Damian Lillard has skyrocketed into stardom in his first two years in the league. He's appeared in promos for Foot Locker, EA, Adidas, and is even the cover athlete for NBA Live 15. This week, the Blazer's Edge panel attempts to categorize Lillard with his fellow point guards.
Sam Tongue | @SamTongue
The reality (just like everyone has said or is going to say) is that in the NBA, there are a plethora of guards (specifically point guards) that are of elite status. From Chris Paul to Russell Westbrook, and even the two Olympians Kyrie Irving and Derrick Rose, there are guys all over the league that are fantastic. Luckily for the Blazers, Lillard is on a track to reach that status.
When you think of where Lillard ranks specifically among this group, it's pretty difficult. He made the Third Team All-NBA, so I suppose in the eyes of the league that puts him in the top five or six. However, I think the real point here is that he's an All-Star level guard in a league that's very kind to his position. Between his jumpshot, improving knack for finishing at the rim, and leadership qualities, it doesn't necessarily matter whether Lillard is the third or the sixth best point guard in the league. What really matters more is having those traits in an era of the game that favors athleticism and allows offensive players to have inherent advantages (see James Harden). Any way you look at it, Lillard is at or near the elite group.
Chris Lucia | @ChrisLucia_BE
In no particular order:
(*if fully healthy)
Tier 1 is a list of the elite point guards currently in the NBA. You could make a case for dropping Westbrook and Rose down a tier because of recent injuries and Parker because of age. You could also slide Paul and Curry down for a lack of playoff success. Obvious nitpicking aside, though, these guys stand atop the heap of talented NBA point guards, despite whatever apparent limitations they possess.
Just like when Steve Nash, Chauncey Billups, Jason Kidd et al. passed the torch to the current crop of elite point guards, so too will another generation of superstars take over the top ranks of the position in time. Paul is 29 years old and has played 36.4 minutes per game over nine seasons, while Parker is 32 and entering his fourteenth season. Paul and Parker will still be All-Stars well into their 30s, but Westbrook, Curry, and Rose will likely be the best individual point guards after the next few seasons.
Here's where things get murky, which is why I've divided Tier 2 into two sub-rankings. Tier 2(a) players have the upside to join Westbrook, Curry, and Rose at the top of the PG pile eventually, while Tier 2(b) players are at the same level of the others but are either at or near their ceiling. If Teague and Conley significantly improve their outside shooting, they could get bumped up a half-tier in these rankings.
Lillard is among Irving, Wall, and Bledsoe in the "superstar-point-guard-in-the-making" mold. Not one of these guys is over 24 years old. Irving should look pretty good as a secondary option with LeBron James and Kevin Love next year, Wall finished last season with a much-improved outside game and will be a much more complete player if he maintains his progression as a shooter, and Bledsoe is a great two-way player when fully healthy. Lillard has the shooting and the scoring to become elite, now it's up to him to improve his individual defense to get to that next level, which I think he's fully capable of achieving in the next couple of seasons.
The problem with ranking Lillard is that his role on the Trail Blazers is much different than the traditional point guard role. Lillard only sets up the offense about half the time (with Nicolas Batum doing the other half), and Lillard is still developing as a passer. His primary focus is his uncanny offensive vision; the ability to see the defense and how to attack it best.
With that in mind, Chris Paul is still the best point guard in the NBA: leader in assists per game, steals per game, assist-to-turnover ratio, and still averaging 19 points per game. You can talk all you want about how he has "never won anything." He is the best right now, and his numbers prove it.
Second would be Stephen Curry, who does what Damian does, but better. More points per game (24.0 versus 20.7), more assists (8.5 versus 5.6), more steals (1.6 versus 0.8), and Curry is a marginally better defender (4.0 defensive win shares for Curry, 1.8 for Lillard).
Third is Russell Westbrook. When healthy, he is one of the most dangerous shooters in the league. The instant the Thunder learn to split the shooting between Westbrook and Kevin Durant, the instant the Thunder become NBA title contenders.
Lillard comes in at number four, just ahead of Kyrie Irving and Tony Parker. Irving has slightly better statistics, but they came with Cleveland truly lacking a second option for much of that time. Lillard has put up his numbers while feeding LaMarcus Aldridge. As for Parker, age has slowed him down and changed his role in the San Antonio Spurs' offense.
