to hear players venting to one another about their coach, you’d be amazed at how similar it sounds to the usual gripes over middle management.
So you take all of those typical workplace dynamics—the ambition, the politics, the passive aggressiveness—and you amplify the hell out of them. You do that by televising everyone’s work. Every mistake is picked apart on social media—an unending and merciless performance review. You make every raise a matter of public knowledge, down to the last dollar. That undercurrent of bitterness that runs between colleagues vying for the same promotion? You juice it with adrenaline and testosterone. You surround employees with reporters who will pry and pry, and then you detonate any response that veers from the company line. You bundle up all of that, and you drop it into the lap of anyone who would dare want to lead a team.
Someone like this guy:
Damian Lillard: This is Damian Lillard, point guard of the Portland Trail Blazers.
I think the working life of any NBA player, if you asked 10 guys you'd probably get 10 different answers. I think a lot of it has to do with the makeup of the team, what kind of guys you're around, what type of staff you have as far as a coaching staff, the front office because they're the people that shape the environment. You know, they choose what players come, what players go, the type of environment that they wanna have.
Mahoney: That’s all true, but Lillard is conveniently leaving out the influence of one crucial party in all this: The tone-setter. Every team, for better or worse, has a player responsible for establishing standards. LeBron is one of them. So are Steph and Russ. Lillard is in that same group. We’re seeing evidence of that fact unfurl in real time: As Chris Haynes reported for ESPN.com, Lillard sought out a one-on-one meeting with Blazers owner Paul Allen to discuss the direction of the franchise. Allen agreed. And so the team’s owner came to the franchise point guard, in part, to explain himself.
Think about that. Part of the reason Lillard was owed those kinds of answers is because so much of who the Blazers are, both consciously and unconsciously, comes from him. This is what putting your stamp on an organization looks like. He doesn’t just have the jumper or the feel for the game. Lillard has command—and unlike some of his peers, he puts a lot of thought into how to use it.
I’m Rob Mahoney and you’re listening to Breakaway.
Mahoney: No player comes into the league fully formed, particularly in their understanding of how a locker room actually operates. College is its own world—one where the coach has all the capital and dictates all the terms. So authority, to the NCAA athlete, is wielded from the top down. NBA teams work a bit differently. There are the veteran guys on every team who have their say. Certain stars and superstars have more pull than others. Coaches have a big part to play in how a team conducts its business, but the personality of a locker room is its own counterbalancing force.
Culture is a reflection of that personality. And when Lillard first came into the league in 2012, his first order of business was to soak up as much information as he could about the environment the Blazers had created. There wasn’t much for him to say until he knew more.
Lillard: Day one for me, I'm a guy that's—anything that's new to me, I observe a lot first. So when I first came around, I didn't—I didn't say a whole lot. You know, I just wanted to remember people's names. I wanted to know who's job was what, just so I know what people do. I knew everybody on the team already by name. I had been a big fan of the NBA. I knew everybody on the team, I knew who they were, I knew what their game was. But I was more just trying to figure out like, you know, Coach Stotts, I want to see what kind of guy he is. Our assistants, I ain't never met any of them.
Mahoney: So Lillard watched. He saw a veteran group attached to a certain way of doing things. Many teams operate this way; spending years in the league has a way of crystalizing habits, and with them expectations. It wasn’t really Lillard’s place then to challenge them—he just wanted to find his footing.
Lillard: And then, once I got a little comfortable, I'd have a conversation here and there with people. Just because I think it's important—it was important for me to allow them to get to know what kind of person I was. So they didn't look at me like, 'Oh, coming in, thinking he's gonna be all that,' or whatever. I wanted them to know: Look, I work hard. I got on the court and I worked hard. When people asked me questions, I gave them information about me—like this is who I am. Then I backed up. When I told them this is who I am, then I showed them with my actions, like, over time. But it was that simple.
Mahoney: That same formula has worked for Lillard for years: He expresses his honest intentions, he backs them up as best he can, and those paying attention get a clearer sense of who he is. Back then, that meant conveying that he was the kind of rookie who could be counted on. Lillard was a Day One starter for the Blazers, but there’s a material difference between getting minutes and really having a team’s trust. In Portland, the way for Lillard to do that was to prove that he could make life easier for the team’s unequivocal star: LaMarcus Aldridge.
