Over the next several days the Blazer's Edge staff will take a look at each player on the Portland Trail Blazers roster, recapping their season and discussing future prospects. First up on the list, Portland's star point guard.
--Damian Lillard as "The Kid" from The Sting -- Artwork by akicks
If you only remember one thing about Damian Lillard, remember this: whatever he does, he does big. Damian walks in a whirlwind. He's the calm eye of the storm; everyone around him shifts with his energy, for good or ill.
12 months ago Lillard rocketed to stardom on the back of a series-winning three-pointer against the Houston Rockets. Since then his career has taken a number of twists and turns. Adidas gave him his own shoe line and a suite of commercials. He earned his second All-Star nomination in three years. He established a career-high scoring average, taking and making more shots than ever before. He also flopped every time he took the national stage, first in the All-Star game and then in the playoffs. Towards the end of the year he became a target for commentators spouting themes like "long on hype, short on results" and "brilliant offensively, incompetent on defense".
Last year Lillard exited the playoffs with the Play of the Year under his belt, acclaimed as one of the brightest among the next generation of NBA point guards. This year Lillard is an afterthought, in some corners the poster child for Portland's ills.
Oddly enough, perceptions of Lillard changed between his second and third year far more than his stats did. Here's a look at the numbers. Lillard's minutes remained virtually identical between the two seasons, so these will serve for per-game and per-minute comparisons.
Lillard registered a severe drop in three-point percentage in 2015 but his True Shooting Percentage stayed in the same ballpark and his PER rose. Most other metrics edged upward, but not to a startling degree.
Lillard's defensive numbers give a more rosy view. Defensive Win Shares, Defensive Plus-Minus, and Defensive Rating all improved, in some cases radically. Defensive metrics are notorious for noise, however. Portland's defense improved as a whole this season, creating a chicken-and-egg problem. Did the Blazers improve because Lillard's numbers improved or did Lillard's numbers improve because the defense improved around him?
There's little doubt that Lillard is a better defender now than he was last year. But opposing point guards going right at (and sometime through) him while opposing coaches scoop 31 Flavors of screens into his dish testify alongside the stats. Lillard isn't just a weak point in Portland's defense, he's THE weak point among the starters. Coach Stotts has to watch which reserves he plays alongside Lillard as well, as any combination lacking an adequate defender at shooting guard makes the backcourt turn toxic.
Detractors can also point to Lillard's playoff numbers. Here's the post-season version of the chart above:
Those 2015 numbers aren't pretty. Lillard's point production remained high in the post-season but his field goal percentage dropped while his three-point shooting and PER sank like lead-lined bowling balls. 2014's numbers look better because of the Houston series, but Lillard shot 41% from the field against San Antonio in the second round, 17% from distance.
Two years isn't enough to make a determination, but so far better teams are able to make Lillard look pretty un-Lillard-like. This was painfully evident against the Grizzlies this year. When his team cried out for a savior, Damian got lost in the shuffle.
The point is, this is not new. The Damian Lillard who looked brilliant against Houston and rotten against San Antonio is the same Lillard who shot 43% from the arc in November and 26% in March. Lillard posted a 24.1 ppg average in January with games of 40, 43, and 35 points and a 19.6 average in March while failing to clear 15 points 6 times.
Take Away Point #1: At 24 years of age with 3 years of experience Lillard isn't there yet.
Take-Away Point #2: When off games and off months still produce a 20-point average, you're doing OK.
Damian Lillard isn't a shoe-commercial deity. Damian Lillard isn't the root of Portland's problems either. He's a very good young player, a visionary on offense, requiring help on defense, still figuring out how to win in this league at the highest levels. He's far less of a money player than The Shot led people to believe. Compared to elite, experienced point guards he'll be found wanting. But Lillard has had a better start to his career than 97% of NBA players can claim, he's not even in the early part of his prime yet, and Damian Lillard circa 2020 will be a better player than he is today.
How much better? That'll be the $100,000,000 question for the Blazers this summer. To all appearances, the Portland front office is standing behind their Golden Pick as the franchise future. But Lillard is not yet ready to carry a team on his back himself. Some forecast him as an MVP candidate someday. Others claim he'll be the 20-point scorer who can't play enough defense to help his team win big. The whirlwind blows.
The truth probably lies somewhere in the middle. Lillard showed improvement this year, incremental but still definite. That should continue. Incremental improvement will never give him the impact of an Anthony Davis or Steph Curry. Portland's success still depends on a tight team more than a single star.
The truth lies in the middle in the metaphorical sense as well. In the center of the hype and blame stands a man who knows who he is and who knows he can write his own ticket in this league. If he wants money, he'll never lack for offers. If he wants titles he knows what he needs to work on. His future is in his hands. Every high school coach says the same to his players to motivate them; finding a player for whom it's actually true is rare, especially at this level. We can speak of two on the Trail Blazers roster at the moment: Lillard and LaMarcus Aldridge. Even with the final results unknown, the possibility of following a guy who creates an incredible destiny for himself may be enough to sway the Blazers to Lillard's side.
Tomorrow: Portland's favorite mascot-chewing center.
Special thanks to akicks for the artwork for this series.