PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) — Every year, the National Basketball Association’s general managers vote on a wide range of things: “Who do you think will win MVP best?” “Which player forces opposing coaches to make the most adjustments?” “Who is the toughest player in the NBA?” “Which player is the best leader?”
To the final question, 41% of the association’s GMs voted Damian Lillard this season.
It’s a reputation Portland’s star has built for himself during his eight seasons in the league. He’s the kind of teammate people want to be around; he’s the kind of guy who’ll build a teammate up even if it costs him something.
One of the most obvious examples of this was when Lillard recorded his first career triple-double on January 29th of this season. He did it in a game that the Trail Blazers needed every one of his 36 points, 10 rebounds and 11 assists to beat the Houston Rockets.
After the game, his teammates were surprised—and not, at the same time—that it was Lillard’s first triple-double.
“When you have a guard who can score from pretty much anywhere, he was never chasing stuff,” Portland center Jusuf Nurkic said. “There’s no way if he wanted to have done that, he’d have done it easily but that speaks another point about how much he cares about the team.”
Evidence of Lillard’s leadership is everywhere. It’s in the texts he sends to teammates after a tough game, it’s in the messages he sends to new players like Portland center Hassan Whiteside who said he got a two-paragraph note from Lillard shortly after signing with Portland telling him what is expected of the newcomer and how much he is wanted in Portland. And it’s most pervasively in small moments. Moments like the one after his first career triple-double when Lillard passed the game ball on to teammate Carmelo Anthony who’d surpassed Kevin Garnett on the NBA’s All-Time Leading Scorer’s List that same night.
“Genuine.” That’s the word Lillard uses to describe his leadership style. “For me, I just try to be there for my teammates.”
It’s a mentality that’s been ingrained in who Lillard is long before he ever stepped onto an NBA court. One born at least partially out of necessity—he’s got a lot of cousins who he said made it impossible to have a selfish mind growing up in Oakland.
“I’ve been around so many cousins that we’ve always had to look out for each other and do stuff for each other that I have a naturally unselfish mind.”
But it’s also a way of being Lillard learned naturally from the family who raised him. “My mom and sister laugh because they say you’re exactly like your dad,” Lillard said.
Houston Lillard Sr. is a man of few words, and not overly emotional unless the situation really warrants it—two traits that can also be said of Damian. “I just care about everybody else more than I care about myself and that’s who my dad has always been. Look out for everyone else but don’t expect a whole lot.”
When you look at the matriarchs of Lillard’s immediate family, Lillard says he gets his desire to see other people succeed from his mom Gina Johnson, and his kind heart he says comes from his grandmother Cecelia Johnson.
“Being aware that people have lives that they go home to and people have struggles that you don’t know nothing about. So I’m not going to watch a guy come to practice and just struggle. If there’s something to be said I might get on in them in a way that’s like, ‘look this is only basketball’, from a support type of stance because you just never know.”
It’s the support his teammates have always felt.
LaMarcus Aldridge and Lillard haven’t always had an easy relationship, especially when Lillard first entered the league and became Aldridge’s teammate in Portland but even then, Aldridge, now with the Spurs, says of Lillard, “He made my life easier.”
His current teammates only cement how consistent Lillard’s leadership has been:
“He’s got the swagger of a superstar on the court, but the humbleness of a guy on a 10-day contract,” forward Rodney Hood said.
“He’s the most humble superstar I’ve ever met,” Whiteside said.
“He’s a guy with great faith, he believes that we’re never out of a game, we’re never out of a situation and when you have that confidence coming from a leader, that goes a long way,” said Anthony.
“I try to take pressure off of them,” Lillard said. “And do battles with people and for people.”
Lillard has had plenty of accolades through his seven-plus year NBA career, including five All-Star appearances, and Rookie of the Year, but maybe evidence of Lillard’s magnetic leadership style is as much in the accolades he doesn’t chase, like a career triple-double, as the ones he finds himself winning.
“Even sometimes if it means taking a step back and taking something away from myself, I’m willing to go out of my way to do that just to prove to [my teammates], I really mean what I say and the things that I do. I just think that’s something that’s not common in the NBA so I think guys just really appreciate that and it’s that simple for me.”
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