Lillard: I was always trying to figure out: How can I help LA get going? How can I be the best complementary piece to LA as possible? That was my only, that was like my biggest thing. I wanted—like, I'm not here to make this team about me, or to take nobody's shine or nothing like that. I just wanted to be the best complement to LaMarcus.
Mahoney: Lillard lived up to his end of the bargain. He averaged 19 points and seven assists a game that season while refreshing the Blazer offense. Portland’s days of starting Raymond Felton were thankfully over. And all Lillard really wanted in return was guidance.
Lillard: I was literally telling my friends, 'I'm about to play with LaMarcus Aldridge. I'm about to be playing with LA. He an All-Star, he this, he that,' you know what I'm saying? So I was excited. And I was really looking forward to him taking me under his wing as, like, his little brother. Like, we gonna be going to dinner on the road. We gonna be hanging out. He gonna introduce me to, to this life and help me get to the level as a guard. And we gonna be this 1-2 punch, and gonna be the biggest tandem in the league. That was my thinking.
It just never happened.
Mahoney: Aldridge, as it turned out, didn’t have much interest in being a mentor. That’s not some great failing. This was seven years into his NBA career, right in the heart of his playing prime. There’s really nothing wrong with the idea that he would want to do his job and go home. That he would treat work as work—something to take seriously, but also something that falls within pretty specific boundaries. Aldridge never saw it as his purview to chaperone this rookie point guard, and so he and Lillard stayed as coworkers.
And after three years of working together, Aldridge moved on.
Lillard: I tell people all the time: I really loved playing with LaMarcus. I thought we play really well together. You know, and if it was up to me, I didn't want him to leave. I mean, I told him that. I told—every time I was asked the question, I—that's really how I felt. I wanted him to stay there cause I felt we could've won a championship together.
Mahoney: They never really had that chance. And as tends to happen when star players go separate ways, those on the outside started filling in the gaps with what they believed to be true. A lot of it came back to one particular assumption: The pride and confidence that arose in Lillard—the same qualities that made him one of the league’s top guards—must have rubbed Aldridge the wrong way.
The reality…was a bit less interesting.
Lillard: We had a good relationship. Me and him never had a single argument. We never had a single disagreement. People wanted to make it more about me and him than it really was. We never had a single issue.
I think it was just one of those situations where the gossip got the best of the situation. People started assuming this, assuming that, saying things. And then all of a sudden, it became the truth.
Mahoney: For every Shaq and Kobe, there are dozens of colder, more indifferent breakups. Star players on the same team don’t have to be best friends. And when they do split, odds are that it wasn’t because of some growing toxicity. It’s always much harder for a team to hold itself together than to pull itself apart—all for perfectly viable reasons. Clearly, something about Lillard and the Blazers left Aldridge wanting. And Lillard, by his own admission, wanted more from Aldridge than Aldridge seemed willing to give.
Lillard took that to heart. He stepped into the void that Aldridge left behind but aimed to fill it in a completely different way. The old rules were thrown out, and old habits with them. At the same time, Portland’s roster turned over to a younger core—the kind that could easily connect with someone like Lillard. And it did. The Blazers gradually turned into the kind of team that loiters around the practice facility after their sessions. They started meeting up in the offseason for group workouts at Lillard’s invitation. Change came quickly, in part because the roster itself was redesigned in Lillard’s image. Aldridge left. Nicolas Batum was traded. Wesley Matthews and Robin Lopez moved on. Everything came back to Lillard.
And through that, the Blazers empowered C.J. McCollum. The timing had kinda worked out perfectly. McCollum had played the best basketball of his young career in the 2015 playoffs, and he was poised for a huge increase in role—all thanks to some pretty basic math. This is how McCollum put it when Portland was heading into its first season without Aldridge:
C.J. McCollum: I would hope I get more attempts. I mean, LA was getting 18, Wes was getting a lot. And these guys are gone. In a normal world, the pecking order would change a little bit. And if we lost 60 shots, the wealth has to be spread out and I hope I’m in line to receive some of that.
