Wasting Dame('s) Time
Damian Lillard rejects Ringz Culture. But isn't there a middle ground between that and ensuring you experience modest team success at the peak of your career?
Good morning. Let’s basketball.
Eugène Manet on the Isle of Wight; Berthe Morisot; 1875
Damian Lillard has become the NBA’s leading ambassador for enjoying the journey, for franchise loyalty, for perspective. Without ever intending it, he’s become the face of the resistance to Ringz Culture. This is a super necessary corrective; you can tell how I feel about Ringz Culture based on the the fact that I called it “Ringz Culture,” which is a mocking way to describe an NBA trope that took special hold in the NBA fandom during Kobe Bryant’s peak.
You can argue that Ringz Culture directly led to the Superteam Era of the sport; when a fandom begins focusing heavily on ultimate team success as the apex achievement for individual players, of course the best of those players will want to ensure they have the best chance at ultimate team success no matter its impact on their individual achievements. Many fans and analysts profess to despise the Superteam Era. But there’s plenty of overlap between the Ringz Culture adherents and opponents of the Superteam Era. There exists a general lack of awareness between the cause and effect here.
Dame, as such, is a corrective. He’s decidedly opposed to Ringz Culture, recently speaking eloquently on J.J. Redick’s podcast about what he considers his developing legacy in Portland and what matters to him right now, which is not what anyone says about his lack of NBA Finals appearances or championships. He is not at all a participant in the Superteam Era except as a victim of its excesses (meaning the Durant-era Warriors). If Lillard wanted to actively participate in the Superteam Era, he’d simply have to tell a reporter (privately or otherwise) that he’s unsatisfied with losing records in Portland. The best players in the league would throw themselves at Lillard to recruit him.
Instead, Dame takes almost every opportunity to re-assert his position that he’s fine not being in the NBA Finals. And that’s legitimately refreshing. It helps make Lillard one of the most interesting and enviable stars of his generation.
However, there’s a big gap between contending for championships and being out of the postseason. This is a league where now two-thirds of the franchises make the postseason in some way. For the second straight season, Dame’s Blazers will miss out.
In other words, while standing resolutely against Ringz Culture and the Superteam Era, Damian Lillard — having the best individual season of his Hall of Fame career —will finish the year on a bottom-10 team for the second straight season.
Ambivalence about winning a championship over the course of a 15- to 20-year professional sports career as a top-10 player of your generation? That can be liberating and beautiful. But from my vantage point as a non-athlete, that seems totally different than ambivalence over any team success. Losing is painful. Missing out on any chance to showcase your prodigious abilities on the grandest stage must be torture for any high-end competitor. Forget Ringz Culture: isn’t there a threshold of modest team success below “NBA championship” that is in some way non-negotiable for superstars on Lillard’s level?
Take it to a theoretical level: what if the powers-that-be in Portland decided to flat out tank next season? They move Jerami Grant and Jusuf Nurkic and devote the rotation around a healthy, 34-minute Lillard primarily to players on rookie and two-way deals. They aim for a top-3 pick. Surely the threshold comes into play there and Lillard reconsiders his position, right? Or would he be happy letting his career’s long sunset happen in the context of a purposely non-competitive team?
I presume pride and purpose would overtake his sense of loyalty at that point. In that light, I ask how far away we are from that scenario in a practical sense right now. Last year, the Blazers tanked once Lillard was injured and the season was otherwise lost. The Blazers aimed for a strong seed this season with the Grant trade, but didn’t go all the way in: they kept their pick to select raw, promising Shaedon Sharpe and don’t appear to have shopped Anfernee Simons, who is a superbly flawed fit next to Dame, in the offseason or at the deadline. The result of trying is about the same as the result from tanking: the Blazers will miss the play-in.
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If the reality of the current Portland Trail Blazers is little different than a theoretical version in which they explicitly do not try to win, then would we expect Dame’s pride and purpose to activate and overtake his sense of loyalty?
In the gap between championship contention and the most modest of team success, where is Dame’s threshold?
I ask this selfishly because we have seen Dame’s teams have success: starting with his second season in the league, Lillard’s Blazers made the postseason eight consecutive years. Portland won more than 50 games in Dame’s second and third seasons. The Blazers made the Western Conference Finals in his seventh season. We’ve seen it, and it was glorious. It’s the basis for all the lore around Dame.
Lillard has one of the prettiest games in the NBA. He performs exceptionally in pressure situations. He’s very likeable. He has a cool disposition and celebration. As an NBA fan, don’t you want to see him in the playoffs? Don’t you want him to continue to build his lore in the spotlight? Wouldn’t it be a little more exciting heading into what is setting up as a wild postseason if Lillard — one of the best guards of this generation and maybe any, one of the 10 best performers this season — was slated to participate?
