Damian Lillard is in his 11th season in the NBA, all of which have been spent in Portland after being the sixth pick in the 2012 NBA Draft. As happens to all players who are in the league for a decade-plus, they start to see the ways things change, for better and worse.
On this week’s episode of The Old Man and the Three podcast, Lillard explained to JJ Redick what he sees as the biggest negative change in the NBA since he entered, and how it’s posing a genuine problem for the NBA going forward.
“When I came in the league, like Jason Kidd was starting for the Knicks and Grant Hill and Kurt Thomas and Kenyon Martin…it was real older dudes in the league,” Lillard said. “I played with Jared Jeffries, he was 40, 41 or something. Earl Watson was 40 when I played with him. I played with real vets, and it was a lot of stuff I learned, like being a point guard or how to lead from Mo Williams and Earl Watson and Jared Jeffries. And they didn’t even play, it was just the way they showed me how stuff had to be done, I had no choice but to respect the game. I didn’t have – the word I was looking for is entitlement. Like, when I came in the league, you had to earn not just what you get from the team or the respect – you had to earn your space on the team.
“It was no “Oh you the sixth pick in the Draft, it’s your team.” What is this your team stuff? I think now the difference is you don’t have that veteran presence. So you got players who are more talented than ever coming into the league, they’re getting picked 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, they’re making more money than those picks ever made, so not only that, now you givin them the keys to the franchise. There’s nobody there to tell them, you’re super-talented, but you’ve gotta earn stuff around here. You gotta earn your way. They come in and everything is given to them from the beginning. So that effects how they are, the way they play. They play for themselves, they play for stats. They think they’re LeBron James when they make an All-Star Game or get a max contract. It’s just different. I don’t know how to completely put it together, but the NBA I play in now is not the NBA I came into.”
There are a few interesting points raised by Lillard here and some hold up better than others. The one I’ll agree the most with is that the lack of veterans on the rosters of rebuilding teams poses a genuine problem to the development of their young hopeful stars. The Rockets stand out as the most obvious example of a team simply lacking veteran guidance who seem to be building just as many bad habits as they have positive skill development. On those teams, there is certainly something to Lillard’s point of teams being too quick to hand the keys to young players with little guidance from the locker room.
At the same time, Lillard is a particularly interesting messenger for this critique, given he played 38.9 minutes per game as a rookie and was second on the Blazers in shot attempts per game to LaMarcus Aldridge — with the tensions between Portland’s handling of their young star versus their established star becoming a storyline as Aldridge eventually left the Blazers for San Antonio. I’m sure internally, there wasn’t the expectation for Lillard to be the leader in the locker room in the way some young stars are asked to take on that mantle immediately and unfairly, but he was handed a large role immediately and while the keys to the Blazers franchise may not have been his alone, he certainly had a copy at the least.
Still, the overall point stands that we have gotten to a point where older role players tend to have a difficult time sticking around for a variety of reasons, but not the least of which is cost. Most teams would rather pay end of the bench guys less, and someone with 10-plus years of service time in the NBA has a higher minimum contract than those early in their careers. They can sell that as hope those guys develop into a rotation piece, but the cost piece is at the forefront, as it allows them to spend more on stars and rotation players without risking as hefty a tax penalty. The value of those veterans isn’t something that appears on the stat sheet, and as such it’s very difficult to quantify their value.
Lillard lays out how even those that don’t play on the court still can play an integral role in developing your young talent into NBA players who understand how to be a professional on and off the court. That value is an intangible, though, and the appreciation for those things has unquestionably become devalued in this current era of the NBA. The evidence backs up his complaint, as the oldest players in the league now tend to be star-caliber players who are either still playing at that level or are on their way out. Udonis Haslem and Andre Iguodala are rare exceptions to that rule, and it comes as little surprise that they play for two teams who value culture more than just about any others.