The Blazers’ 2012-13 season has come and gone. As the NBA’s best remaining teams continue to grind through the playoffs, the Blazers and their fans must wait through the long dull months of the summer, crossing off the days until Opening Night in late October.
This most recent Blazer campaign could very well be remembered for a franchise-high 13-game losing streak that began in March and lasted through the end of the season. Blazer fans can be forgiven for being upset about how ‘12-‘13 ended and the question marks that are still quite obvious heading into this off-season and the 2013-14 regular season.
But forget that for a minute. Forget that the Blazers didn’t win a game in the month of April and didn’t play a close game in their last 10. This recently put-to-bed Blazer season was always about one thing—or more accurately, one guy: Damian Lillard.
Wednesday afternoon, the Rose Garden concourse played host to a pep rally masquerading as a press conference announcing Lillard’s selection as the NBA’s Rookie of the Year, capping easily one of the best rookie seasons in Blazer history.
Lillard is the fourth Blazer to win Rookie of the Year (Geoff Petrie in 1971; Sidney Wicks in 1972; Brandon Roy in 2007), and is only the fourth player to win Rookie of the Year by unanimous vote (Ralph Sampson in 1984; David Robinson in 1990; and Blake Griffin in 2011).
Portland’s sixth overall draft pick was penciled in as a favorite for Rookie of the Year almost from Day One. Lillard had one of the best NBA debuts in recent memory, racking up 23 points and 11 assists in a victory over the Los Angeles Lakers in front of a rabid home crowd that anticipated greatness.
Lillard’s line on that night made him the first rookie since LeBron James (the likely MVP of this season) to finish with at least 21 points and nine assists in their first outing. It also put him on the list with Isiah Thomas and Oscar Robertson as the only players to score 20 points and hand out 10 assists in their debut.
The comparisons to both current and past greats continued for Lillard as his rookie season unfolded, and along with them came numbers that established Lillard as a star in his own right. Damian joined Oscar Robertson (Hall of Fame class of 1980) and Allen Iverson (certainly Hall of Fame worthy) as the only players to score 1,500 points and collect 500 assists as a rookie on his way to leading all rookies in scoring, assists, three-point field goals, and 20-point games.
Blazer play-by-play guy Mike Barrett served as Wednesday’s master of ceremonies, leading the local press corps, gathered representatives from Adidas and Goodwin Sports Management—the shoe company that sponsors Lillard and the agency that represents him, respectively—as well as various family and friends and Blazer employees through a presser beamed live around the world via NBATV.
General Manager Neil Olshey, fresh off his own rookie season in the Blazers’ front office, spoke first. Olshey, who has been all business from the day he arrived in Portland, commended Lillard for being the championship caliber point guard the Blazers have been searching for.
“Not one time has Damian shirked from the ownership, the accountability, and the responsibility that we placed on him as an organization,” Olshey said. “That mantle that we asked Damian to carry as our future franchise point guard was a heavy weight to bear, and throughout it all Damian accepted that responsibility and handled it with such great aplomb and courage and determination to prove to everybody that small school players can excel in our league.”
Olshey made way for first year head coach Terry Stotts. As Olshey had done, Stotts praised Lillard’s work ethic and leadership, echoing how lucky he was to coach Lillard, a sentiment Olshey said also belonged to the city of Portland.
Stotts also focused on Lillard as a person, and when the 2012-13 Rookie of the Year took the microphone, following a short spiel from Kia—the sponsor of the award and the event—his personal development was the focus of his speech.
Damian’s story about growing up in Oakland is well-worn territory for Blazer fans who have been paying attention, but for the national (and international) viewing audience tuning in to listen to Damian speak about himself at length for maybe the first time, it was the sharing of his story that really hammered home just what the Blazers have in their newest franchise player.
Dressed to the nines, with a fresh haircut and a smile he couldn’t shake, Lillard talked about working hard as a kid to get tough, playing through injuries at Weber State, a small school with no basketball tradition to speak of, and preparing himself to compete at pre-draft events just to have the opportunity to get into the best professional basketball league in the world.
It’s Lillard’s ability to excel on the basketball court that has made him a budding star, and it’s his ability to be relatable without sounding insincere that makes him so marketable. Marketability and star-power are a lethal combination—not just for the Blazers, but for Adidas, Kia and the many other brands affiliated with the NBA that will be looking to profit from Lillard’s success.
