With Damian Lillard hanging onto a roster spot with Team USA, trying to survive the final cut, this Mailbag question seemed especially appropriate today:
I love Dame [Lillard]. Don't yell at me, I've got to ask this question anyway. His commercials are great. His fame is growing. He's the national figure the Blazers need. Watching him on the national team he's not getting many minutes and not playing great. I wonder if he's rising to that level or not. That makes me wonder if we're seeing him through the eyes of what we want and what TV says instead of what he is. Does Dame in the game match Dame selling shoes and highlighting ESPN?
Wow. Talk about a land mine-filled question.
Let's start with the obvious. By any standard Damian Lillard is doing great. It's hard to argue with scoring the 16th most points per game in the league, a 39% rate from three-point land, 10th most free throws made in the league, and 18th most win shares in the league. Any young guard who starts cracking multiple league-leader categories is worth notice.
The best part of the story: this guy has just 2 years under his belt. That's it. He hasn't even broken through the crunchy outer layer of his career yet, let alone bitten into his ooey-gooey prime. Damian's future looks magnificent. You want a six-word assessment of his game to this point? Try, "Already beyond expectations and getting better."
The complicating issues--the real root of your question--are the fame and fortune Lillard has garnered in the process. They've re-framed his importance and ceiling in most people's minds. As with everything in life, how you view Damian depends on the expectations you bring to the table.
If you're looking at Lillard compared to random second-year players--let alone random second-year guards--you have to be way, way, WAY over the moon that this guy plays for your team. 100% good, 110% happy, end of story.
If we're talking about Lillard being the clear team leader, the best player on the roster, he will get there. LaMarcus Aldridge still holds both designations at this point and likely will for a couple more years. Lillard has great games and great moments--all-career performances even at this early juncture--but his great seasons lie ahead. Consistency, court awareness, and defense all trended upward for Damian last year but he's still got a few miles to walk before you're looking at the central figure of a playoff-contending team.
Comparing Damian against league superstars at this point probably isn't fair, though again his level of exposure seems to justify such. Derrick Rose will be used as a hopeful comparison. He won the MVP award in his third season. Dame hasn't hit Year 3 yet but such an ascension would be remarkable. Over the last four decades the following players have won that award at Lillard's age or younger: Kevin Durant, Rose, LeBron James, Tim Duncan, Allen Iverson, Michael Jordan, Moses Malone, and Bill Walton. Iverson aside, we're talking all-universe players...legends among legends.
As we're seeing with Team USA, Lillard isn't even a legend among his contemporaries yet. He has time. But until he shows more, he's not going to start on the national team, let alone be a featured player when placed beside James, Durant, and company. He's not been a featured player among Anthony Davis, James Harden, and company. No amount of brand-building and upward recognition vector can change that. It happens on the floor or it doesn't happen.
As a commercial success, as a marketable player, Damian Lillard is a paragon. He's prime-grade star material with millions of dollars coming his way over and above his NBA salary.
Compared to the original expectations for him every bit of that is deserved and more. You can't say enough about his progress, dedication, enthusiasm, and big moments.
Compared to his current role for the Blazers, Lillard's reputation may outstrip reality slightly. But that role will continue to grow as he gains experience.
Weighing his merits on the national stage you have to say Lillard's visibility is outpacing his on-court significance. He's one of many bright, young stars wearing the logo (emphasis on the "many") but he's on track to rise above his peers in the spotlight.
I see two ways to go wrong in all of this. One is to assume Lillard was destined for this path, forgetting that he wasn't the highest pick in his draft, didn't have visibility, was judged lacking in some areas, and has overcome all of that to get where he is today. "Oh yeah, Dame's a star" doesn't cover his unique abilities or the way he's capitalized on them on and off the court. The other would be to pin his star so high that his production can't live up to the hype. Steer in between those two and you'll probably get a pretty good idea of Lillard's value. Yes, he's that good. No, he's not that good. But he's young and from this vantage point, the sky's the limit.
Keep those Mailbag questions coming to firstname.lastname@example.org!
What you see in Damian Lillard depends on what you're looking for. In my mind the best route is for Blazer fans to appreciate what they've got and enjoy the ride. Whether Lillard's stock goes up or drifts back, the ride is going to be plenty exciting.
--Dave email@example.com / @DaveDeckard