It feels weird to say this now, given how much he's accomplished in the NBA and what a high-profile player he's become, but I still find myself viewing Damian Lillard through the lens of the underdog. To me he's not Damian Lillard, NBA superstar; he's Lillard, the guy who went through high school never getting attention from the major college recruiters and ended up at Weber State.
He's the guy who on talent alone, should have been the No. 2 prospect in his draft class, but was instead taken sixth, passed over for the likes of Bradley Beal, Dion Waiters and Thomas Robinson. He's the guy who's still never been voted to an All-Star team, either by the fans or coaches. (His only two ASG selections, in 2014 and '15, came via commissioner appointment as a last-minute injury replacement for someone else who was picked ahead of him.)
Dame is a superstar, but he's a Cinderella superstar - a guy who somehow stumbled backwards into rarefied NBA air when no one really thought he belonged there. LeBron James was coronated as the sport's chosen one when he was 16; Dame is a decade older, and there are still casual NBA fans looking at him with uncertainty, asking themselves, "Really, this guy? OK, fine, if you say so - this guy."
All of this contributes to the feeling of satisfaction we can all share now, watching Portland's franchise player blossom into one of the game's elite talents. Lillard has come a long way from Weber State to the point where, just a couple of weeks ago, Warriors coach Steve Kerr called him out as a prime candidate to win MVP honors. If a pre-anointed guy like LeBron is praised as an MVP favorite in his fifth year, that ain't no thing; when Lillard is, it's immensely gratifying.
Is he actually a legit MVP candidate? I have my doubts. The major hardware tends to go to the very best players on the very best teams, and it's going to be tough for any Blazer to crack that conversation. Frankly, I think all this talk of a wide-open race this year is overblown - Stephen Curry was the best player in the league by far last season, and the award is his to lose. If the Warriors blow the whole NBA away this year, as many expect they will, it will be hard not to honor one of them in May. It seems like common sense that Steph will be in the mix again, Kevin Durant's vote-splitting be damned. If I'm wrong, though? LeBron, Kawhi Leonard and Russell Westbrook will all be right there too.
All of this is beside the point, which is that Damian Lillard is carving out a reputation for himself as one of the best players in the game, and that reputation doesn't have to be framed as a comparison between Lillard and Curry, or Lillard and Westbrook, or Lillard and whomever else. That's never been what Dame's all about, anyway. His mindset, and that of others in his inner circle, has always been about being himself and leaving the comparisons to everyone else. When he turned in a masterful performance late last season and a reporter asked him if he was impersonating Curry, Dame shot back curtly, "I don't impersonate anybody - I was being Damian Lillard." Likewise, when someone last week said the Blazer leader looked reminiscent of Michael Jordan in the season opener, Terry Stotts simply countered, "He reminded me of Damian Lillard." This is a thing. Dame is Dame. He's not trying to be anybody else.
Having said that, it's really cool to see Dame maximizing what he is, emerging in year five as a new and improved version of a guy who was already a superstar a season ago. On opening night, he lit up the Jazz for 39 points in 35 minutes; four days later, he made national headlines by devastating the Nuggets with two virtual buzzer-beaters, one in regulation to force a tie and another to win in overtime.
Whether Lillard is the most clutch player in the NBA, as some have argued he is, is not an argument that really interests me. Whenever you talk about a player's last-second heroics, you're talking about impossibly tiny samples of information, and inevitably your results will be fickle. (Funnily enough, I actually wrote at this time last season that Lillard's performance at the ends of games was quite bad. Was that because he was a fundamentally flawed player a year ago, and he's great now? Nah - he probably just had a bad couple of weeks in November 2015.)
This isn't about Lillard being clutch; it's about him being flat-out good. Now, of course we're talking about tiny samples, which makes me a little bit of a hypocrite, but it's still tough to look at Dame's numbers and deny that he's up to something special.
It's been said many a time in NBA circles that the three most important indicators of efficient offense are 3-pointers, layups and free throws. Those are the easiest ways to get bang for your buck each possession; if you can get all three at a good clip, you're on your way. Well? Check out what Damian's doing this season:
Not bad. Not bad at all. He's getting to the rim and the free throw line at a rate that absolutely obliterates his previous career bests - and as for the 3-point shooting, he's really been stellar with the exception of one off-night at the tail end of a back-to-back. Before he shot 1-of-8 from distance on Wednesday night in Phoenix, Dame was at a cool 42.9 percent for the season. In other words, he's been bonkers good. The Blazers look poised to be one of the most efficient teams in the NBA again this year, and their point guard is the primary reason why.
Before we go any further, a brief word of caution about the whole "threes, layups and free throws" thing. It's important to note that getting those shots off should be viewed as a symptom of a good offense, not necessarily an ingredient of it. It's a chicken/egg dilemma, basically - the truth is that great NBA offenses get threes, layups and free throws because they run intelligent stuff, not because they simply brute-force their way into threes, layups and free throws. If all you do is barge into the paint and try to attack the basket every time, or pull up from 24 feet each possession without running a play, you're not getting anywhere. Seth Partnow wrote a great piece about this last season for VICE Sports, in which he applied Goodhart's Law of economics to basketball: When a measure becomes a target, it ceases to be a good measure.
Fortunately, the Blazers are doing a lot more than just targeting the arc and the rim willy-nilly. They're earning those looks, for Lillard especially, by executing really well in the pick-and-roll.
