Most of the individual praise for members of the Portland Trail Blazers has centered on forward LaMarcus Aldridge this season, but a pair of game-winners (here and here) has helped boost the attention paid to guard Damian Lillard this week.
Kevin Pelton of ESPN.com includes both Aldridge and Lillard on his 2014 Western Conference All-Star team, but notes that Lillard's spot likely hinges on the health/availability of Los Angeles Lakers guard Kobe Bryant.
If Bryant is back by mid-February, it's going to be difficult for Lillard to unseat his more experienced peers in the West backcourt -- a lesson Curry learned last season. Lillard has done everything in his power to earn a spot. He's third in WARP among West guards, behind only Paul and Curry. The second-year guard is running the league's best offense (Portland is averaging 114.5 points per 100 possessions) and has won multiple games with his clutch shots. Per NBA.com/Stats, Lillard's four field goals to tie or take the lead in the final 30 seconds of games are double anyone else in the NBA.
Aldridge has played his way into the MVP discussion with a dominant first two months. While he's not as efficient a scorer as you think (his .521 true shooting percentage is below average because he rarely gets to the free throw line), Aldridge's versatility is key to the league's best offense and a defense good enough to contend.
Click here for the full post. Pelton also gives Blazers forward Nicolas Batum and guard Wesley Matthews some love in the "names to watch" section.
Bryant, who is tracking towards a starting spot on the All-Star team thanks to the fan vote, recently suffered a knee injury that is expected to sideline him for six weeks. The All-Star Game is now roughly two months away.
Sekou Smith of NBA.com included both Aldridge and Lillard in his top 10 MVP candidates.
No. 4: LaMarcus Aldridge
The only player in the league doing the sort off work Aldridge has done the past 10 games is Minnesota's Kevin Love, whose Timberwolves popped the Trail Blazers in the final of their recent road swing. Aldridge had a come-back-to-earth game, finishing with just 15 points (7-for-22 shooting), 14 rebounds and 3 assists. That doesn't diminish the shine of his recent work, though, not when a guy is putting up 25 points, 13.5 rebounds and 3.5 assists a night for the past month or so. Aldridge has always been a gifted and skilled offensive player. The rebounding prowess, however, is a nice new wrinkle to his game.
No. 10 Damian Lillard
Lillard has been so good and so clutch this season that he could not be left off this list any longer. He nailed game-winning shots in back-to-back road games this week, Sunday in Detroit and Tuesday in Cleveland, the latter providing a head-to-head matchup with Kyrie Irving that saw Lillard drop 36 points (fueled by his 8-for-12 shooting effort from beyond the 3-point line), 10 assists and 8 rebounds. He followed that up with 36 points (7-for-14 from deep), 6, 6 and 3 steals in a road loss to the Timberwolves. We can't wait to see what he has in store for the New Orleans Pelicans Saturday night at the Moda Center.
Both Avery Johnson and Hubie Brown praised Aldridge and Lillard in this ESPN.com roundtable of former NBA coaches.
Q: Which team is really the West's best?
Avery Johnson: Portland has one of the league's best seven-man rotations with Williams and Thomas Robinson available. The Blazers also play the two-man game very well with Damian Lillard and Aldridge, who can pick and pop and execute the pick-and-roll very effectively. They're long on defense and versatile. However, they're not the best in the West. Oklahoma City and San Antonio are proven winners. Until someone proves otherwise, they're still the best in the conference.
Q: Which young player has opened your eyes this season?
Brown: I have to say two players -- Portland's Lillard and Aldridge. Aldridge is only one of four guys who's a 20-point, 10-rebound guy. The others? Kevin Love, DeMarcus Cousins and Blake Griffin. It's actually pretty frightening to think they're all in the Western Conference. Aldridge is an All-Star but with a better first unit around him. Lillard can really score. He takes this team from a No. 5-8 seed to the expectations of a front-runner. I wasn't sure they'd play like this but they have been terrific.
Chris Manning of Clevelad Cavaliers blog RightDownEuclid.com had a lengthy comparison between Lillard and Cavaliers guard Kyrie Irving following their match-up this week.
Despite the fact that Irving has been in the NBA longer than Lillard, it is fair to note that Lillard, at 23, is two years older than the 21-year-old Irving. He also played four years of college ball at Weber State, which made him more NBA ready than most prospects coming out of college. He plays the game cool, calm and collected at all times, with a distinct confident swagger to his step. Irving played a total of eleven college games due to injury. And, no, it doesn't matter that those eleven games were played for the Duke Blue Devils under Mike Krzyzewski, one of the best basketball coaches to ever walk this Earth and definitely better teacher than Weber State's Randy Rahe. Eleven games is not an appropriate amount of time for a player - even if he is as naturally gifted as Irving - to grow and blossom. As a result, he tries to do too much and make up for the flaws of his teammates when he too has a number of chinks in his armor, namely his non-existent ability to defend the pick & roll with any amount of consistent effectiveness.
In short, no matter how good Krzyzewski is as a coach and how talented Irving is, Lillard has had so much more court time than Irving (who also battled injuries once entering the NBA), giving him a chance to mature as a player while Irving is still somewhere in his development curve.
But it shouldn't be a shock that Irving has struggled so far in his third season while Lillard has continued on the up and up. He has Aldridge and several other high-level pieces that mesh with his skillset around him on the floor at all times. Irving, on the other hand, is coached by Mike Brown, who is on his third NBA job, has yet to consistently run a functional offense and gives Matthew Dellavedova minutes at a position he shouldn't even be playing. His general manager (Chris Grant) is probably on the hot seat for making picks no one has expected and that don't necessarily fit well alongside Irving.
Jeff Caplan of NBA.com runs down Lillard's clutch performance numbers after Lillard's game-winner against the Cavaliers.
This time Lillard lulled Cavs defender Alonzo Gee several feet beyond the top of the 3-point arc. With Gee allowing space presumably to protect against the dribble-drive, Lillard rose up and splashed the 3-pointer as the horn blew. The official play-by-play called it from 30 feet. He finished with 36 points - 12 in the fourth quarter - 10 assists and eight rebounds.
"You're watching a superstar being born right in front our eyes," were the in-the-moment words spoken by Cavs color commentator Austin Carr, who has the nightly privilege of watching another cool clutch performer in Kyrie Irving.
Tom Ley of Deadspin.com also weighed in on the Lillard vs. Irving match-up.
It's games like last night's heart-stopper between the Trail Blazers and the Cavaliers that remind basketball fans just how spoiled they are. In an era that's blessed by the presence of megastars like LeBron James and Kevin Durant, it's silly to think that there's a whole secondary tier of stars who have the ability to turn any sleepy December game into a yelp-inducing, holy-shit-did-you-just-see-that shootout. That's the kind of game Damian Lillard and Kyrie Irving gave us last night.
That's part of what was so great about Lillard and Irving's matchup: each player managed to dominate the game in his own style. There was Lillard, who has become a demon from three-point territory, knifing into the air over and over again, snapping the net with a perfectly spun ball. And then there's Irving, more of a collection of twitches and bursts than man, zipping into the lane and creating space at will.
Finally, Sean Meagher of OregonLive.com has a nice video and an accompanying photo gallery from Bruce Ely showing Lillard giving out gift cards to Boys & Girls Club children for the holidays.
-- Ben Golliver | email@example.com | Twitter