Over the course of the summer there has been a lot of interest in the FIBA World Cup, the once-every-four-years tournament that features the best in international basketball, but mostly for the wrong reasons. High profile names such as Kevin Durant, Kevin Love and LeBron James have all opted to stay at home and skip the tournament for a variety of different reasons.
Then there was the horrific injury to Paul George of the Indiana Pacers that had every NBA franchise in the league questioning whether it was a good idea for their players to even suit up for the World Cup in the first place.
And with the announcement of the final 12-man roster this week, most people are only talking about the players that were left off that list, most prominently Portland Trail Blazers point guard Damian Lillard.
The fact that the 2013 Rookie of the Year and 2014 All-Star was left off the roster had a lot of heads shaking, wondering what Team USA coach Mike Krzyzewski was thinking. But with the World Cup quickly becoming a comeback tour for Chicago Bulls point guard Derrick Rose and Cleveland Cavaliers guard Kyrie Irving also making the squad, I guess they feel they have more than enough talent to take on the best in the world.
For his part, Lillard had no hard feelings, tweeting:
Back in my natural habitat! Throw more wood on the fire . Thankful for the opportunity And guys please don’t feel sorry. I’m always Good!
— Damian Lillard (@Dame_Lillard) August 23, 2014
And in the long run, it could be the best thing to happen to the Trail Blazers this offseason.After years of mediocrity and a lack of hope, Portland is on the cusp of rejoining the NBA elite for the first time in many years. Last season they exploded out of the gate with a 31-9 start on the way to finishing the season 54-28, taking second place in the Northwest Division and meeting the Houston Rockets in the first round of the playoffs.
Portland won the series in six games, in no small part due to Lillard and his miracle 3-pointer at the end of regulation.
Despite a quick second-round exit at the hands of eventual champions, the San Antonio Spurs, people are expecting quite a lot from the Trail Blazers this season. ESPN has them projected as coming in fourth in the always-competitive Western Conference, finishing with a record of 51-31.
And if they are to return to the playoffs and improve over last season, which many fans see as a must, Damian Lillard is going to be a huge part of that.
To put it simply, if the Trail Blazers are going to move to the next level, they’re going to do it on the shoulders of Lillard. He averaged 20.7 points, 5.6 assists and 3.5 rebounds last season and played in all 82 games in 2013-14.
He is the leader of this team and his importance to the franchise cannot be understated. And his attention needs to be focused squarely on next season.
Playing in the FIBA World Cup and representing your country is always an honor, there is no question. But for Portland, having a healthy and undistracted Lillard able to concentrate on the upcoming year has to be a huge plus.
Imagine if Lillard suffered an injury during the tournament, where would that leave the Trail Blazers? What would they do then?
Being snubbed from Team USA has to hurt and no doubt bothers Damian Lillard despite what he might put forth to the public. But for the Trail Blazers and their plans for the upcoming season, being cut might be a blessing in disguise.
Besides, the hurt is nothing an NBA championship couldn’t help make better.