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Damian Lillard's Scoring is Invaluable

Trail Blazers guard Damian Lillard leads Portland in scoring this season. Are his points more valuable to his team than those of other superstar point guards?

Kelvin Kuo-USA TODAY Sports

What does Damian Lillard mean to the Trail Blazers on a nightly basis? It's a really vague and ominous question that's been on my mind over the last few weeks. So, I decided to take a look at some of the underlying numbers to assess some base level value for nightly contributions.

Lately, Blazers fans have seen both the highs and lows of Lillard's game. In a recent loss against the Warriors, Lillard went for 38 points on 27 shots in a head-to-head duel with reigning MVP Steph Curry.

Two games prior against the Boston Celtics an apparition claiming to be Damian Lillard zombie-walked the Moda Center floor to the tune of 14 points on 16 shots and was an essential non-factor in a tightly contested Blazers win.

In the span of a week Blazers fans saw Lillard's worst effort of the season turn into a win (thank you Al-Farouq Aminu!) and a rather heroic effort dashed down by a historic team. Both of these games are at the very least outliers, extreme examples of the spectrum that don't paint the whole picture but it got me thinking. After the Celtics game, in the postgame recap, I mentioned something that got some attention in the comments and ultimately led to the writing of this piece.

"If Damian Lillard is truly going to ascend to superstar 'OMG' status- he has to find a way to win these matchups. As things sit right now the potential matchups for Lillard are Russell Westbrook, Chris Paul, Steph Curry, and Tony Parker. Lillard is favored in one of those matchups. If this team is going to go any further than a 'Gentleman's Sweep' he has to battle through and deliver more than he did tonight."

While that in and of itself is a bit broader and more abstract, it got me thinking - what does Damian Lillard do on a game-to-game basis, consistently, and how much impact does it have on the nightly outcome?

Since the turn of the calendar the Blazers are 28-16, good enough for seventh best in the NBA. It's no secret that Damian Lillard's play has been a huge part of that - particularly post All-Star break. But there's been some argument, disagreement, and debate about what style of play from Lillard is the best bet for Portland to win night-in and night-out. Is it the playmaking, tempo controlling, involve others, back-seat-taking humble All-Star who sacrifices looks to get others involved? Or is it perhaps the full-blown gunner, looking to score on each and every possession - constantly putting pressure on opposing defenses at every opportunity?

While some might say it's probably somewhere in between, I would argue that for this iteration of the Blazers Lillard needs to lean more towards scoring heavy every night.

WINS

Player

PTS (+)

FG% (+)

3P% (+)

AST (+)

Damian Lillard

21 of 37 (56.8%)

22 of 37 (59.46%)

18 of 37 (48.65%)

21 of 37 (56.8%)

Steph Curry

35 of 67 (52.24%)

29 of 67 (43.28%)

33 of 67 (49.25%)

34  of 67 (50.75%)

Russell Westbrook

24 of 54 (44.44%)

31 of 54 (57.41%)

28 of 54 (51.85%)

27 of 54 (50%)

If you take a look at the above chart you'll see that it's broken down into four categories - Points, Field Goal percentage, 3-point percentage, and Assists.

The (+) means that each player has performed above their average X amount of times, and the given percentage is how often they've done it in wins. It's not a perfect indicator by any means, but it serves as a good starting point to discuss how reliant the Blazers are on what Lillard brings nightly. Also it allows some comparison to be made on how two of his "contemporaries" at the point guard position, Russell Westbrook of Oklahoma City and Steph Curry of the Golden State Warriors, are needed nightly by their teams.

The first thing to point out here is that Lillard scoring above average leads to a higher percentage of wins than each of the other two. There's a couple things going on here.

First, the Blazers are reliant on Lillard going off nightly. Secondly, he's also done it the least total times - which leads to the team concept idea.

Both Westbrook and Curry have scored above their averages in more total instances, but they also have more wins and better or more complete supporting characters on their teams. Thus, their teams are more capable to pick up the slack if either of them performs below average. In Lillard's case this isn't true and it bares out here.

The biggest indicator of success for Lillard this season is efficiency - particularly field goal percentage. This stat in and of itself is a bit misleading for individual cases. Lillard is shooting 42 percent from the field on the season.

Curry? He's shooting over 50 percent from the field and nearly 46 percent from 3-point range. Go ahead and absorb the absurdity there, I'll give you a minute.

Westbrook also shoots at a higher clip from the field than Lillard, clocking in at 45.6 percent from the field overall. So Lillard performing "above average" could be 43 percent from the field, where as when Curry does it, it means that he's shooting over 50 percent for the game.

However, it's still a telling stat as the Blazers (as expected) are a much better team when Lillard goes above his average, winning nearly 60 percent of the time Lillard goes above and losing 68 percent of the time he falls below.

LOSSES

Player

PTS (-)

FG% (-)

3P% (-)

AST (-)

Damian Lillard

22 of 34 (64.7%)

23 of 34 (67.65%)

20 of 34 (58.82%)

17 of 34 (50%)

Steph Curry

6 of 8 (75%)

8 of 8 (100%)

6 of 8 (75%)

6 of 8 (75%)

Russell Westbrook

8 of 24 (33.33%)

16 of 24 (66.67%)

15 of 24 (62.5%)

14 of 24 (58.33%)

Here the opposite is true - where there is a (-) it means that said player has performed below average X amount of times and the corresponding number of losses.

When Lillard performs below average the team as a whole suffers. Keep Lillard from getting his average as an opponent and you've got a pretty good chance to beat Portland. It sounds all pretty simple, and I guess it is to an extent.