Damian enumerated his continued professional goals in the question and answer session that followed his acceptance speech: NBA All-Star, Championship, MVP. Finding complementary parts for Lillard is the job of Neil Olshey this off-season, but the face of the franchise has been found.
Of course, major questions remain. Following last month’s exit interviews, here are the four major categories of Blazers players, as the team is currently constructed.
The Core: If you’ve been paying attention to this Blazer team, you know which players make up the core. If not, the core consists of LaMarcus Aldridge, Damian Lillard, Wesley Matthews, and Nicolas Batum.
When the Blazers were competitive, these were the four guys doing the heavy lifting. When questions were brought up about where this team was heading in the future, these were the four guys Olshey deemed untouchable. They were untouchable in the middle of the season, they were untouchable when the season ended, and they’ll be untouchable when 2013-14 kicks off in October.
In exit interviews, the attitude from the core was that 2012-13 was a kind of necessary evil. The Blazers needed to lose this season to get better in the next. Their attitude was also that the turmoil of last season has passed. When they come back in a few months, they’ll be playing with the same team and building on what they started in ‘12-‘13.
“People didn’t really expect something from us this year because we have a young team,” Batum said. “If you don’t count the last 13 games, what we showed before that, we showed some great things. We’re excited for the future.”
The Bubble Players: This second group of players is like the core—they could maybe even be considered the younger core—and it consists of Meyers Leonard, Joel Freeland, Victor Claver and Will Barton. The difference between these four and the top four is that if they don’t develop into contributors in a hurry, they could be history.
Though it was Barton that shined in the final week of the season, possibly cementing his place on a future Blazer roster, it was Meyers Leonard whose second-season development will be most closely watched. One of the Blazers’ biggest needs, as addressed by Neil Olshey, is a rim protector and rebounder at the center position.
“Right now I’m on a five- to six-month mission to come in and be that guy,” Leonard said of being the Blazers’ center of the future. “I know I have a lot of hard work ahead of me this off-season and this summer, but it’s something I’m willing to do.”
The Unknowns: This is smallest group, consisting of only J.J. Hickson and Eric Maynor. Both Hickson and Maynor are heading into free agency, and neither or assured of what lies ahead.
Hickson gained some traction as a Blazer in his best season as a professional, but his shortcomings hindered the team’s overall ability to compete at the highest level. Maynor came in halfway through ‘12-‘13, played a valuable back-up role, and could just be the second-string point guard the Blazers desperately need.
Hickson might demand free agent money the Blazers don’t want to spend. Maynor might be worth the extra bit of cash it could take to bring him back to Portland.
“I would like to be back here,” Maynor said matter-of-factly. “I like the fans, I like the organization. At the end of the day I would like to be here.”
The Goodbye Group: Luke Babbitt, Nolan Smith, Sasha Pavlovic and Jared Jeffries. This is the group of guys that Blazer fans have seen in Portland for the final time.
The epitome of this group is Jeffries. The seldom-used journeyman veteran was the only Blazer not to post for a media session at the exit interviews. After every other player spoke, the gathered media was informed Jeffries had, in fact, already been waived.
These interviews were a bit somber, even if Babbitt said there was still an open door in Portland.
Nolan Smith, the embattled second-year man out of Duke who saw very little of the court in either of his seasons as a Blazer, summed it up rather nicely: “They have a path that they want to go down,” Smith said. “And it’s pretty obvious that I’m not on it right now.”
Though Smith readily admitted he couldn’t see into the future and his agent will be in talks with the Blazers at some point, he said he was excited for his impending free agency and for the opportunity to find a more suitable playing situation next season.
Babbitt and Smith, both drafted by the Blazers, ended their availability with handshakes for various media members and team personnel, driving home the fact that they’d played their final games as Blazers.
The Outlier: Elliot Williams. You can be forgiven if you forgot about Elliot Williams. Drafted 22nd overall in 2010, Williams has played a grand total 24 games in three seasons. Williams is an outlier, though, because he’ll likely be coming back to the Blazers.
While Nolan Smith and Luke Babbitt will be looking around for other teams, Williams will be working on getting healthy, an unlikely x-factor on the Blazers’ young roster.