After witnessing one of the more heinous missed goaltending calls I can remember on Friday night, I got to thinking about the victim of the no-call. Damian Lillard is a special player, the kind of human and talent whose simple presence guarantees competitiveness or more in the murderers’ row of the Western Conference. He carries himself with a dignified air, and respects the game and everyone who participates in it. His leadership on and off the court is unquestioned and perhaps singular (Marc Spears wrote an amazing profile of Lillard that touches on this).
Personally, I found watching him lose control over the no-call to be very telling, and a bit jarring. His tenure in Portland has been marked by many near misses, injuries, and one playoff humiliation. Those of us who watched him send the Thunder packing last spring will have no trouble confirming that he’s a certified killer in the playoffs. Friday night made me wonder, “What could Dame have accomplished in a different situation?” And then an idea struck me: what if you swapped the contexts of Damian Lillard and Russell Westbrook?
Fair warning: if you will tolerate nothing but praise of Russ, this is probably going to be a challenging read for you, but THE HYPOTHETICAL TRUTH WILL SET YOU FREE. Man, I love hypotheticals.
As far as the mechanics of the switch: let’s imagine that Sam Presti had seen the cap crunch that facilitated the James Harden trade coming, and decided that Westbrook was in fact the player he needed to move. Not only is this fairly logical in the sense that Westbrook would certainly have netted more assets at the time, but it would have solved some of the ball dominance push and pull between Russ and Kevin Durant that was already becoming apparent late in games. For the sake of our experiment, let’s imagine that Presti had traded Westbrook to Portland for the number 6 pick in the 2012 draft, a future first, and Wesley Matthews, using the number 6 pick to draft Damian Lillard.
What’s interesting about this move is it would have allowed Presti to give the full max extension to Harden without a second thought, meaning the Thunder never acquire an all-time beloved player in Steven Adams. But just look at the starting five for 2012-2013: Lillard, Harden, Matthews, Durant, Ibaka. ZOINKS. Not only would this roster have had the potential to spread the floor like the Steve Kerr era Warriors, they would have been tenacious defensively. Before tearing his Achilles in 2015, Matthews was a fire hydrant with arms and legs, defensively.
Lillard was an immediate success in Portland, turning around a franchise that was languishing in the midst of Brandon Roy’s horrific string of knee injuries. He flourished next to a talented LaMarcus Aldridge before Aldridge bolted for San Antonio. Injecting Lillard into the Thunder organization in 2012 is exactly what the team needed to reach its maximum potential. Dame’s unwavering demeanor and jump shooting would have paired with KD and Harden like crostini, red wine, and a firm gouda.
No matter how much you may love Russ (I love him, too. I shout “NEVER CHANGE RUSS” at least once per game every time I watch him), you have to admit that his style can be grating. The same cannot be said of Dame. He is a consummate teammate, lifting others up by uncovering what they need from him, which is unquestionably what the Thunder needed in a ball dominant point guard at this juncture. It is a departure from Russ’s approach. I’m not lambasting Russ here: both styles of leadership have led to titles over the course of NBA history. There’s no debate about that. But there’s also no argument that Dame’s skillset and demeanor would have been a better fit for that young Thunder juggernaut in the making.
The tug of war for shots and late game heroics would have melted away. Dame’s scoring eruptions always seem to come as a product of understanding that his team needs it from him (*checks Lillard’s January stats* yeah, seems right). In the Thunder context, he unlocks something resembling the Warriors dynasty. The league was ready for the three-point revolution. If Dame is raining fire next to Harden and KD, do the Warriors become something like an interesting footnote? A fun 30 for 30 perhaps, instead of the defining team of the decade?
Does KD leave Oklahoma City as a champion? I don’t believe so. Durant alluded to his desire for more skilled teammates in OKC just last week. Maybe Harden leaves, though that’s much harder to project.
So in this fever dream, the Thunder hold on to the two more talented of their three homegrown MVPs, draft an All-Star replacement point guard on a rookie contract, and realize their dynasty potential with at least one title. The course of the franchise is changed forever. And Dame Dolla finally gets the respect and clout he deserves. Too bad we have to settle for missed goaltending calls in a race for the 8th seed. Free Damian Lillard.