So now, it’s official.
The NBA has selected DeMarcus Cousins to take the place of the injured Kobe Bryant, which means that we can officially say that Damian Lillard, master of the step-back three, end-of-game assassin, and the object of countless internet memes, like this:
…has officially been snubbed from the 2015 NBA All-Star team.
This is, according not only to Portland fans but knowledgeable pundits around the league (including TNT’s “Inside the NBA” resident curmudgeon and non-jumpshooting-team-supporter Charles Barkley) a ridiculous miscarriage of justice, deserving not only of all manner of shrill internet complaints, but in the case of the Portland police department, an actual robbery investigation.
Not to take anything away from other players, but across the blogosphere and the Twitterverse, the consensus is that Lillard well-deserving of this All-Star nod. And it’s important to remember that despite the league’s fan-based selection process, the All-Star Game is not just a popularity contest, but an important progress metric in the overall career trajectory of an NBA player. Getting snubbed for an All-Star team is like being passed-over for a well-deserved promotion at the office. And it doesn’t matter whether this happens in a small office or on the brightest stage of professional sports, people will notice.
So yes, Lillard was robbed. Among reasonable people, there is virtually no disagreement.
Where I do differ from the masses, however, is in how Lillard can, should, or will respond.
See… the conventional wisdom here is that Lillard, having himself promised to to be pissed off in the event of an All-Star snub, will take this so personally, that the next 25-30 games will be one long scoring rampage in a league-wide quest for vengeance, featuring jumpshots that spray from his fingers like flame from a blowtorch. Because of this snub, people would expect from Lillard a string of eye-popping performances that will leave nothing but amazed onlookers and defeated foes in his wake, like Denzel in “Man on Fire.”
Sure enough, as soon as the news broke, I saw a handful of predictions along these lines, many fueled by Lillard’s actual Instagram post from earlier today (since deleted):
Watch, Dame gon’ drop 50 tonight against Atlanta!
This mindset has been popularized into pop culture mythology by the legend of Michael Jordan, whose singularly-dominant performances were fueled by a litany of slights against him, both real and imagined. The great ones, as they say, always find a way to stay motivated.
But maybe not.
I have two major problems with this line of thinking. First, Lillard doesn’t need additional motivation. He’s already self-motivated. No one can make it to his level of athletic achievement without being really self-motivated. And secondly, if the Jordan-greatness-thing is true, then even if he’d have made it on the All-Star team, he would’ve manufactured a reason to be pissed, so it’s not like this would change him all that much.
I’m just imagining a series of hypothetical conversations around this time of year between Dame and his teammates:
You finally made the All-Star team, Dame!
Yeah, but only because someone else was injured.
Congratulations, Dame! The coaches named you as an All-Star reserve!
Yeah, but the fans didn’t vote me in as a starter.
You’re finally an All-Star starter, Dame, how does it feel?!
Like I should’ve been here two years ago.
Dame, it’s your fifth-straight All-Star appearance, what are you looking forward to?
You see where I’m going here.
My point, in case it’s getting lost in all the GIFs and whatnot, is not that Lillard shouldn’t be angry, or that he somehow deserved the subbing because of all his GLOREE-BOY shenanigans* like making commercials or rapping on Instagram. No, that’s not my point at all, and anybody who tries that hot of a take deserves to be burned.
(*apologies to Deadspin’s Drew Magary)
My points are twofold:
A.) Revenge is a poor motivator, and often causes people to overreact.
B.) Even in exceptional cases where it IS a good motivator, it’s a terrible way to live overall.
First point first… Trail Blazers fans should not forget the reason why Damian Lillard leads the league in fourth quarter scoring in the first place, because he often spends the first three quarters assessing the holes in the defense, feeling out the game, and most importantly, setting up his teammates for more scoring opportunities. Guys who create instant offense can be useful spark-plugs off the bench (Mo Williams was great at that last year for the Trail Blazers), but you don’t necessarily want that mindset from your starting point guard. Turning every possession into a chance for revenge would be turning Damian Lillard less into Michael Jordan and more into J.R. Smith.
But the second point is even more important, in my eyes.
People love to point to the Michael-Jordan-perceived-slight thing, but people forget how unlikeable Jordan was. Remember his cringeworthy Hall of Fame induction speech? It was like the Greatest of All Time doing a bad impersonation of Steve Carell’s Michael Scott from The Office. Except it wasn’t an impersonation.
The thing is, manufacturing bulletin board material from every perceived slight can, in certain circumstances, turn you into a champion. But it can also turn you into a self-centered, insecure control freak who’s incapable of enjoying life on any appreciable level. And plenty of Trail Blazers fans would happily receive the former and do their best to disregard the latter, caring more about Damian Lillard the player, than Damian Lillard, the person.
This matters, by the way, outside of basketball.
Part of the reason why there is so much police brutality in America is because there are men and women who serve as police officers who don’t know how to let go of lingering resentment. It’s not that they’re evil people. It’s just that years of accumulated trauma in the line of duty can make even the most mild-mannered person a little unstable, and if that instability goes unchecked, or worse yet, becomes praised and exemplified as a part of an insular police culture, then things like this can happen:
This, by the way just happened a few days ago.
Even after Ferguson, even after the protests that swept the nation after the lack of indictment over the Eric Garner killing, even after people were aghast over the leaked image of Florida police officers literally using black faces as target practice, this woman who was wearing the badge for Seattle felt so threatened, she was taking the peaceful MLK demonstration so personally that she was ready to lash out at any threat to her authority… real or perceived.
And the truth is, I don’t know what happened prior. It’s possible that there were other demonstrators there chanting obscenities. It’s possible that seconds earlier, someone had tried to throw something at her.
But regardless of what happened before, it’s pretty clear that her behavior in that moment was both irrational and counterproductive. The black man who she pepper-sprayed was not a criminal or a violent agitator. He was a teacher, who was one of the people who had spoken during the rally. He was on the phone with his mother, and after he ducked out of the way, as you can see in the video, the officer continued to spray the chemical irritant into the crowd in general, even though none of them were within striking distance.
These are the actions of someone who has spent a career turning perceived insults into motivation.
This is not what I want from Damian Lillard, or for anyone else.
Instead, this is what I want to see from him.
Much has been said about Lillard’s deadly step-back three, but what I love about this clip is what immediately preceded it — a killer, behind the back, crossover dribble. The crossover is a staple of NBA-level guard play because of its use of misdirection. A good crossover dribble helps to create space when the defender is expecting one thing, but the guy with the ball does something else.
If everyone is expecting a tunnel-vision scoring rampage, I’d rather see Damian Lillard do the opposite — stay clear-headed and focused enough to keep making big plays.
It’s what the old folks like to call “letting the game come to you.”
I’m not saying he shouldn’t go out and drop 50 points on the Hawks tonight… hey, if he’s got it going, and if that’s what the defense is giving him, then by all means… bomb away. But I’d rather see an efficient 30 points on 14 shots than 50 points from 40 shots. More importantly, I’d rather he score 14 points on 2-17 shooting and his team still win the game.
Winners do whatever it takes to win — not just in the moment, but in the long run. As it is in the game, so it is with life.
People are watching Damian Lillard to see how he deals with this latest setback. I hope he responds in a way that will make us all proud to be his fans, and not just in a way that will make us all keep watching.