In the middle of the second quarter of the Blazers’ gut-wrenching overtime loss to the Pacers in Indiana, ESPN analyst Mike Tirico made a throwaway comment about Damian Lillard.
Addressing the national TV audience, Tirico said that if you—NBA viewers outside the Portland metropolitan area—don’t know about Damian Lillard, you will have no choice but to get to know him over the All-Star Weekend.
Tirico probably didn’t know his casual statement basically nailed the Blazers’ All-Star Weekend marketing strategy right on the head.
The Blazers slow-rolled the Damian Lillard All-Star announcement. His participation in the dunk contest was tipped first, and speculation that he might be involved with all the All-Star Saturday Night individual events was confirmed when it was announced a day or so later that Lillard would be defending his Skills Challenge crown and shooting it out for three-point supremacy.
Added to the earlier announcements that Lillard was selected to play in the Rising Stars Challenge (at one time known as the Rookie/Sophomore Game) and would be making his All-Star debut in the big-boy game on All-Star Sunday, the basketball world was on notice that Damian Lillard was going to be basically everywhere during the NBA’s biggest celebration of itself.
If this wasn’t exactly a calculated effort by the Blazers to put their newest superstar front and center on the NBA’s biggest stage, it probably wasn’t an accident, either.
Serious basketball fans say that every single one of the NBA regular season’s 82 games matters. They’re sort of wrong, because by February a full half of the league is playing for pride alone. But they’re also right, because every season playoff seeding might come down to only one or two games.
The All-Star Game is the only game on the NBA schedule between the last week of October and the middle of June that is totally meaningless, but the festivities surrounding it, and the actual action of playing the game itself, might be the most important league-wide event of any season.
That’s because the All-Star Game (and it’s expanded existence as the All-Star Weekend) is a full-on branding bonanza. It’s the big chance for the NBA to sell its services, the personalities of its best players, and the top-shelf product it hopes to have on hand for the postseason to a willing and captive audience.
For a stretch, the Blazers were left on the sidelines of the league’s most special weekend, partly because they weren’t good enough and partly because the players on their roster who were good enough just weren’t exactly the types of guys the NBA wanted hawking its goods and services.
Everything changed in 2008, the year Brandon Roy made his first All-Star team. At the time there were doubters. Some suggested that a conference deep on guards didn't have room for Brandon. The Western Conference assistant coaches disagreed. The doubters faded after Roy's first All-Star run, and were gone completely by his second consecutive ASG appearance. But every Blazer fan knows how the Brandon Roy situation played out.
Certainly, the major downside to having a couple of bum knees was that the Blazers were deprived of what could have been the prime seasons of one of the franchise’s best players.
But one of the less obvious negatives of a career that burned brightly for just a minute before it flamed out completely was that the Blazers were never really able to capitalize on what Brandon Roy could have been from a branding perspective.
At his highest, Brandon could have been one of the NBA’s biggest stars. As it was, the grief exhibited by the Blazer faithful upon Roy’s first announced retirement was matched, and maybe even surpassed, by that of his NBA co-workers. Brandon Roy will forever be remembered as your favorite NBA player’s favorite NBA player.
The Blazers had no way of knowing what was going to happen to Roy, but they know for sure they’re not going to miss out on what Lillard can offer both on the court as a leader and off the court as one of the few personalities the league uses to sell the NBA as an enterprise.
Currently, that aforementioned list consists of four or five guys, (LeBron James and Kevin Durant being the top two), and expands to maybe 10 in the second tier down from the top of the pyramid. Lillard is already in the next group, which consists of the 25 or 30 marquee players who are either young guys on the ascent or mid-level superstars who are consistently solid players but aren’t really marketable enough.
It’s impressive that Lillard has reached that level already, considering it took LaMarcus Aldridge seven seasons to get there. L.A., Portland’s “other” All-Star, might never get any further up the superstar pyramid. He’s got a bit of a frosty demeanor and isn’t an amazing interview. His game also doesn’t really translate to easy-to-digest highlight packages that help to turn small market players into household names.
Lillard doesn’t have those issues: He’s personable, fluid on camera, and has a penchant for clutch shot making and rousing in game dunks. And if he does struggle with any of the traits an NBA superstar must have, he’s young enough, and with so little pre-draft narrative, that he can be pushed by the Blazers in almost any direction.
Thus, Lillard’s historically busy All-Star Weekend.
And how did it all go? Not great, to be honest.
Lillard successfully defended his Skills Challenge title, but a change in structure from an individual competition to a team relay means Lillard will share the trophy with Utah rookie Trey Burke.
A furious shooting display by Marco Bellinelli kept Damian out of the finals of the Three-Point Shootout. The Dunk Contest might have been the high point of Lillard’s weekend, unless you count the 30 minutes he played and 13 points he contributed to his team’s winning effort in the second-most pointless event of the weekend to the Celebrity Game, the Rising Stars Challenge.
Lillard turned a few heads in the dunking exhibition, but due to some completely unexplainable changes in format, he got absolutely jobbed by former Jefferson High standout Terrance Ross and former star of Degrassi: The Next Generation, Aubrey Graham (better known as Drake).
As for the actual game, Lillard made hay with the time he was given, but his nine points in eight minutes were greatly overshadowed by the 31 points scored and 14 assists handed out by Cleveland’s Kyrie Irving, Lillard’s most direct competition for the league’s point guard of the future.
In his first All-Star Game, coincidentally also in New Orleans, Brandon Roy led the West in minutes played and tied with Carmelo Anthony and Amar’e Stoudamire for team scoring leader.
Lillard didn’t fare quite as well. Hopefully, though, as Mike Tirico predicted, any NBA fan who might have been unfamiliar with Damian, or with how he’s emergence has been key to the Blazers being in the thick of a tight Western Conference, has had that affliction remedied.
For the Blazers, a bump in Lillard’s branding means a bump in their branding. And winning the branding game is almost as important as winning basketball games.