Scott Horlbeck | @scott_horlbeck
Ranking NBA players can be fun but it can also be stressful -- it just depends on the category. If you're talking "Most Swag": 1) Russell Westbrook 2) Nate Robinson 3) Steve Nash and 4) secretly dope Mike Conley. If it's "Worst Hair": 1) Deron Williams (easily) 2) Professor Andre Miller 3) Ricky Rubio. If it's "Guys Who Could Steal Your Girlfriend in 4 Seconds If He Wanted To": 1) Tony Parker 376) Sam Cassell. But if we're talking "Best Point Guard" -- ugh.....things could get hairy.
So instead of delving into usage rates and per 48s and true shooting percentages, we're going with the good ol' eye test.
1. Chris Paul
I think this is pretty agreed upon. CP3 is the best point guard in the league, the third best player in the league and probably the worst actor. Him or Greg Oden. #NeverForget
2. Brandon Jennings
2. Russell Westbrook
Russ is number 2 by default. In other words, he might not be a point guard, but he handles the ball for Oklahoma City Thunder and is a top 6 player in the league. Athletically, he's mini-LeBron. He also has an unguardable move (sprint full speed at you, stop on a dime, rise, and hit a 15-footer), and he's so effing competitive that he's a must-watch every night.
3a. Stephen Curry
He's my favorite player on my favorite team -- sue me. In all seriousness, Steph outplayed Parker in the Western Conference Semifinals in 2013 (before his ankle injury), averaged 23-8 vs. Chris Paul in the first round of the 2014 playoffs, and has firmly supplanted himself as a top 10 player in the league. He's also a scratch golfer and Parker is French.
3b. Mr. "Femme Voleur" Parker
Tony Parker has four rings, is terrifying in the pick-and-roll and reminds us every April-June how good he really is. It's easy to forget him on these types of lists because of his age, team and style of play, but Parker is a top five point guard in the league without question. And if you ask Chuck, he's number one.
5. Derrick Rose
He's showed me enough during the FIBA games to say that he's back to being a top five point guard. ALERT: Now is when I type the obligatory "However, Rose is also coming off two major knee injuries and is..." (Okay, here we go.) However, Rose is coming off two major knee injuries and hasn't played a full 82-game season since 2010-11, so we'll just have to wait and see. Fingers triple-crossed.
6. Rajon Rondo
Another weird post-injury guy, but when he's healthy, Rondo is like no one else. He might be the meanest/weirdest/smartest/most competitive guy in the league, one of the last potential-triple-double-on-any-given-night guys and he's definitely the best Connect Four player. Watching him go AT LeBron in the Eastern Conference Semifinals in 2010 -- waving off defensive double teams, talking s---, staring down the crowd -- I know that was three seasons ago, but if he's right this year, he'll prove this ranking easy.
7. Kyrie Irving
Kyrie's starting to put together quite a resume: 2014 All-Star Game MVP, 2014 FIBA World Cup MVP, Dion Waiter's 2014 Least Favorite Teammate. He might be the most skilled point guard in the league, and if you could buy stock in NBA players, I'd be in full Jordan Belfort Mode. I think this is the year Kyrie explodes and becomes a name my mom knows. He's also Nike's next "guy" after Durant, which probably says something.
8. Damian Lillard
I think this is a fair ranking for Dame. You could argue John Wall or Mike Conley or Goran Dragic (who should have made the All-Star over Damian last year, and who also has a brother named Zoran which is just awesome), but I don't think anyone would be upset with Damian at 8. Obviously his buzzer-beater vs. the Houston Rockets helped his career arc and probably landed him 13 additional commercials/TV spots (his appearance in the new Madden commercial is pretty great -- "Damian......?"), but I think he really showed something by almost making the 2014 FIBA team. From what I read, he was awesome at those try-out/practices and I think he's only going to get better. He's also a Bay-Area guy which is always a plus in my book.