Mahoney: McCollum has been a different player ever since. He’s averaged better than 20 points a game every season and, in 2016, he signed a four-year, $106 million contract to stay in Portland. Scoring guards like Lillard and McCollum could easily get in each other’s way. But for the most part, they don’t. And as people, they choose to work on their games together. These two had a relationship before McCollum was even in the league, and Lillard was among the first to blow up McCollum’s phone on draft night. And even though Lillard had established himself on a different level from McCollum, he chose to share a lot of his creative responsibilities. Players recognize that in each other. And so when McCollum signed that new deal with the Blazers, he explained his decision this way:
McCollum: I’m thankful for the opportunity and looking forward to building something special with this young core group of guys we have. I think we’re going to be very good. We have a lot of work ethic—a lot of guys who are unproven, had one year of success and looking forward to continuing to have success, continuing to kinda build a lasting legacy in the NBA. I think that’s the attitude all our players have, starting with Dame, a guy who’s come from a small school, who’s earned everything he’s received and looks forward to kinda continuing to build and continuing to win.
Mahoney: That following year, Portland traded for center Jusuf Nurkic—and Lillard found himself fully on the other side of a familiar dynamic. Nurkic was tough and proud and clearly talented. And he came to Lillard and the Blazers in search of something. There was an opportunity there for Lillard to make good on what Aldridge never did.
Lillard: So when Nurk came, and he kinda looked at me, I could tell he looked at me that way, I was like, I'm not gonna let this slip because I know the impact I can have on him. And I want him to know: Look, I'm here for you. Let's go to dinner. Come to my house. All this that I'm all over because that's what I wanted from him.
Mahoney: And with choices like that, Lillard made the Blazers his own.
Mahoney: Damian Lillard has a rep. That’s just what happens when you’re an All-Star. It comes with the All-NBA selections, the buzzer beaters, and the signature shoe. And the deeper he gets into the league, the more Lillard feels his new teammates sizing him up.
Lillard: It's been funny for me because when guys come in, they're looking at me like, 'Man, this Dame Lillard.' They look at me like I'm somebody. And a lot of times, I assume guys are gonna come in and look at me like: ’I wonder if he really that good.’
So I wonder if they think that about me. But the way they are towards me and the way they look at me, I can tell they looking at me like: he somebody. He's at that level. And I can have a great impact on people, you know what I'm saying? And I feel that it's very necessary for me to do that. To, you know, try to do as much as I can in those situations.
Mahoney: And that’s where he’s different. Lillard is one of the most accommodating stars in the league.
If you’re traded to Portland mid-season, he wants you to step into the locker room without missing a beat. If you sign with the Blazers on a 10-day contract, he wants you to feel like you’ve been there for years.
Lillard: I mean, I think it's great because it's done collectively. It's not like I gotta go be this great leader and be like, 'Alright, this is our team. This is how you get in good with the guys. I don't have to do that because we just—everybody is really good people. So we just break guys right in. You know, it's funny because every time we get a new player and they come around, we don't do this big introduction. Like 'Welcome to the team,' and all that stuff. We treat them as if they always been there.
Mahoney: The way the Blazers welcome you is by dropping any performance of a welcome in the first place. Right off the bat they’re cracking jokes—the kind that pull somebody into a group rather than bully them out. The goal is to be as above board as possible. And the result, according to McCollum, is this:
McCollum: Besides that, I think we all got along well. Everybody spoke their minds. Nobody was afraid to say certain things. If somebody played bad or if somebody wasn’t doing things the right way, you could address it and nobody would frown or look at you the wrong way.
Mahoney: That same direct approach informed Lillard’s meeting with Allen as well. The star point guard could have stewed quietly or requested a trade. Instead, he met with the team owner, face-to-face, to suss out what could be holding Portland back. Reportedly, everything was fair game for discussion—from the team’s underwhelming play this season to potential trade targets. And when he was asked about the meeting, Lillard defended it as a pragmatic exercise. He said: “I don’t think there’s anything wrong with communication.”
So many of the problems in the league could be easily resolved if everyone were just straightforward about how they felt and what they wanted. But in most cases, they’re not—because this is a workplace. And that’s how it goes.
Portland can’t root out all of those issues, but Lillard and his teammates do their best to at least remove some of the nagging doubt.