This was the Blazers' second possession of the 2016-17 regular season, and it was a fantastic introduction to why they will be so difficult to stop this season. In a nutshell: By running super-high screens for Lillard at the top of the key, they're giving him an incredible amount of space to work with. Because Lillard is such a skilled shotmaker and a creative player in open space, he's going to be just about impossible for opposing defenses to handle regularly.
In the play you see above, the Blazers are going five-out. The central pick-and-roll partners are Lillard and Mason Plumlee; stationed around the arc surrounding those two are CJ McCollum, Moe Harkless and Al-Farouq Aminu. Even if not all three of those guys are 3-point assassins, they still demand closeouts, and they have enough gravity on the defense that the two players guarding Lillard and Plumlee - Utah's George Hill and Rudy Gobert - are essentially being put on an island to play two-on-two. I would bet on Lillard and Plumlee in a game of two-on-two against just about anyone, and here's why.
This is where things stand when Plumlee comes out to 28 feet and sets the high screen on Hill. Hill is forced to go over the screen because Lillard is too good a shooter to drop under and risk an easy jump shot. Lillard's quick enough, though, that he can use the screen and instantly get moving downhill so fast that Hill's got no chance of catching him. Effectively, Gobert is stuck trying to stop Lillard all by himself in a massive patch of open space in the middle of the floor, and Lillard happens to be a maestro at using open space.
What do you do if you're Gobert? Do you drop back and deny Dame a chance to score in the paint? Do you scramble to the 3-point line and ensure he doesn't get a good look there? What about moving laterally? Bear in mind that if you set up six inches too far to the right or left, Dame will find enough space to sneak past you.
Gobert hedges his bets, not closing out on the arc but not really dropping back, either. He mills around at the elbow, and Lillard says, "OK, sure, I'll take the open three if you'll let me." Swish.
Not that you can really blame Gobert, mind you. What's he supposed to do in a situation like this? Lillard has all the space in the world to create here. No matter where Rudy goes, Dame's going to find an opening to attack. The moment Plumlee sets that screen, with Lillard ready to come cascading down and the rest of the Blazers spaced so well, the Jazz know they'll have to give up something. It's just a matter of picking their poison.
Besides - Lillard has already demonstrated a few times this season that if you guard that pick-and-roll more aggressively, he's still going to burn you.
This is what happens when another rim-protecting big man, the Clippers' DeAndre Jordan, tries a different tack with guarding that high screen for Lillard. Same deal here as above - McCollum, Harkless and Aminu are well-spaced around the perimeter, leaving DeAndre and Luc Mbah a Moute effectively islanded against Plumlee and Lillard. Plumlee comes with that high screen, and watch how DeAndre reacts - rather than hang back at the elbow like Gobert did, he takes an aggressive step forward, putting himself within arm's reach of contesting a 3-point shot if it comes.
Ergo, it doesn't come. Lillard sees Jordan closing out, so he does what a crafty scorer is wont to do - he blows by him, gets to the rim and throws up a ridiculous up-and-under layup for two. DeAndre is one of the best rim protectors in the league, but when you force him to choose between guarding the rim and the arc, you're bound to find a weak spot you can attack.
It's telling that already in the first two weeks of the season, Lillard has gone up against some of the best defensive centers in the world - Gobert, Jordan, Tyson Chandler, Nikola Jokic - and he's still shooting better than 73 percent around the basket. That means he's doing a lot more than just driving at dudes and brute-forcing them. He's using the advantages the Blazers' schemes give him, and he's showing some cleverness around the basket as well.
Oh, and by the way. If opposing defenses decide to guard that pick-and-roll by simply smothering Lillard with both defenders? God help them.
This time, it's Denver's Emmanuel Mudiay and Jusuf Nurkic handling the Lillard-Plumlee duo, and you've got to give them credit for the effort. Plumlee comes with the screen, Mudiay quickly slips under it, and rather than drop back to the basket, Nurkic decides to stay back at the elbow and use his big, ridiculous arms to deter Lillard from getting into the paint. Great plan! Except that allows Plumlee to roll straight to the basket with no one in his path, and Dame is ready with the lob for the easy dunk. Man, that's pretty.
For all the talk about Damian Lillard's basket-attacking and shot-making and clutch performance of late, the one thing going overlooked is that Dame's improving considerably as a playmaker as well. He's got 23 assists so far this season for seven different teammates, including a team-high six to Plumlee, five each to McCollum and Harkless and three to Crabbe. He's developed a keen awareness of his teammates' strengths and how to use them. A lot of the Blazer role players have limited skill sets, but Dame knows those limits, and he's gotten better at setting them up with the right opportunities. Whether it's Plumlee rolling to the rim, Harkless slashing along the baseline or one of CJ/Crabbe spotting up from 3-point land, he's got it all figured out.
Is all of that - the shooting, the pick-and-roll creativity, the passing game, the crunch-time heroics - enough to really and truly vault Dame into the MVP conversation? I don't freakin' know, and to be honest with you, I don't really freakin' care. He might still be a long way from that point, but that's fine if he is. What I do know is that Lillard looks like a better player than he's ever been, and moreover, he's a better fit for these Trail Blazers. Beyond that? Meh. Whatever happens, happens. Let the individual accolades fall where they may.