How Much Difference Will Damian Lillard Make?

The savior of the team? He might be able to walk on water, but can he turn it into Gatorade? Mandatory Credit: Jayne Kamin-Oncea-US PRESSWIRE

Dave,

Read your piece yesterday about Portland's forward momentum (if any) and their reliance on Damian Lillard. I'm high on the guy. How much of an immediate difference will he make?

Bartoloman

First things first. I like that handle. I don't know if your mama named you that but she should have.

The Lillard thing has been funny to watch. At first the rush tended towards the skeptical. We heard a bunch of stuff about Weber State and Jerryd Bayless. Then he became Portland's top pick and some true-red Blazer Believers chimed in towards the positive. Then he blew up Summer League and left everybody else to clean up the pieces and some of the more analytic thinkers came on board, as well as everybody who checked the roster and realized how badly the Blazers need this kid to shine. Plus Lillard hooked a few national-type media members who wanted to look good predicting a dark horse for Rookie of the Year, which fed Portland fans. Now you'll see speculation about him scoring 20 and winning R.O.Y. as often as not around here. That's a big tidal change in just a couple months. Naturally it'll switch back if he has a down week. And so it goes.

The story with Lillard is what it's always been. This guy is good. He's going to be good in the NBA. He fills so many Blazer needs in terms of skill, attitude, and position that they almost had to take him with that pick. Yes, they need him to perform well. Yes, he's capable of scoring in droves. Yes, he could well be in the discussion for Rookie of the Year. It's all true, including the part that says he still needs to prove himself and he's going to have ups and downs. The kid has a ton of responsibility on his shoulders already, not only for his own game but the health and future of the franchise. Plus everybody and their uncle is going to blame him if LaMarcus Aldridge's production falls on his watch, including perhaps LaMarcus. I don't think he needs any more pressure than that. Give him time and he'll prove himself to be a nice piece, maybe a great one. You won't regret having him around. That's all one can ask of a draft pick who hasn't even played a single game yet. Let everything else unfold and enjoy the ride.

As far as how much difference he'll make right away, that's hard to say. I believe he'll perform well. But he's playing the hardest position on the floor in his first year. He'll not be perfect...or if he is it'll be more as a de facto scoring guard than point. Either way, the Blazers can use everything he can give. It's not like they're losing title chances (or even playoff chances) putting up with his growing pains, so it's a no-lose situation.

I feel pretty secure in saying that even a fantastic season from Lillard won't make a radical difference in the Blazers' fortunes this year. Brandon Roy was the best rookie this town has seen in the last two decades. Obviously his R.O.Y. award confirms that. Let's take a look at Roy's accomplishments and environment in his rookie season:

  • He scored 17 per game in 35 minutes off of 46% shooting, 38% from the arc, 84% from the line...solid gold numbers all.
  • He added 4 rebounds and 4 assists, a nice all-around effort.
  • He came into the league with LaMarcus Aldridge.
  • He came onto a team with established players at almost every position, including a 24ppg-scoring Zach Randolph, his career high season.
  • He played a position less demanding than point guard, where his green light was basically assured and his main responsibility was clear: scoring.

Add all of this together and Brandon's spectacular season was good for an astonishing 11-win gain. Those 11 wins only took the Blazers from 21 to 32 wins, however. It's not like he turned them into an immediate contender, even with all the help.

Let's assume Lillard has the same kind of fantastic rookie season...top of the scale. Let's say he matches or even slightly exceeds Roy's production. That's a heck of a tall order, but we'll go best-case scenario here. Even if that comes to pass he's not coming in with an Aldridge-type player as his wingman. He does have the high-scoring forward Roy did but he's only playing with a couple other proven guys total, none of them close to stardom of any sort. After that the roster is held together with bailing wire, youngsters, and rejects. In terms of experience, proven talent, chances of winning, his team has taken a big step backwards over the last year. Plus he's playing a position where you can score 17-20 per game and still not fulfill the requirements.

Even if he plays as well as Roy did in his rookie year, Lillard's excellence probably won't have the effect that Roy's did simply because of environmental reasons.

Even going by last year's winning rate, which would have projected to 34 wins in a normal-length season, the full 11 wins that Roy's rookie performance helped create would only bring the Blazers to 45. That might get them in the playoffs. But that's an extreme possibility. More likely the Blazers are starting from a worse base and Lillard's best season would bring less of an improvement than Roy's did.

That's no slight to Lillard, it's just the reality of the roster and the competition.

--Dave (blazersub@gmail.com)

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