Lillard: You kinda eliminate all the whispers and the second guessing that a guy might have coming into a locker room because it's automatically—they get welcomed into everybody's real self. Like, Bazz will come into the locker room and Bazz is going to be himself. I'm gonna come into the locker room and I'mma be myself. Ed is going to be himself. For a newcomer, you just kinda walking into like, 'Well alright, they're not hiding. This dude just did this right in front of me, he said this in front of me.' I think there's a level of comfort that you get from guys showing you their real self regardless of if you new or whatever the circumstances might be of you coming in.
Mahoney: A lot of thought goes into the way Lillard operates, and a great deal of care. He spends time getting to know the people around him because he believes it’s important—less as the leader of a team than as a human being. So every rookie, every undrafted free agent, every member of the support staff—they become a part of the group. Camaraderie becomes a kind of intimacy.
Lillard: I don't treat people for any way because of what their situation might be. I think it's important because we share so much of our personal space. Six showers—you share a shower with these dudes. You share a hot tub and cold tub and an airplane. You sleeping around these dudes. The locker room. There's so much—it's so ... sentimental. Where it's just like, they know a lot about you. They're around you more than your family is around you so you wanna be familiar with these people, regardless.
Mahoney: And the way to become familiar is to create the kind of environment where everyone can be forthcoming.
Lillard: Typically for us, we just ask people questions.
Mahoney: Easy enough. So take Evan Turner, who joined the team in 2016 as a free agent. When Turner showed up at the facility, Lillard approached him with two goals in mind: First, to let Turner know that the Blazers don’t wear jewelry on the practice court, citing his the earrings Turner was wearing. And second, to learn as much as he could about who Turner was and where he was coming from.
Lillard: You know, I asked him: How was Indiana? You know what I'm saying? Why'd you end up—why did Philly end up getting rid—I asked him questions about his situations and he'll ask me. How was it playing with LaMarcus? And it's just a conversation to start and we'll learn things about each other that way.
I guess everything is on the table. And it's like that with every guy that comes here.
Mahoney: That Lillard often opens the conversation with new teammates gives them license to respond. There is an immediate opening to ask questions and gauge Lillard’s opinion on things. And some of Lillard’s credibility as a leader comes from making that first, frank contact. There are plenty of stars who feed into their own mystique. Certain team policies don’t apply to them. Lesser players are kept at a remove. They make themselves unapproachable. And in doing so, they gain authority but lose engagement.
Think about the way Portland plays. Terry Stotts has designed his offense to move. Lillard and McCollum will get their shots, but along the way, Al-Farouq Aminu will get his touches. Pat Connaughton will have his chance to make some plays. Ed Davis will be purposefully involved. These are matters of practical philosophy: Even though Lillard could create his own shot, he might get a better one if he works off the ball. And some teammate might screen harder or make that extra effort on defense if they feel like their minutes really mean something.
These ideas share a particular outlook on how teams function. The talent and the fit have to be there. But they promise something different in cases of genuine connection.
Mahoney: The idea of a star making their teammates better is baked into the way we think about basketball. It’s impossible to watch LeBron James without seeing just how easy he makes life for Kevin Love and J.R. Smith. It’s almost like a different game when every pass is delivered to you on time and on target.
Lillard isn’t that kind of playmaker. But he does facilitate—often long before he and his teammates ever take the court.
Lillard: My dad told me when I got drafted that one of the best things you'll be able to do with this blessing is impact other people. And you never know what type of impact you can have on anybody that come through the locker room.
Mahoney: When you have the respect of your peers that Lillard does, that impact can be profound. It can coax out new dimensions in the play of his teammates. It can give perspective to a Blazer who needs it. Or, it could help steady a prospect on the fringes of the league like …
Lillard: Tim Quarterman. He was a rookie on our team last year. And he came in, and he was just a tough dude. You know, didn't have a great idea about a lot of things in professional sports and he came from the hood. And I'm from—I’m from East Oakland. I knew a lot of his, his mannerisms, his demeanor, his approach to things. I knew where that came from because that's how I feel on the inside before I had enough time in college and enough time in the league. I was looking at him like, man, I know where he got all this stuff from. Like, I know why he feel and think the way he think.