As Blazers fans have seen over the last few weeks, teams are targeting Lillard more than ever. Forcing him to give the ball up, double-teaming him whenever he puts the ball on the floor, trapping pick-and-rolls 35 feet from the basket, anything they can do to keep him from getting his. The only caveat to this is, they'll "allow" him to get his as long as he has to work for it and he's not doing it efficiently.

One thing that appears to impact the outcome of a game the least is Lillard not getting to his normal assists numbers. While it's true that Lillard's playmaking ability has increased greatly over his time in the NBA, let's not forget that he made it into the league on his ability to score.

This goes back to something I've seen pop up quite often this season when Lillard has a subpar shooting or scoring night, but still manages to register some high assist totals. In games where Lillard fails to score 20 but generates more than his average assist numbers, the Blazers are 7-6.

While above .500 in these instances, the team in that group of seven victories with the highest winning percentage is the Milwaukee Bucks. They weren't exactly slaying the best of the best in these scenarios and Lillard could afford, in a sense, to have an off game.

In the losses, the Blazers have fallen to the Grizzlies twice, the Clippers twice and the Orlando Magic and Chicago Bulls. The Bulls are probably the aberration there, but there is one thing those teams all have in common - point guard defense. Chris Paul, Mike Conley and Tony Allen, and Victor Oladipo and Elfrid Payton.

In the nine games where Lillard has failed to reach his averages in both assists and points, the Blazers are 3-6. Each of those wins saw spikes from tertiary players that saved the Blazers. In Washington, Meyers Leonard shot the lights out for one of his best games of the season. Al-Farouq Aminu literally had the best game of his career against the Celtics last week, and the role players bonanza against the Miami Heat saw Mason Plumlee, Gerald Henderson, and Maurice Harkless all have phenomenal games and cover for Lillard as he failed to deliver.

I hear the justification for Lillard having a subpar scoring night retold as, "Yeah, but he got others involved" or "But at least he recognized he was off tonight and didn't jack up more shots." Better yet, there's a narrative that somehow him taking away the team's best defender and being a net negative for Portland that night is somehow a good thing for the Blazers. That last one is something I can't wrap my head around.

If Lillard is able to be isolated and removed regularly then the Blazers made a serious mistake in offering him a max contract offer, and I'm willing to bet that Lillard himself would agree. That's why the line of reasoning, to me, just doesn't fly. We'll get back to this in a bit, though.

Let's take a look at the other guys in the table here. With Curry it's a strange picture because of their historic record and how skewed things appear because of it. On the surface though, if a team is able to take him out of a game, they have a great case to upset the Warriors. Good luck with that.

In Westbrook's case, it's not stopping him from scoring - it's stopping him from scoring efficiently and effectively. Turn him into a volume shooter and you've got yourself a puncher's chance to stop the Westbrook-Kevin Durant duo.

In both of these cases, due to roster construction and the length of time their teams have been together, it's much easier to break things down and determine impact. Lillard isn't offered the same luxury, and thus needs to deliver consistently, otherwise his team ends up in the loss column more frequently.

Now for a glimpse at the ebb and flow of Lillard's scoring consistency, or the volatility of his scoring as it were:

Here you can see the peaks and valleys since the beginning of the new year.

It's not hard to point out when he's been hot and cold - notice the sustained period of peaks in February into March. Even if he did drop below his average, it was slightly below average and not a huge drop. Keep in mind that his season scoring average is above 25 points per game.

Then, when it comes to early March it looks a whole lot like two hands reaching down below his average, pleading "help me!" Well, maybe not, but there's some sustained substandard scoring from Lillard. It's not a surprise that the Trail Blazers are 10-9 since the beginning of March either. For all intents and purposes, as Lillard goes so do the Blazers.

Compare that chart to that of Russell Westbrook. Who, almost unbelievably, has me pointing to him as a model of consistency (well, at least as it pertains to scoring)/. Over the last 13 games OKC is 10-3 and Westbrook is averaging 21 points, 10.5 assists, and 9.3 rebounds. Clearly he impacts the game with more than scoring and playmaking - and it's his lack of volatility in the box score that has aided them down the stretch.

There's no denying that Lillard is a phenomenal player and will most likely be worthy of that max contract he signed in the offseason. However, there are a couple of things that need to change going forward if the Blazers hope to be successful in the long term:

1). Lillard has to be more consistent. He cannot fail to deliver on the offensive end in some capacity. Up to this point in his career, Lillard has not found other ways - particularly on the defensive side of the ball - to compensate for having subpar shooting/scoring nights. While it would both serve him and the team better if he improved on the defensive end, it would suffice if he were more consistent offensively, and consistently efficient.

2). He needs to win the big time matchup. This isn't necessarily the head-to-head matchups with superstars exclusively, but he cannot be put in handcuffs every time a top-flight defender picks him up. Lillard's lowest scoring averages for his career come against, in order from least to most: Boston, Orlando, Los Angeles (C), Atlanta and Oklahoma City.

What do all of these teams have in common? Defense-minded guard play. The likes of Chris Paul, Jeff Teague, and Avery Bradley have tormented Lillard since he came into the league. If he is truly going to justify that contract and take this team to the next level he has to start winning those matchups more regularly.

The only caveat to offer here is in the case of Lillard's consistency on offense, the Blazers could add another piece to the roster that would allow him to relax to an extent, or suffer the inevitable bad night - as every player certainly deals with. This ins't to imply that he needs to be flawless, just more consistent until the status quo changes.

The bottom line is that while Lillard can continue operating as a primary playmaker, he needs to establish scoring as his primary objective. Going into a first round matchup, the gameplan will be to take Lillard out of the series from the opening tip. If he's looking to take that next step forward, he needs to find a way to become matchup-proof. Not perfect, but not a riddle that can be solved easily, either.

If Damian Lillard is able to achieve that goal, then we'll know what he means to the Portland Trail Blazers - everything.