Damian Lillard, Giannis Antetokounmpo ‘have an opportunity to do something great’ with Milwaukee Bucks
After trade from Portland, Lillard talks about his championship quest, his final days with the Trail Blazers and more
MILWAUKEE – With two NBA championship banners hanging overhead, an inspired Damian Lillard appeared at peace while standing next to his cousin, rapper Brookfield Duece, on the balcony of the practice facility’s second floor, overlooking the chaos of Milwaukee Bucks media day on Monday.
“It is definitely different,” guard Lillard told Andscape while wearing his new Bucks uniform. “I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t different. But it doesn’t feel out of place. Over the course of my career, I’ve always thought if I was ever somewhere else I would feel like I was out of place or weird about it. And it feels proper. It feels like this is what it’s supposed to be.”
On July 1, the Portland Trail Blazers’ career scoring leader ended his 11-year tenure by asking for a trade from the rebuilding franchise. While Lillard didn’t get his first choice in the Miami Heat after the Blazers balked at that dream, he ended up getting what he believed was the best “basketball situation” in Milwaukee, joining forces with the NBA superstar he long has been most enamored of in forward Giannis Antetokounmpo. Milwaukee is two years removed from a title, has a first-year head coach in Adrian Griffin and has traded star guard Jrue Holiday in the process get Lillard, but at 33 years old he now has the best opportunity of his NBA career at a championship.
With Lillard by his side, the Bucks now have their greatest one-two punch since Hall of Famers Oscar Robertson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar brought the franchise its first championship in 1971. While Antetokounmpo cautions that he has yet to practice or play with Lillard as of Monday, he understands the potential for greatness and championship expectation.
“It’s a blessing to have opportunity to play with a guy like that,” Antetokounmpo told Andscape. “A guy that is built from the same cloth as you. A guy that is a killer. He plays with a chip on his shoulder. He’s been good for so many years in the league, dominating the league and having a guy that you can go to war every single day that wants it as bad as you want. It is always a good feeling. He’s hungry and but he even makes me hungrier because when you are amongst greatness every single day, you have to bring it. You cannot slack. And it goes vice versa. He has to bring it, too.
“But being with him, we have a chance. We have a legit chance to do something great here. And I’m excited for what the future holds. But we got to take it a step at a time. We haven’t won anything. There’s going to be a lot of hype around us, but we haven’t done anything. We haven’t even played a game yet. We haven’t even played together in practice yet. So, we can talk about it all day, but at the end of the day, our actions speak louder than words. But we have an opportunity to do something great. And that’s exciting for me.”
The following is an exclusive Q&A with Lillard and Andscape on Monday. The seven-time NBA All-Star talked about ultimately going to “the best basketball situation” in Milwaukee instead of Miami, his long appreciation of Antetokounmpo, how he feels about the Blazers’ organization post-trade, the heightened championship pressure and aspirations and much more.
Have you had a chance to take a deep breath and take a moment to reflect on the trade and all the changes yet?
I would say the day that I got here. I got in, they had the [welcome] rally and then there was a lot of introductions, meeting a lot of people. They did a video. We made a lot of stops. I had to do physical stuff. And then by the time I got back to the spot and I was sitting there by myself. I kind of just took it all in and just thought about all the different moving parts of it. And that was when I was just like, ‘man, this is where I’m supposed to be. This is what it’s supposed to be.’ And in that moment, I just settled in with it.
Oakland High. People didn’t know you had to fight your way out. Weber State. People didn’t know you had to fight your way out. Even when you’re drafted by the Blazers, you had to fight with what they gave you. Now, you’ve got stuff to fight with. How different is that knowing that you have, correct me if I’m wrong, this is the first time in your life that you’re walking in with a championship-caliber team when the season starts?
It is definitely different. It’s a different experience, but I’ve always done what I needed to do to go out there and perform. Just being more equipped to win at a higher level is only going to make the success or the outcome possibly better. But the way I’m going to handle going into it, it’s going to be the same. As long as that stays the same, it’ll give us our best shot. I’m not looking at it like, ‘Oh, I’m on a better team. We not underdogs or anything like that.’ I understand what it is. But I think if my process is the same and my mentality is the same, then the things that I’ve joined with at this point [are] only going to be heightened. It’ll only be better. So that’s kind of my mentality.
When you think about what they did to get you here, what does that mean to you and how does that add to your drive?