Mahoney: Those qualities were so clear to Lillard because on some level, they were still a part of him, too. Lillard is nothing if not resolute; he plays with a conviction that’s clear to even the most casual observer. And living with that level of certainty can be difficult to reconcile with the learning curve of a young professional. That’s who Lillard was.
Lillard: I just felt like I was so tight with everything. And everything that I came from, it's in me. You know what I'm saying? It's such a huge part of who I am that I felt like this is all I need. And as long as I got this, all this other stuff is not important. And now, I understand, like, you gonna be a father someday. You gonna have to take care of people someday. And—it's gonna be so much other stuff that you gonna be responsible for that that mentality and all that stuff, it got you here but it's not gonna allow you to completely—to become the complete person that you need to become. As an adult. As a father. As the head of a family. As somebody that your younger cousins can look up to and get advice from.
I think that's the biggest thing is my growth from being a young kid that was just like taking all this pride and 'I'm from Oakland,' and 'I'm tough,' and 'I've been in the streets with all my friends, these hard dudes and all this stuff.' 'I'm built for this.' To more of the intellectual side, where it's like yeah, I am built for anything. You know, I can be a lot better than this. I can be in any room. I can, I can function at the table with billionaires but I can also go back to the neighborhood. But it's, it's very important to be able to do both instead of thinking that you have everything with just your foundation—even though your foundation is super important, there's so much more things that you need to build on top of that to be the best form of yourself.
Mahoney: Part of becoming a pro is realizing that the vehicles that got you into the league are often obsolete by the time you get there. The way you carried yourself, the way you prepared, the way you played—almost all of it has to change. The ones who succeed are those who separate. And in Lillard’s case, he tried to impart that message with Quarterman as best he could. When the entire team gathered in San Diego before the start of training camp, Lillard pulled Quarterman aside to talk.
Lillard: And to this day I'm checking on him, asking him what's going on. And I'm kinda—not holding his hand, but he know he got my support. And sometimes he'll reach out to me and ask questions. He cares about my opinion and that's just somebody's situation that I knew that I could have an impact on, you know, regardless of how long his career might be or anything. I know that I could really have an effect on, you know, what direction he goes in.
Mahoney: Quarterman didn’t stick with the Blazers. But Lillard’s guidance stands on its own: Attitude, approach—these are the things that players can control. They’re the things that can get you a job and help you keep one, even if it’s not in Portland.
But some of the most dangerous influences in the NBA tend to work from the outside in—seeping into a team and breaking it apart.
Lillard: You turn on the TV now and people are saying, 'Well, this team should do this,' and 'They should move this guy.' 'This guy's hurting the team.' Or somebody might ask me, 'Who do you think your team should bring in?' And I say a guy at somebody else's position. And it's like, 'Oh!' Now that guy may be feeling some way because I basically said somebody could do his job better than him.
Mahoney: This, in a nutshell, is why players are so distrustful of the media. They know the game that’s being played, and they know why a certain strain of coverage always goes back to the same, divisive narratives: the fake trades, the pecking order, and the harping on intangibles. But those players are also human. They may be wise to the way stories are being massaged, but they still hear their play being criticized on TV or see their teammates called out in print. They check their Twitter mentions, just like everyone else, and they see a constant stream of bile. Fans are desperate to tell them—in the loudest possible way—what they consider to be The Problem.
And if you think the noise goes away when a team is winning? Well, you must be new here.
Lillard: C.J. could play great and have a big game. And then they wanna say: 'Well who's better, Dame or C.J.?' When really, it's not important. We're two dominant guards and we need each other to win anyway. So why does it matter who's better, Shaq or Kobe? Why does it matter who's better, Steph or KD? Or Russ or KD?
Mahoney: Or, one might ask: Dame or LaMarcus?
Lillard: It doesn't matter because they need each other. But it's stuff like that that people say and throw out there and put out there and then everybody jump on it. And then they make it an issue. It didn't matter who's team it was, me or LaMarcus. I didn't care. He probably didn't care. But they put it out there and they made people believe it.
Mahoney: You can see why they might. There’s enough on-court beef in the NBA to suggest more might be just out of view. Someone’s not getting the ball enough. Someone else isn’t playing as much as they’d like. Another player might just not like the way he’s being spoken to. There’s a lot of potential for friction in the heat of a game, and one unavoidable elephant in the room: the money.
