In the 1979 film Stalker, the eponymous Stalkers are informal, illegal guides to a blighted Zone somewhere in Eastern Europe. In the middle of the Zone, it is said, there is a room that grants the true heart’s desire. And we learn, secondhand, about the tale of one Stalker named Porcupine.
Porcupine brought his brother into the Zone, where he perished in an accident. Porcupine, grieving, entered the room, expecting that his brother would be brought back to life. When he arrived back in civilization, though, he unexpectedly came into a bunch of money. The Room, you see, does not grant wishes: it grants the true heart’s desire, and Porcupine’s deepest desire was not for the salvation of his brother and the erasure of his mistakes: it was for wealth. Upon figuring out what happened, Porcupine hangs himself in shame.
We can’t know what our true heart’s desire is. To know it might send our sense of self scattering into the wind. We believe we should want what’s good, but deep down, we might crave something small, asinine, petty, and self-gratifying.
A few months ago, the Portland Trail Blazers, bleeding and miserable after one of the worst seasons in franchise history, decided to draft Scoot Henderson, an athletic, high-scoring guard with the third pick in the NBA Draft. Henderson was regarded as a sure thing by most draft experts, a first-overall talent cursed to run up against a game-breaking phenom. Damian Lillard, the team’s best player and the franchise’s all-time leading scorer, wanted the team to trade the pick so they could get back into the playoff race as quickly as possible.
Declaring himself uninterested in a rebuild, Lillard requested that the team trade him. His agent, Aaron Goodwin, called every team interested in Dame and told them to stay away unless they were the Miami Heat, who’d just played in the NBA Finals despite only winning 44 games and limping into the playoffs last year. Blazers GM Joe Cronin, either because he thought Miami’s offer was bullshit or didn’t like being jerked around by Pat Riley and a second-tier agent, wasn’t interested.
Instead, Lillard was traded to the Milwaukee Bucks in a three-team deal with the Suns. The Blazers received Jrue Holiday (currently on the trading block), center Deandre Ayton, Toumani Camara, the Bucks’ 2029 first-round pick, and swap rights on the Bucks’ 2028 and 2030 picks. The Suns received center Jusuf Nurkić, widely-disliked guard Grayson Allen, Nassir Little, and Keon Johnson. Milwaukee gets a second star to slot alongside all-world athletic freak Giannis Antetokounmpo (they also get to worry about how they’re going to pay anyone in a few years, when both players will be making $60 million a piece, but that’s a problem for another day); the Suns, a top-heavy squad in desperate need of some depth, got that depth; and the Blazers received picks and Ayton, a younger, more talented center who should compliment Henderson, Anfernee Simons, and the other players on the now up-and-coming young team.
Miami Heat guard Jimmy Butler, known for his tenacious play and sense of humor, took to Instagram and accused the Bucks of tampering. I’m pretty sure he is joking, sardonically alluding to the dirty pool that Miami was playing in the run-up to this trade. But hey, Giannis did take Dame first overall in last season’s All-Star Game draft, so maybe he is onto something here.
Can you see conspiracy in their eyes? Did Dame only request a trade to a Finals squad in sunny, income-tax-free Miami because he wanted to manipulate his GM into sending him to the Bucks? Was he playing chess this whole time, not just demanding that his agent embarrass himself for no reason? Probably not.
For most of the team’s existence, the widespread feeling among Trail Blazers fans was cheerful fatalism. They like the team, they go to the games and root their hearts out, wear the jerseys, but when you’re talking about it with your friends, you like to complain. You were exasperated over injuries, dished about David Stern taking it from them in 2000, annoyed about free agents not being into the idea of signing in a rainy city full of white people with a progressive income tax. You might admit that they should have taken Michael Jordan instead of Sam Bowie, but you’d also underscore it with, “But we already had Clyde, so what were you gonna do?”
Damian Lillard changed all that. A complete package on offense, ballsy as hell, prone to hitting dramatic clutch shots. He possessed relentless charisma: a natural leader in the locker room, a golden touch with Portland’s media, and a gift for massaging public sentiment. Every time Dame took the court, the PA announcer, instead of reading his number, zero, intoned that Lillard was wearing, “THE LETTER O.” O, Dame said, for Oakland, where he grew up; Ogden, Utah, where he attended college; and for Oregon, where he plied his trade as a professional basketball player and won the hearts of the people. Dame made you really feel like the team was going places.
People would wax rhapsodic about Lillard’s play, express blind belief in anyone on the team, point to clutch victories, and drone on and on about national media disrespect. Opinions about Dame’s nightly matchups, Westbrook and Curry and Chris Paul and the like, sat somewhere between, “Not THAT much better than Dame” to “That guy is an actual war criminal.” Every All-Star starter slight was a sign of ultimate disrespect. Everyone was sleeping on him at all times.
The Trail Blazers are not, historically, a bad franchise. They are not the Minnesota Timberwolves. Portland has a .531 all-time winning percentage, once made the playoffs for twenty straight seasons, won a title in 1977, and made the NBA Finals two times after that. They had a rough patch at the beginning of the aughts, and really have been snake-bitten by some wild injuries: Bill Walton’s feet, Brandon Roy’s knees, Greg Oden’s whole body. But this has been a solid franchise, in their modest way. Lillard’s career .549 winning percentage is only a little higher than their franchise total. His time with the team hasn’t been, win for win, anything all that special.
What Lillard brought was not sustained success. It was a neverending current of positive energy, punctuated by the kind of moments that create religious fervor in people. I remember watching him hit that shot over Paul George, his second series-winning buzzer-beater in his career, and just knowing the shot was going to go in. I remember the bar blowing up. I remember people losing their shit. I remember knowing I was watching something that could never wash out of my mind.
