Roses Are Free

I want to talk about Damian Lillard – I’ve wanted to talk about him for weeks now, in truth – but first, I want to talk about my year in AP Calculus, a class in which I had no business being. That may explain why I often tried not to be there until the last possible second, or created diversions while showing up late.

Read together, the next two sentences may not make much sense: I’m not great at math and never have been, but I was a kid who could figure out a given answer by backdoor means that always resulted in a “SHOW WORK” notice in, always, red pen. I took AP Calculus and was by far the worst student in the class, yet I still managed to get a 3 (out of 5) on the Big National Exam, and I was overjoyed with it.

Leaving at the side of the road with a note and a prayer the fact that I attended an objectively great public school district in an objectively great, sovereign, forsaken state – God’s will meets taxpayers’ willingness, I suppose – I was proud of what I’d done, somehow figuring out what I needed to do to be, however slightly, above average.

Nearly everybody else in that class got a 5, but I was overjoyed with my result. I set a goal and accomplished it, in my mind a fleetingly rare occurrence, and other people were happy for me, some guy many of them have since forgotten about, even if they remember Bojangles coming through a school window at the collective behest of myself and a couple of co-conspirators.

Point being: sometimes, you have to see things through. You hear voices telling you it won’t work out if you continue down this path[1], and it only makes you want to go forth more. It’s a troubling, compulsive tendency that, nevertheless, has yielded some just desserts. On that note, though, I wonder: Why can’t we all just be happy for Damian Lillard?

Right now is when I make it clear that being in AP Calculus, while as generally unnecessary in terms of real-life application as shooting free throws for hours but for the chosen few, is not at all, I have to imagine, like being in the NBA. Let’s make one parallel five grafs in and move on: when you set your mind to a singular thing, you will do your absolute damnedest to figure it out, even-slash-especially when things aren’t going so well.

As it stands now, the Portland Trail Blazers sit 13th in the West, four games out of the last play-in spot. Given the realities of the sport and, specifically, how amateur athletes are, ahem, invited to the NBA, it will reportedly soon be the case that Portland shuts down its talisman, despite his absolutely insane production.

Particularly since the calendar flipped, Lillard has been a man burning in the core of this planet: 35 points, seven assists and five rebounds per game on a true shooting mark of 66%. This is territory that only MVP candidates grace; that Dame is chugging away at this for a team eight games below .500 makes it even more inspiring, or perhaps simply more metal.

Ages ago, Brian Kraker described Lillard in Curry-esque terms on this very website: “He’s must watch television. Lillard is the type of guy you receive texts about from your friends, pleading with you to turn off Grey’s Anatomy and watch an innocuous Blazers game, just to see more of Lillard’s highlight reel play.” Lillard has always been this guy.

When he nailed perhaps the coldest shot in playoff history, non-Finals division, in the face of Paul George and Russell Westbrook and Carmelo Anthony and all that I wanted to hold dear despite the truth? I could only laugh. Of course! He’s ALWAYS been this guy!

With Dame, the Blazers have had playoff runs, most notably getting to and then summarily excusing themselves from a would-be battle with the Golden State Warriors in the 2019 Western Conference Finals, but a lack of concrete success begs the same questions every summer, and toward every trade deadline: won’t the Blazers finally set Damian Lillard free?

Even a month after the most recent trade deadline, the premise remains irritating. What if Damian Lillard simply likes to ply his trade, one at which he is an all-time great, in Portland? What if he isn’t interested in shifting his entire life and career to accommodate some other city where some other star already has a foothold in what would be anything but a guarantee of a championship?

Fortunately, Lillard himself has thoughts, courtesy of JJ Redick’s “The Old Man And The Three” podcast:

            When my career is over, ya’ll are not about to be talking about me. Ya’ll are going to be talking about Luka Doncic, Ja Morant, Jayson Tatum — whoever when I’m done playing. They’ll talk about me when they say ‘who had the most 40 point games or 50 point games or Portland, whatever.’ But like, why am I going to be sitting here overly concerned with everything that every person has to say about me when they don’t know my life,” Lillard wisely said. “They don’t think about me when they get off of that camera. And when I’m done playing, they won’t think about me.

Damian Lillard, “The Old Man and The Three” (March 15, 2023)

While he has also recently made championship-forward statements, the Trail Blazers will need Anfernee Simons to become whatever the version of Anfernee Simons is that also looks like Dwyane Wade in short order for Portland to return to something like title contention any time soon. It might happen! I don’t have a DraftKings account and am not in any rush to wager on that, though.

The central problem is this: #RANGZ culture has led players to a title-or-bust mentality, which leads to talent concentration a la the Celtics, Heat and Warriors. The flipside of that is what Kevin Durant is currently experiencing: he’s won multiple titles and multiple Finals MVPs but is viewed in some circles as a frontrunner. James Harden requests trades whenever Mercury is in retrograde. The other of that particular triumvirate is, I suppose, going to co-pilot the Clippers for the rest of the season without Paul George. They hear it.

It’s a losing proposition from the start. We love homegrown superstars and hate when they either leave or, worse, when they win, but not enough. Be a star and win where the fans know and love you. Be a star and leave the place where you became one? Fraudulent. Be a star and never win, oof: now you’re the butt of a weekly joke on national television, courtesy of Shaquille O’Neal.

Dame clearly wants a title, but he also clearly seeks happiness on his own terms. That he is so forthright in what those terms are and how we, fans or media, do not set those terms makes him the sane one. If you have a job, and you like and are good at your job, that can be enough, at least in terms of what it takes to pay the bills.

We don’t need to innovate or iterate more. We don’t need the growth mindset. We don’t need to always be looking to win; sometimes it’s enough to simply be here. Heading into his age-33 season, Damian Lillard is as explosive and deadly as ever. He’s as fun to watch as any player in the NBA. He isn’t taking anything out of your paycheck by staying in Portland and not demanding a trade to your favorite team.

Not at all unlike getting a perfectly serviceable grade on a standardized national exam: being happy living and playing in Portland. That can be enough! Plenty of people enjoy that. Damian Lillard certainly seems to. It is enough. He is enough. Let him be that.

[1] Mrs. Blackmon on the one hand, Nate McMillan on the other: totally the same!


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