Dame says he doesn’t care if he never wins a ring, and that’s a beautiful, healthy sentiment. But does he care if he ever makes the playoffs again?
Because that’s the situation with the Blazers right now: they are the 13th best team in the Western Conference, and the franchise seems to be in some mix of unwilling and unable to get dramatically better. Since Lillard’s epic run to get Portland to the WCF in 2019, the team has gotten worse and worse, all the way to the point by which Dame could very well make first team All-NBA and his team could finish with the sixth worst record in the entire league.
This isn’t a plea for Dame to change his mind, to change course. It’s a question as to where his personal threshold lays. There’s a big difference between surrendering to Ringz Culture and ensuring you have a roster around you befitting your talents. The latter is not and has not been the case for Dame lately. Where does he go from here?
If the answer is “nowhere,” then so be it. That’s his choice, and it should be a moral imperative on the Blazers to respect that by doing what it takes to give him a competent supporting cast that fits, regardless of the impacts on the team’s future. If that means shopping Simons for a bigger, defense-first guard and moving Sharpe and future picks for realized production, so be it. If Dame feels he owes it to you to stick around, you owe it to him to make this worth his effort.
Pacers 109, Hornets 115 — It’s important to note that despite Tyrese Haliburton being out, the Pacers have not turned to tanking: Myles Turner and Buddy Hield are still playing big minutes. Charlotte is just occasionally competent. They never traded all their competent but limited veteran players. So you end up with Gordon Hayward, Kelly Oubre and Terry Rozier combining for 73 points every once in a while.
Bulls 109, Sixers 105 (2OT) — BULLS ARE BACK. How do you get a 109-105 final score in a double overtime game in 2023? The teams combined to shoot 17/69 (25%) and the team that shot a little better (Philly) had 19 turnovers. Joel Embiid had 37-16 but fouled out in the second overtime; the Sixers were instantly dead in the water.
Don’t look directly at James Harden’s stat line. Use a mirror or something.
Two double-OT wins in the three games for Chicago. The magic is back!
Timberwolves 140, Knicks 134 — Julius Randle had 52 points entering the third quarter. Can you imagine my face when I saw that alert on my phone while finishing up the first half of Kings-Jazz? That JULIUS RANDLE had 52 entering the third quarter?
He finished with 57. Never before has “he finished with 57” felt so disappointing to type. Seeing Julius Randle drop 70 was on the table, and we were denied it.
Stirring victory for the Timberwolves despite Randle’s electric game. Taurean Prince is in there for Anthony Edwards, and Taurean Prince was on fire himself: 35 points on 12/13 shooting, 8/8 from three. No one told me Taurean Prince could do that!
Warriors 121, Rockets 108 — The Warriors won on the road! It only required a 30-spot from Steph Curry and the opponent being the worst team in the league. Golden State slides into No. 6 ahead of Dallas, currently setting up a Kings vs. Warriors first round series.
Golden State has one more road game before heading home: tomorrow at Dallas.
Mavericks 108, Grizzlies 112 — Dallas was up 13 entering the fourth. Kyrie Irving in that quarter: 0/8 with 1 rebound and 1 turnover. Jaden Hardy scored all three of the Mavericks’ fourth quarter field goals. The team went 3/21 from the floor. Impressive!
Memphis retakes the No. 2 seed in the West.
Meanwhile, Dillon Brooks will be suspended for the Grizzlies’ next game due to his 18th technical foul of the season. Hope it was worth it?
Like … what are you doing, bud?
Oh. Meanwhile …
Kings 124, Jazz 128 — Sacramento comes back from down 25 only to fail to get over the hump against the Jazz B-team in the clutch. Quite deflating! We’ll consider it retribution for that would-be game-winner Lauri Markkanen just missed getting off a couple months ago.
Good to see Kris Dunn revive his NBA career, though: 18 points on 7/12 shooting with 10 assists, and some good ball denial in the clutch on De’Aaron Fox. (It also seemed like Fox was trying to get his teammates open shots late instead of operating in isolation. Said teammates just missed the shots.) Ochai Ajbagi played great, too. He’s a player. The Jazz have a few somethings.
Walker Kessler is really, really good. He has a thing or two to learn still.
All times Eastern.
Wizards at Magic, 7 — Washington is on the ropes right now, everything’s a must-win
Pistons at Hawks, 7:30 — Atlanta needs to win to keep their streak of being within 1 game of .500 alive
Cavaliers at Nets, 7:30, NBA TV — Miami rooting HARD for Cleveland
Spurs at Pelicans, 8 — Utah and Minnesota winning Monday put a little extra pressure on New Orleans here, running out of time to get right
Celtics at Kings, 10, NBA TV — Finals preview?
Thunder at Clippers, 10:30 — big game for both teams!
Be excellent to each other.