NEW YORK -- On March 15, 2012, after stunningly striking out on trade attempts for Dwight Howard and then Paul Pierce, the Nets panicked.
Feeling a sense of urgency with the 3 p.m. trade deadline fast approaching to add talent around Deron Williams in an effort to convince him to stay, recently demoted Nets GM Billy King dealt the team’s top-three protected first-round pick in the upcoming draft to the Portland Trail Blazers in exchange for Gerald Wallace.
That pick, the No. 6 overall selection, of course, became franchise point guard Damian Lillard.
And on Friday night at Barclays Center, it was Lillard who posted the first 30-plus point, 10-plus assist, 0-turnover stat line in the NBA this season. He scored 14 of his 33 points in the fourth quarter and fueled a key 19-2 run in the final period that enabled the Blazers to come from behind and take down Brooklyn, 116-104.
“I watched the draft lottery, and as soon as I saw the situation where it ended up being the sixth pick would be Portland’s pick, I told my agent I want to be the sixth pick, I want to go to Portland,” said Lillard, now the team’s franchise player. “So I never thought about how I might’ve ended up in Brooklyn.”
The fact is, with Williams already entrenched at point guard, the Nets probably would never have taken Lillard had they kept the pick. The Nets really liked Anthony Davis, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Thomas Robinson, but were willing to sacrifice the pick otherwise. Harrison Barnes, Bradley Beal and Andre Drummond also were lottery picks in 2012.
But that doesn’t matter. After Howard opted in at the last minute and Pierce told his agent he would not play in New Jersey, King completed what proved to be an awful trade. On top of that, the Nets gave Wallace a four-year, $40 million contract and needed to deal another first-round pick to Boston just to get rid of his remaining salary in the franchise-debilitating 2013 Kevin Garnett-Pierce blockbuster.
All of that has the Nets in the lousy position they are in now -- looking for a new GM and coach while hoping to avoid giving up the No. 1 overall pick in the 2016 draft to the Celtics.
Lillard, on the other hand, has developed into the young superstar Brooklyn only wishes it had.
Over the summer, the Blazers weren’t able to keep fellow franchise cornerstone LaMarcus Aldridge, but Lillard has elevated his play to another level, enabling surprising Portland to stay in the Western Conference playoff hunt. In his last four games, Lillard is averaging a ridiculous 31.3 points and 9.8 assists while making a combined 23 3-pointers.
“I’m not one for superlatives,” Portland coach Terry Stotts replied when asked about the 25-year-old’s recent play, “but this is a really good stretch. I think he’s always made shots, but I really like the fact that he’s had double-figure assists. I think his decision-making has been really good. We all know he can score, but his floor game and his assists involving his teammates have been at a high level.”
Lillard recently missed the first seven games of his career due to plantar fasciitis in his left foot, but the Blazers managed to go 4-3 during that stretch with backcourt mate C.J. McCollum moving over to point.
“It was good because now everybody else had an opportunity to believe [in themselves] a little bit more, and I got to rest,” Lillard said. “I just feel good and our team is playing as well as we’ve played all year right now so it feels good.”
Last season, Lillard said he felt “a little disrespected” after not making the All-Star team (he later was added to the team due to two injuries), but said he’s not going to flip out if he isn’t named for a third consecutive year.
“Where our team is and how I’ve played it speaks for itself, and it is what it is,” Lillard said. “I’m kind of at the point now where I don’t really need the validation. It would be great. I want it. But it definitely won’t be the same reaction as last year.”