Lillard also wanted to be here. Portland’s history with great players is a bummer. Bill Walton left under acrimonious circumstances. Clyde Drexler went back home to Houston, a reminder that playing for an NBA team was more transactional than we would like to believe. The team’s best player between Drexler and Lillard was probably Rasheed Wallace (apologies to Brandon Roy), who hated playing in Portland for reasons that make someone wonder if the whitest city of its size in America should even have an NBA team. Lillard was the antidote: a player this thrilling, whose game was pure dopamine, who didn’t resent being in Portland. It was something deeper than winning. It was pure parasocial bliss.
Somewhere along the way, people started making wild statements about Lillard’s time with the team. People were saying he was the greatest player in franchise history, that they would build a statue to him someday, that he saved the team from some undesignated threat. This is all nonsense on paper. Lillard was great, of course. But Walton won a title and an MVP award in his short time with the team. Drexler made the Finals twice, won and advanced in the playoffs consistently, year after year. Lillard’s teams tended to get win totals in the mid-40s, lose in the first round, do very little to address the roster at all, and then do it all over again. The best team Lillard was ever on, the 2013-14 squad, notched 54 wins. After that squad fell apart, it was Dame Time night after night, which was thrilling but not sustainable.
But look at Blazers fans. Look at how they reacted to a player who was only ever associated with modest successes. They talked about building statues for him, like they did for Joan of Arc. He made people feel connected to him, made them feel good about being a Blazers fan, a Portlander. He did not meet their need for title glory, but made people feel appreciated, and they were fine with it.
In the aftermath of Lillard forcing his way out of town, I am inclined to call BS on his talk about loyalty, the “LETTER O” stuff, the “I want to win a title, but only in Portland.” Dame came into town, saw that these people were eager to get on your side if you put in a little effort, proceeded to make that effort, and reaped the rewards.
But I’m being a cynic, a grouch. Dame knew he wanted to win a title in Portland. He believed in the holy radiance of the fans’ love. He knew his teammates, no matter how slipshod or underwhelming or mismatched, were capable of doing great things on the court. He radiated confidence like no NBA player I have ever been exposed to and he will continue to radiate confidence with the Bucks, who could really use that energy to break through the malaise that has seized them over the last few years.
What did Damian Lillard want from his time in Portland?
I have to confess to being a little presumptuous. Lillard might just be the greatest Blazer of all time, and he certainly would have won more if his team hadn’t been held down by the worst general manager in the NBA, year after year. Neil Olshey is an embarrassment. Once an aspiring soap opera actor, he shifted into basketball scouting, ended up running the Clippers, drafted Blake Griffin, and then got a job with the Blazers, where he alternated between obsessing over sub-mediocre players and doubling down on whatever the last bad decision he made was.
For years, the popular sentiment about the Blazers was that CJ McCollum, undersized with defensive limitations at the shooting guard position, was not well-matched with Damian Lillard, undersized with defensive limitations at the point guard position. Precisely no one was well-served by this arrangement and nevertheless, it persisted. Wesley Matthews and Nicolas Batum were the best wings Lillard ever played with; they both left after 2014 playoffs and were never replaced. The team paid Evan Turner a bunch of money even though he could not shoot and crowded Lillard’s driving lanes. Olshey acquired “Enes Freedom” on separate occasions, presumably because the CIA told him he had to. In 2019, he moved a bunch of assets for Norman Powell, a pretty good player who is also a small scoring guard, and then paid him a bunch during the offseason.
Lillard must have known this was a bad scene. He saw his team floundering. He could have lit up Olshey in the press, demanded some form of roster change, leveraged his upcoming free agency to threaten ownership and get a competent hand on the wheel. He could have hired a more powerful agent to put the fear of god into people. This is what successful NBA players do now: they pressure their teams into making winning decisions, and if they don’t do that, they get their agent to squeeze them until they get sent somewhere where they will.
What did Lillard want? To win a title? Sure. In Portland? Yeah, I think he meant it. To be the greatest Blazer to ever don the pinwheel? Absolutely. But he also wanted something else, something more primordial: he wanted people to like him. People like someone who doesn’t make noise, who lets the clock tick away while their career slowly slips from their fingers. It’s seen as the honorable move.
Lillard couldn’t be both the good locker room guy and try to get his wack teammates shipped out of town. He couldn’t seem humble and focused while bickering with management in the paper. He couldn’t maintain a glow, make everyone feel good, while playing politics and making enemies.
There were other things that held him back, too. He really does die on screens and never did anything about it. He never figured out how to move off the ball, the secret skill that makes Steph Curry the ICBM of the NBA. He loves having the ball in his hands, probably too much. But the central failing that kept him from NBA Valhalla was that he just couldn’t bring himself to be like LeBron.
Sure, the blue-noses might be offended by the cocky stride of a player who tells his boss to eat shit and improve the roster, or else. But take one look at LeBron’s trophy case and you’ll realize that it gets the job done. Jimmy Butler might have said some things he can never take back in Minnesota, but he also didn’t have to play with Karl-Anthony Towns anymore, which means he accomplished his mission.
Dame became a 33-year-old man who realized he was being asked to mentor a 19-year-old in the ways of NBA stardom, and he decided he was ready to bolt. He wasn’t great at it: his agent didn’t have enough juice, his cryptic tweeting abilities were underdeveloped, and his insistence on only being traded to the Heat made him seem unreasonable, even though he was acting with pure self-interest for the first time in his career.
He didn’t quite get what he asked for, but came pretty close. He’s on a contender now, a real one, for the first time in his career, playing with someone who is markedly better at basketball than he is for the first time in his career. But does he want this? Or is there a part of him that longs for the comfort of being the Big Dog in Portland? I don’t know. And he also doesn’t know. Because no one knows their true heart’s desire.