Let's start with the obvious: Damian Lillard is one of the biggest stars in today's NBA. He's a dazzling scorer, a brilliant playmaker and a player who's repeatedly shown a flair for the dramatic in clutch situations. He's also just beginning to enter his prime at age 24.
Now for the part that's a little bit tougher to accept: Lillard's also an unfortunate victim of circumstance. He plays at a position, and in an era, that cheapens all of the above statements. The Blazers have themselves a fantastic young point guard that can score, pass and do just about everything else, and he's at just the right age to be a phenomenal player - but sadly, that means less when so many other teams can say the exact same thing.
We're just now entering the portion of the NBA season in which fans and media people begin to debate the roster choices for February's All-Star Game. That's always a delicate time period, with players crossing their fingers while praying for a selection and outsiders fiercely advocating for their players of choice. But it's especially dicey for point guards in the Western Conference - there are just so, so many qualified guys in the mix and only a select few can make the cut. Being on the bubble in that group probably makes for a stressful January.
So where does Lillard stand? If you're reading this blog, you're probably at least a little biased in his favor, and that's fine. But let's get into it, dissecting the questions at hand objectively. Should Lillard be an All-Star this year? Will he be one? What does it all really mean?
I have four theories. Please feel free to share your own below.
1. Damian Lillard should be an All-Star this year. Probably.
Let's start with the biggest question on everyone's mind - the one that's endlessly fun to debate whether you're in your local sports bar or alone at home browsing Twitter. Does Lillard deserve an All-Star selection this season?
It's a doozy of a question. The All-Star Game should in theory feature the 30 best players in the league for a given season, and Lillard is absolutely top-30 material. But when you think of it as an actual basketball game, where each conference fields a team with a depth chart that makes sense, it gets tougher. How many point guards does a squad really need, anyway?
Last year's West team packed four pointmen among its 15 total players, a number which makes sense given the overloadedness of the position. The four players were Chris Paul, Stephen Curry, Tony Parker and Lillard. It wouldn't be surprising if the West brought four guys again - only this year the competition is tougher, as it includes a healthy Russell Westbrook and a recently traded Rajon Rondo.
For a statistical breakdown, here are the 10 biggest stars in the West at the point guard position this season:
This list is by no means complete. It doesn't include guys who have been weakened by injury this season (Parker, Ricky Rubio), guys who aren't the primary point guards on their own team (Phoenix's Goran Dragic and Isaiah Thomas), one point guard who's arguably the best defender in the conference (Patrick Beverley) and another who's one of the biggest global fan favorites (Jeremy Lin). But anyway, these are the 10 best guys right now.
Lillard stacks up pretty favorably against the rest of this group, all things considered. He's fourth in PER, which measures per-minute efficiency through basic stats like points and assists (note: Westbrook has been absolutely ridiculous this season, putting up Oscar Robertson-like numbers). Lillard's second in real plus-minus, which takes into account the effect on team performance both offensively and defensively. He's tied for first in win shares and a close second in wins above replacement (WAR), both stats that credit players for the success of their teams (and of course, the Blazers have had plenty). Add it all up, and Lillard is pretty clearly a top-four point guard. So if the West brings four this year? Yeah. They should probably include Lillard.
Though it's close. It wouldn't shock me if the West coaches voted for Conley, who's been a pro's pro for eight years and is having a career year as the second-best player on a great team. That he's never been an All-Star before is a travesty, and this is as good a year as ever to pick him. I also think Rondo is an interesting darkhorse, as he might have a big January once he gets the hang of playing with his new Dallas teammates. There's also a chance that the West cuts down on guards considering the depth of young frontcourt guys who deserve a spot. DeMarcus Cousins and Kawhi Leonard were not All-Stars last year. They should be now.
Gun to my head? I say yes, Lillard deserves it. But it's closer than you think.
2. Damian Lillard will be an All-Star this year. Well, maybe. It's not a lock.
Will Dame make it? That's also a yes, I think. Again, I'm not too sure.
He's obviously not going to crack into the top two guards in the West and snag a starting spot. Those are taken. But the fan voting totals are still useful, as they give us a good general view of public opinion on the field. Here's where Lillard stands among all West guards as of yesterday morning:
Fifth is certainly not bad, but it's a weird fifth - there's Curry, Kobe Bryant, James Harden and Paul boasting monster vote totals followed by a big dropoff. Lillard is atop a big clump of guys who sit below 150,000, and he's just barely ahead of Rondo. The big four are locks - and it's also hard to deny Westbrook, who has put up insane numbers when healthy, or Klay Thompson, who's been the second best shooting guard in the league after Harden.
That's six guards already. Last year's team only had six. Lillard is probably the seventh most likely guard to make the team, but you could make the case that with a weaker crop of bigs this year (Dirk Nowitzki's a year older, and Kevin Love's in the East now), an extra guard spot is warranted. So maybe No. 7 gets in. But I don't think it's cut and dry. If Lillard makes the team, it means someone very, very, very good is getting snubbed.
3. Damian Lillard may never be a "perennial All-Star" kind of guy.
This one is hard to admit. Lillard's a great player, fantastically fun to watch, and there'd be nothing better than watching him shine in the next 10 All-Star Games. But I worry that with Lillard, it may never be automatic. He's got a great career ahead of him, but so too do Curry, Westbrook, Harden and a handful of other guys from that same generation. 2015 is no aberration - the ballot is going to be crowded every year.
Lillard's also not playing in a huge market like Kobe, which would make the votes come easy. He's in Portland, where not only is he a big fish in a smaller pond, but he's sharing that pond with LaMarcus Aldridge. For as long as Dame and LMA are sharing headlining duties with the Blazers, neither will have the reputation for "carrying" a team and the All-Star votes that come with that.
Lillard is going to be in the All-Star mix every January. But it's never going to be easy.
4. Theories 2 and 3 are not reasons to panic. It's all going to be OK.
You know how above, I said it was a bad thing that Lillard has to share responsibilities with Aldridge as co-leaders of the Blazers? Well, here's the silver lining - that duo has a chance to do a whole lot more together than just make All-Star Games. What those guys are sacrificing in individual accolades, they have a chance to make up for with something better.
The Blazers' style of play is collaborative. It's balanced. It's predicated upon five guys who work together brilliantly. It's also not exactly conducive to building up individual stars. Lillard might get his 25 or 30 on occasion, but the offense isn't designed with that end goal in mind. It shouldn't be.
Portland has something in the works this season. If this year's team can go deep in the playoffs - like, maybe even a Western Conference finals or an NBA Finals - that will make all the All-Star uncertainty well worth it in the end. The Blazers are one of the best teams in the league on both ends of the floor, and sustaining that is more important than an exhibition game in February. An All-Star selection means fleeting respect for one player. A Finals berth, or god forbid an actual title? That's something that will last.
The Spurs won the championship last June. Four months earlier, only one of them was an All-Star, and that was Parker who only played 11 minutes off the bench. Leonard, soon to be crowned Finals MVP, watched the All-Star Game from home.
But who cares? Who even remembers? Decades from now, Kawhi can tell his grandkids he was the best player in the Finals. But one All-Star selection, versus two, versus five... it's all just a number.
Damian Lillard's one of the best players in the league this season. We already know that. But if he really wants to prove it to the outside world, he'd best look to do it in May and June.