The precedent, thankfully, has been set. But even if the Trail Blazers follow the Milwaukee Bucks' lead by pushing their chips all-in for a title, they're bound to face challenges Giannis Antetokounmpo and company didn't en route to the Larry O'Brien Trophy—and there's nothing Damian Lillard can do about it.
Antetokounmpo is now the most accomplished 26-year-old in modern NBA history. Only Bill Russell can come close to matching Antetokounmpo's resumé at his age, and the Boston Celtics legend did it in a league that featured just eight teams.
But maybe the most incredible aspect of Antetokounmpo's coronating Finals performance is that he still clearly has so much room to grow. He shot only 3-of-15 from beyond the arc altogether against the Phoenix Suns, and connected on just six non-paint twos in as many Finals games. Antetokounmpo's stunning proficiency at the free throw line in the clincher stood out most because of how uncomfortably awful he'd been from there since the playoffs tipped off eight weeks ago.
The broken jumper didn't matter. Maybe it would have in a different series, if the Los Angeles Lakers or LA Clippers didn't succumb to postseason injuries. But on the game's biggest stage against a worthy if unspectacular opponent, Antetokounmpo was always "one-of-one"—even without the single skill so many believed might always prevent him from reaching the mountaintop.
Lillard, by contrast, doesn't have any holes in his bag. He used Portland's embarrassing first-round sweep at hand of the New Orleans Pelicans in 2018 as fuel to level up as a ball-screen operator against defenses geared to stop him, and adds a couple new wrinkles to his step-back repertoire what seems like every season. Lillard, somehow, keeps extending his shooting range, too.
But even one of the most skilled and prolific perimeter players of all time is at an inherent disadvantage compared to his superstar peers with overwhelming physical tools. Lillard's trump cards of threatening the defense from the moment he crosses halfcourt and epic crunch-time bucket-getting just don't compare to Antetokounmpo's blend of never-before-seen length, strength and explosiveness.
The same goes for LeBron James' combination of size, athleticism and generational court sense. Kawhi Leonard's ability to rise up and splash jumpers from any spot on the floor at 6-foot-8 with arms that hang at his knees is truly unstoppable. Luka Doncic has already proven his ball-handling chops, all-court shooting touch and otherworldly vision are a different beast in the postseason.
In an offense-only vacuum, maybe Lillard can match or exceed the supreme impact Antetokounmpo and those luminaries inevitably make when the stakes are highest. Look no further than Lillard's masterpiece Game 5 against the Denver Nuggets as evidence of that reality. But the Blazers lost that game despite Lillard's double-nickel, and his unacceptable early effort on defense is among many reasons why.
And that's what really separates Antetokounmpo and other physically imposing alpha dogs from Lillard: Their scalability and versatility not just offensively, but on the other end of the floor.
The Bucks had the luxury of playing Antetokounmpo beside Brook Lopez and Bobby Portis versus the Suns despite the Finals MVP's complete lack of shooting range. There aren't many defenders who can hold up one-on-one against Lillard in space, but his reliance on jumpers ensures just average individual defense will sometimes get the job done. That's not the case for Antetokounmpo with the floor spread, at least when he's intent on attacking the paint.
Deandre Ayton, a breakout postseason performer, was utterly helpless guarding Antetokounmpo in the Finals. He also shot an ugly 4-of-10 from the paint in Game 6, clearly spooked by Milwaukee's team-wide rim-protection despite cementing himself as an elite interior finisher throughout the playoffs.
Antetokounmpo had five blocks in Tuesday's game, intimidating Phoenix again and again as a primary defender, weak-side helper and chase-down monster. But Lopez deserves a lot of credit for slowing Ayton down, too, as do the Bucks at large for owning the defensive paint all postseason long.
It's just much easier to surround a primary playmaker like Antetokounmpo with rangy, disruptive defenders than it is Lillard. Go-to guys like Antetokounmpo, James and Leonard can thrive playing almost any defensive role in any defensive system. Doncic isn't anywhere near their level on that side of the floor, but his sheer size still affords the Dallas Mavericks scheme and lineup versatility defensively that Lillard's diminutive stature doesn't for Portland.
Chris Paul, a nine-time All-Defense honoree whose singular influence helped turn the tide for Phoenix defensively this season, was frequently targeted by Milwaukee in the Finals. Is there any doubt the Bucks would have enjoyed greater success attacking Lillard?
None of this is to say an elite guard can't be a title team's best player.
As the Golden State Warriors showed with Steph Curry, though, it takes a special group of quality, committed, communicative defenders to account for the gaps created by an all-world small who will often be at the defensive mercy of opposing superstars. Not even Draymond Green, Andre Iguodala, Andrew Bogut, Klay Thompson and Shaun Livingston could protect Curry enough from James to stave off the Cleveland Cavaliers' instant-classic comeback in the 2016 Finals.
The Blazers, obviously, are lucky to have Lillard. He's one of the ten best players in basketball, and at his best can outduel any player in the world on any given night. But as all of Portland looks to Milwaukee for wide-eyed inspiration of the Blazers' first championship since 1977, it's crucial to remember that building a title team around Lillard is a far more difficult task than doing the same around physical freaks like Antetokounmpo.
It took a rash of injuries and the sole of Kevin Durant's sneaker for the Bucks to make good on trading three first-round picks and two first-round pick swaps for Jrue Holiday with a title. Lillard has made it abundantly clear he expects that same sense of urgency from Neil Olshey and Portland's front office before 2021-22, or else.
Even if a blockbuster trade of similar risk comes to pass for the Blazers, though, their realistic chances at the ultimate reward will still pale in comparison to Milwaukee's this season—an unavoidable reality manifested by size and athletic limitations Lillard can't work to fix.