Damian Lillard has everything he needs to win a championship, or at least seriously contend for one, with the Milwaukee Bucks. He has an MVP wingman. He has the defensive cover he requires. Lillard is an elite pick-and-roll initiator who now has an elite pick-and-roll finisher (in Giannis Antetokounmpo) and a wonderful big-man popper (in Brook Lopez) at his disposal. He'll enjoy comfortable floor spacing and the relaxing reality of not having to carry the heaviest scoring burden every night.
All of which means, for the first real time in his career, Lillard is going to have to earn his superstar stripes. The built-in excuses he had in Portland, and the uniquely forgiving benefit of the doubt they long afforded him, are gone. If the Bucks bow out in the second round, a Dame dialogue unlike any we've ever had will begin in earnest.
I'm not saying it's right, but this is just how it works. In Portland, the organization, the GM, the coach, everyone but Lillard was blamed for postseason shortcomings at some point. It was never Dame's fault. Not even Trae Young, entering just his sixth season, gets that kind of grace. He's already getting the "all-stats-no-substance" label despite having been to as many conference finals as Lillard in half the career span.
If Young isn't as impactful an offensive player as Lillard, he's pretty damn close. The problem is defense, and it's the same problem with Lillard. At least part of the reason those Blazers teams were never able to compete for a title was because they couldn't defend, but instead of holding Lillard accountable to a two-way standard, the narrative was always about how the Blazers didn't help him enough.
Well, now he has all the help he could ever ask for in Milwaukee. But he'll still have to defend in a way he never has. I don't care how much size you have in the paint, you don't win titles with a defensive doormat at the point of attack. The playoffs are largely about hunting the most vulnerable defenders and exploiting them. Dame is going to be hunted. You can bet on that.
He's going to get isolated in space and run through a maze of off-ball routes. He will have to be up to the task of answering these challenges in the heat of deep-playoff basketball with real championship stakes on the line. If the Blazers got to even the second round, it was house money. That's when the Bucks' season will start.
I say all this as a massive Lillard fan. How could you not be? The guy is an electric basketball player, the only player in the league with as much must-see cache as Stephen Curry when he gets on a heater. But there's no denying the honeymoon he was on in Portland. You can call it a grind to stick it out with your original team, but there's a safety net in playing free of expectations. You win, even at a competent level, you're a hero. You lose, and someone else takes the fall.
But what if, and I'm just making conversation here, Lillard becomes the fall guy with the Bucks? That's a possibility. Let's imagine a Bucks-Celtics conference finals in which the Bucks, because they traded Jrue Holiday to get Lillard, don't have anyone to guard Jayson Tatum, and Lillard ends up getting switched onto scorers right and left and gets torched.
Meanwhile, the Celtics, in ending up with Holiday, have the best on-ball defender in the league and a true Dame defender. They can switch absolutely everything. In this scenario, let's say the half-court juice that Lillard gives Milwaukee runs up against a wall, and the defensive loss of Holiday is actually what proves to be their undoing?
Dame wanted to play for championships -- and this is what comes with that. You put your chips in the middle, and in doing so, open yourself up to real loss. Lillard with the Bucks is a terrifying offensive prospect, and not matter how it works out, Lillard is a superstar. There's no question about that. But there are tiers to the superstar pyramid, and right now Dame isn't on the top one. Perhaps it's because he's never had a realistic chance to stand on the grandest stages. Perhaps he's part of the reason for that.
Either way, these offense-only superstars are not, in general, what they're cracked up to be. There's a reason that nobody wants Kyrie Irving, and it's not just because he's a massive headache. It's the same reason nobody wants to trade for James Harden. The same reason Trae Young is taking heat. The same reason Jalen Brunson probably can't be the best player on a title team. Defense matters. Ironically, in a league that is perceived as a no-defense 3-point contest, it actually matters now maybe more than ever.
There are basically three ways to be a disproportionately offense-centric superstar and win or at least genuinely compete for title. The first is if your name is Stephen Curry, and Curry, for the record, is a much better defender that Lillard. The second is if you play with LeBron James. (Hello, Kyrie.) The third is if you have the perfect complement of teammates to cover for you. This was the case with Harden in Houston when the Rockets had the Warriors down 3-2 in 2018 and were a legitimate title team with an oppressive switching defense.
Lillard is playing the third card. He's not Steph. He doesn't have LeBron. But what he does have is two of the best defenders in the league in Antetokounmpo and Lopez backing him up. But he's still going to have to pull his weight. If he does, it will be vindication. If he doesn't, the national-coverage honeymoon could be over.