It just shows belief. It shows a lot of faith in what I can do for the team. Obviously, me being brought in for a guy of Jrue Holiday’s caliber, who I have a lot of respect for, they won a championship with Jrue [in 2021] … after a first-round exit [last season], which we’ve all had years where you just run into a matchup, you just lose sometimes.
So, I don’t think that was the reason. But I just think they believed that I could bring something to complement Giannis, to complement Khris [Middleton], Brook [Lopez] and the rest of the guys that will kind of reestablish them as a team that can get it done again. And I’m here to get it done for the first time in my career. That makes for excitement on both sides. Like I said before, our personalities with me and Giannis, the way he plays with the way I play is complementary. And I think that’s why we are here today.
You have a lot of superstars in this league, but you keep saying Giannis was the guy that you wanted to play with. Why?
When I hear him speak and how he goes about his business, he speaks my language. He goes about it in the way that I’ve always done it. And for me to be able to coexist, I think that’s the kind of person that it would mesh best with.
How do you reflect on your time in Portland on and off the floor and what you’re able to accomplish there? And then how do you also reflect on the painful way it ended?
Just looking back on it, I always look at what made it painful to have to walk away. And more than anything, it is not the game winners and all of those things. It’s the people that I’ve crossed paths with. A lot of my best friends live there now. Basically, half of my family, my closest family, live in Portland. The initiatives in the community, the people who supported those things and just building real relationships with those people and becoming so connected, to have to walk away from it for something that I desire for myself was hard. So just when I reflect on it, it’s something I’m proud of, something that I’ll continue to have a presence in.
But as far as the basketball side, it was a great run as well. The last two years we struggled and as you get further along in your career and you haven’t won, you want an opportunity to win. And I think we were just going in different directions. And obviously, the love, I think, is mutual. I love the organization. I believe that they love me the same, but at the end of the day, we all know that it’s a business and for me to be at this point and not have won, I want an opportunity to win. I’ve always said that I’m willing to walk away and not win if we were going after it at all costs and that opportunity never came. So now that I’m in this situation, I feel like I’m in a great position to have a chance to win. I’m excited. And now that the past is the past, I always will love Portland. I’ll always love the fans. It’ll always be home for me at this point. Love the organization and everybody that I’ve crossed paths with, but this is where we are now. So, it is just time to move forward.
I get the sense that while you didn’t perhaps like how it ended, you don’t sound bitter?
Oh, not at all. You hear this is the business. The business goes this way, the business goes that way sometimes, but I just never thought that I would have a negative experience with it. But even with that being said, I don’t have a personal issue with anybody in the organization.
Nobody. It is not personal at all for me. I got love for everybody in the organization and I mean that. I’m not just saying it, it’s just that I’ve always said what I want to accomplish. I wanted it to happen there. And when you see things start to get off track and that reality not to be possible anymore, people start to feel a way and things happen. But I don’t have no personal issues with anybody. I’m excited to be here now and we just move forward.
I know who I am. I know what I bring to the table. We all know who he [Giannis Antetokounmpo] is and what he comes with. Now we just got to put it together and make sure that we don’t skip steps and just come in focused and do what we got to do. And I think it’ll be the kind of ride that people expect it to be.
When did Milwaukee seriously get in your picture and why?
A couple weeks ago, probably about two weeks ago. Obviously, I didn’t know what was going to happen. Things were up in the air. I mentioned I wanted to go to Miami. I felt like it was a great situation for me and my agent [Aaron Goodwin] was just like, ‘Man, Milwaukee is probably the best basketball situation for you. What you think about Milwaukee?’ And I told him, ‘I love Giannis. I think it’s a great opportunity for me, but let’s see.’ And I left it to him.
So, I knew weeks ago that there was a possibility that it could happen. I just didn’t know how [it happens]. So, when it happened, I was like, ‘man, it actually came back.’
Giannis said that you spent some time with him and his family Sunday at the Bucks’ practice facility. Can you talk about that?
I came in to work out and he was in working out. And everybody kept saying how, ‘It’s a family organization. Family is always around.’ And I came in, I was working out, he was here, his family was here, and it was laid-back. It didn’t feel like work. It was just his kids running around, getting treatment. I get on the court and he’d get on the court. It was really chill. So, it was cool to see them in that element.
What does that say about Giannis and his reputation for being a family guy just like you?
It was something along the lines of what I would do. I always want my kids around, especially at the age they are now. I want them to see what goes into the life that they have and why it’s that way. And to learn what it means to work hard and to understand that what you get out of something is what you put in it. So, just seeing how he interacted with them, it’s an experience that we share.