Lillard: I mean, I think everybody's aware of it.
Mahoney: Players know who’s about to become a free agent and they know who just got paid. They know when similar players on another team got a bigger contract than them, they know when a teammate commanded a bigger deal than they did, and they know when their own team played hardball just because they could.
Lillard: We worked super hard. We worked our whole lives to be in this position. And you don't wanna come in and you seeing guys getting all these contracts and you don't wanna count other people's money or watch other people's money but you wanna be rewarded. You wanna make as much money as you possibly can before your career's over.
Mahoney: Part of Lillard’s job is reading the room with money in mind. It finds its way into everything. That teammate who felt like they weren’t getting their touches? They might just be anxious about testing the market this summer. The guy who doesn’t feel like he’s playing enough? He might want to quiet the critics of that new contract he just signed.
Lillard: Sometimes, a guy might love playing where he's playing, but another team could pay him more money. I think as a leader, you just understand that sometimes guys have to move on. You—if there's any time to be selfish, I think that's the time—when you just gotta make a decision that's your life.
Mahoney: It’s hard not to take that personally when the guy leaving is your teammate, but Lillard knows the score. A franchise might put on a great show to make it seem like a family, but there are cold, calculated decisions to be made on all sides.
Lillard: If the teams says, 'Alright, we can get LeBron James. Damian Lillard loves Portland. He loves being here. He's been great. But we want LeBron James.' They gonna give me up. You know what I'm saying? Because that's LeBron James, and it's like, that's a business decision that they have to make selfishly for the organization. And I think as a leader, you gotta respect when guys make that same decision for themselves. That's the time to be selfish.
Mahoney: What bothers Lillard is when people try to tiptoe around the issue as if it weren’t the league’s primary driving force. There’s no reason to pretend otherwise. Even players who want to stay with a team might not, for the sake of five or ten or twenty million dollars. How could that kind of money not matter?
Lillard: I deal in reality. You know, if I know one of my teammates is having a great season and he's gonna be a free agent, I'm not gonna sit here and pretend that there's a hundred percent chance, you know, you're gonna be on this team next year. If the topic comes up, we'll talk about it as real as it'll be. I'm not gonna—I'm not comfortable when the conversation becomes fake, and we gotta skip stuff and not talk about this but we can talk about that.
Mahoney: Remember what Lillard said: Everything is on the table. And getting an element this significant out in the open gets ahead of it. If you can make a team’s financial reality just another part of the conversation, then you can square away some otherwise troublesome dynamics. Speaking with that kind of candor has become a radical act. But all Lillard wants is for it to feel normal.
Mahoney: Let’s turn back the clock. It’s March of 2016.
Lillard: We were struggling and we had an East Coast road trip. I think we played Indiana, Detroit, New York, I forget who the other teams was.
Mahoney: First it was Chicago, and then the Blazers finished their tour of the Eastern Conference by going through Boston and Toronto. It was a slog of a road trip—six games in nine days.
Lillard: But I remember in that trip, I was scoring 30 points every game. Because we were struggling and I told myself, I was like, 'I'm gonna just dominate. I'mma come out and kill everybody.' And I was just 30. 30. 30.
Mahoney: And Lillard kept it going at the Garden, dropping 24 points on the Knicks in the first half.
Lillard: I came out in the third quarter, and I was like, 'We need to win this game. So I'm just gonna stay being aggressive and try to finish 'em off.' I come off, hit a three.
Lillard: The next possession, I was like I'm just finna keep feeling it. I come off, and it was like—the crowd was going crazy, they was just showing me extra love. I'm already having a great stretch of games, I was having a great game. And the entire game, Mason Plumlee was the one setting screens. He just was getting me open, over and over. 'Yeah, Dame!' Hyping me up. So after I hit that three in the third quarter, I come off again. I've got a chance to raise up for another one but, like, both guys come to me. So my man fight over the screen and Mason's man is the one who contested the shot. And it was like, I knew both of them was guarding me. But I was like, in my mind, I was feeling it.