Evans Clinchy | @evansclinchy
It's always very difficult to play the "point guard ranking game," but especially these days when there are just so many great players vying for superstar status. Is Damian Lillard elite? In a vacuum, I'd say so, but given the amount of talent at the position in today's NBA, you have to think about the relative value of a high-level pointman.
Right now, there are a definite 10 guys running the point around the league who are, if not at Lillard's level, at least awfully close to it. In alphabetical order, the 10 names: Curry, Dragic, Irving, Lillard, Parker, Paul, Rondo, Rose, Wall, and Westbrook. All of them have been named All-Star or All-NBA guards at least once. They're all in their primes, or at least mighty close, at this very moment. (Though a couple of them need the "when healthy" caveat, sure.) When you put Lillard up against this group, how does he fare?
He's not the best shooter (Curry) or the best playmaker (Paul). He doesn't have the championship pedigree of a Parker or the all-world athleticism of a Westbrook. He's solid in all areas, but not the true "best of the best" in any of them. There are still ways that Lillard can improve. I'd like to see him shoot more efficiently from certain spots, cut the turnovers down a bit, and commit to playing defense every single night. I'd also just like to see him, in a general sense, keep it up. Whose resume impresses you more -- Lillard's, which shows off two years of solid work at the position, or Wall's, which boasts four? Rondo's played eight seasons. Greatness is defined in large part by longetivity, and Lillard still needs to put in the work.
Damian Lillard is good right now. Really, really good. But I'd still like to see him demonstrate his skills for a little longer before I let him into the class of the true elites. Lillard right now is the seventh, maybe eighth best point guard in the NBA. Which is great. That he isn't higher isn't a reflection of any major flaw in his game -- it's just that the competition right now is so, so daunting. To Lillard's credit, he's right in the thick of it.
Lillard among his peers is a lot like the Blazers within the Western Conference: there's a few elite players and then a large "mushy middle" with Lillard rising to the top.
Chris Paul, Steph Curry, and Tony Parker are clearly a cut above. Parker is so consistently underrated it's criminal. After that, you could make a case for guys like Wall, Irving, even Lowry or Dragic as the next best point guard. Lillard's my choice due to his superhuman ability to come through in the clutch. I don't think you can keep a straight face and claim you'd rather have anyone else in that group take the last shot with the game on the line.
Rose and Westbrook are interesting outliers given their insane athleticism, unique style of play, and semi-recent major injuries. Rose still has to prove he's back but Westbrook's second half was more or less in line with his career numbers. However, his career has major questions about shooting efficiency and ability to run an offense. While it's silly to argue the Oklahoma City Thunder are better without Westbrook I do think they would be better if Lillard took his place. Lillard's shooting and ability to complement other great players makes him more valuable to most good teams. That's enough for me.
I think it's telling that Lillard's position mirrors the Blazer's. It will be interesting to see if he can join the elite and if that propels the Blazers to do the same. As we've all learned, don't doubt him.
Sagar Trika | @BlazersBySagar
Let's start out with defining the top tier of point guards in the league. In other words, let's list the top-tier superstars at the point guard position. Chris Paul, Stephen Curry, and Tony Parker top that list. Russell Westbrook, while not always the best ball-distributor or teammate, is also on that list (when healthy, of course). The argument for putting Derrick Rose on that list is one to be made, but because we haven't seen much from him since last November, I'm not putting him with the top tier of point guards.
This is where the point guard "rankings," for lack of better word, gets murky. The following group includes John Wall, Kyrie Irving, Derrick Rose, Goran Dragic, Mike Conley, and Lillard. Where Lillard ranks among those guards, however, is tough to determine. Rose is freakishly athletic while Wall is very fast. Both Dragic and Conley are often overlooked, but both are great scorers and ball-distributors.
Irving is in a tough position. He put up very nice numbers as the leader for the Cleveland Cavaliers last season. It is imperative to see how he plays with LeBron James and Kevin Love before putting him in a group, whether it be with Lillard and co. or potentially even lower.
I think in the end, Lillard falls somewhere between fifth and seventh best point guards, following the four I mentioned in the top tier and potentially Dragic or Wall (it becomes based on opinion, preference, and situation at this point).
How do you think Lillard stacks up against his point guard counterparts? Let us know in the comments!