So, 50 years ago there was this duo here, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Oscar Robinson. They won a championship together. I think they haven’t had a duo since your arrival that could potentially be like that with you and Giannis.
I don’t know. That is heavy company. Definitely heavy.
What could you guys potentially be when you look at that duo compared to what you guys could be here?
We could definitely be a special duo. And I think the kind of person he is and the kind of person I am, it just gives it a greater chance to happen how it should. But I wouldn’t go as far as putting ourselves in the same breath as Oscar Robinson and Kareem. What they’ve done for this game is special, all-time greats. And what they did is well documented. But I think for us, we just got to take it a step at a time.
I know who I am. I know what I bring to the table. We all know who he is and what he comes with. Now, we just got to put it together and make sure that we don’t skip steps and just come in focused and do what we got to do. And I think it’ll be the kind of ride that people expect it to be.
A month ago, you told me that you’re thirst to win a championship is higher than ever. And now you’re with a franchise with two titles. Is the thirst higher now?
It is. When I look at [the banners], I’m just like, I wasn’t a part of them. So, there has got to be one that I was a part of. So that’s what my goal is.
Can you even envision how it would feel to be an NBA champ now?
When you haven’t experienced something, it’s hard to really see it and be like, ‘Man, that’s going to happen.’ But I look at it like making it to the NBA. I had a lot of people not say, ‘Oh, you can’t do it.’ But it was like you do really think that’s going to happen. That’s kind of how you look at stuff that you haven’t experienced. I saw it for myself then, and this is another situation where I see it for myself.
You told me last month that you were leaning on your faith and circle of friends to help you through these two months since asking for a trade. What was the toughest day over these last two months and how did faith and friends help?
I just got a tight group of friends that we share everything with each other. And I don’t mean business. I just mean whatever situation or type of journey, whether it is, ‘Oh, let’s eat healthy’ or ‘let’s work out.’ Whatever it is. And one of my best friends has been on that spiritual journey over a year and he just invited me to participate in some gatherings, some Bible studies and stuff like that. And then it became my own. But that was before this even came up.
But I do feel like it has helped just guide me through the situation as it’s happened and not feeling like I got to respond and answer to everything. It’s helped me in a lot of ways, just finding some type of peace in the chaos that has been all summer, but that’s been helpful. The hardest time came, I would say, when I started to really think about having to move my kids from an environment that they’ve become accustomed to. The same people that they see, the friends that they have, the people that help out with them that they spend a lot of time with, being around their cousins.
It could be a random Sunday where my mom might be like, ‘We are doing Sunday dinner at my house.’ And when we get there, it is my brother’s kids, all my cousin’s kids. It is 16 kids running around and my kids there with them. It is like I’m stripping them of that environment for what I want for myself. So, when I actually sat with it becoming a reality, that was when it was the toughest moment for me.
When you look back, is there anything that you either wish happened differently or that you did different over the last couple months in Portland?
Just looking back on it, I don’t think it’s anything that I would’ve done differently. I wish during that time the communication was just better so there would’ve been less misunderstandings. I felt really misunderstood in the process. I don’t know if it was something that I could have done differently. I’m just happy that I ended up in a situation that fit me. We got a great opportunity to win. I’m playing with a great player on a deep roster in another small market where it’s family-oriented.
It is a humble environment. It is relaxed. An [assistant] coach I played for [in former Blazers head coach] Terry [Stotts] my first nine years. We got someone in the training room that I’ve worked with for the last five years, [head athletic trainer] Jess Cohen. Familiar faces. I played with Robin [Lopez]. I played with Pat [Connaughton]. I’m just happy that it ended in a situation where I could walk into something that suits me. I’m going to have an opportunity to accomplish what I ultimately want to accomplish and it’s an environment that I feel comfortable in right away.
You’ve been in the Western Conference your whole career. Now you’re going to the Eastern Conference and it is an arms race that includes you. It’s made it a lot more interesting, you coming out East and the challenge that presents.
The Eastern Conference just has a more gritty reputation than the West. In the West, we are getting up and down we are scoring points. It’s probably considered more entertaining in the Western Conference, but being in the East, just knowing it’s going to be more gritty. It is not the same type of basketball. But the biggest adjustment for me is the weather. I’m a West Coast dude. I’ve been playing on the West coast the whole time. So, just the weather. All these cold cities. Only playing those Western Conference teams twice now instead of four times. I’m going to be seeing other guys more than I’m used to. But that’s it.
You got to get a Canada Goose jacket.
I went to school in Utah, so I might be all right.