So I raise up, I shoot it again, but I knew Mase was wide open. Like, the floor was spaced, it was all that. Mase diving right down the middle, wide open. I let it go, I miss. They get the rebound, ball get tipped or something, go out of bounds. Time out. We walking to the bench, and Mase is like, 'Dame, you gotta make that pass.’ He's yelling at me. And I yell back at him, like, 'I was hot!' So we go back and forth, and I was just like—we went to the bench, and me and him, we had great communication with each other. And that was like the first time he said something to me and I said something back.
We got on the bench and I was just sitting there, and I was a little bit frustrated that we had a little back and forth. And the longer I sat there, I was thinking to myself: That was a great opportunity for you to give up some. You know what I'm saying? You gonna get way more shots than he is. You get way more credit than he gets. You feeling it, in the Garden, there's a whole quarter and a half to go. Like, you coulda gave that one up. And for him to have that reaction that wasn't like him, that was a chance that I had to kinda give him a piece. You know what I'm saying? I coulda gave up that one shot that didn't even go in for him and he woulda had a dunk. That's his game. And I just, I just felt bad that we even had that back and forth.
You know, I think as a leader, I already get a lot of credit for when things go well. I get a lot of credit for being consistent. And some guys never get credit. Even though Mase, like I said, he's getting me open every time. Setting screens. Sprinting the court. Calling out screens. He's doing all this stuff that he may not get credit for. And he says something to me, and that was a perfect opportunity for me to just be like, 'My bad.' You know what I'm saying? 'I got you on the next one, I shouldn't've took that shot.'
Mahoney: There’s the big secret to Lillard’s magnetism, and the thing that makes it so difficult to replicate: Some guys … they just get it. Lillard will say the wrong thing or push the wrong buttons, but he always circles back with a wider lens. This is a player notorious for fueling himself on perceived slights. The chip on his shoulder is preposterously large. And yet he balances those deeply personal, ego-driven motivations with the unsaid needs of the team around him.
Lillard: I know in my heart it's not selfish. And I think because of the amount of sacrifice and the conversations I have with my teammates individually and when I'm speaking to the group, and like I said earlier, how I back it up with my actions. Playing the right way. Showing up every day, working hard. I'm not sitting out of practice. I think it's a lot of things you can do with your actions that can show the people that you around and the people that witness things that alright, when I say this, they know it's not coming from a selfish place.
Mahoney: That context is everything. Because even when Lillard looks the part of a gunner, there’s so much more in play.
You wouldn’t know that the way he’s getting open comes from something McCollum pointed out to him on the team plane, telestrating on an iPad. You might not realize how far Lillard had gone to earn the respect of his teammates—the same ones who are feeding him for shot after shot. Lillard’s game is easy to appreciate. But it’s his humanity that makes him easy to follow.
Lillard: The best example I can give you is: We signed Tim Frazier. He was in Philly—getting waived, get signed, get waived. Went to training camp with Boston, got cut. Went to the D-League, he was D-League Rookie of the Year and D-League MVP in the same year. We—we have an injury. Wes Matthews go down. We sign Tim for the rest of the season. Last, maybe, 10 games of the regular season to stay with us in the playoffs and then into my fourth year he was there, like, up to the All-Star break. I could've easily been like, 'Man, this dude another point guard. 10-day, he ain't even get drafted.' Whatever. Tim is one of my best friends, to this day. Not one of my best friends in the NBA. One of my best friends. Like, in the summer I be with Tim every day. During the season, we talk all the time. He'll text me at halftime, like: 'What you see?' He know I'm watching his games, I know he's watching my games. Like, I don't go hang out with players I'm playing against. Me and Tim will go to dinner, like, the night before a game. They played in Portland one year, we went skating after the game.
You know, Tim's a super intelligent guy. Maybe he's a GM one day. Maybe his career doesn't go as long as mine and he's a GM, and I'm on my way out and I'm trying to get me another job. He might hold my job in his hand. You know what I'm saying? You just never know. So many situations that, that could come up. So I try to treat everybody with respect, you know, and I'm also curious about people's story and their situation cause I know that I'm very fortunate to be a lottery pick and to be an All-Star, to have a max contract. That's what everybody hopes for. But just because a lot of guys don't get those things doesn't mean they're less worthy or they're not as important.