The 2015-16 season for the Portland Trail Blazers will be remembered for many reasons. Most will start with the fact that Portland went into the season missing four of five starters from the previous year. With that in mind, they were a preseason pick to be one of the worst teams in the league. Projected at 26.5 wins for the season, the team came together and won 44, earning them a trip to the playoffs as the No. 5 seed in the Western Conference.
After some untimely injuries for their first round opponent, the Los Angeles Clippers, the Blazers were able to advance to the second round and take on the defending champion Golden State Warriors. Despite leading by double digits in four out of the five games, the Blazers fell 4-1 in the series, the gentleman's sweep.
This is of course the view from 30,000 feet. For all of this to come together so many different things had to go right, and fall in place, just so. Some of these things are easier to see than others; on court play, integration of new teammates, emergence and growth of younger players, etc. Some have no direct correlation back to the games that were played, but could be argued they played a role this season. Particularly so for one player, the face of the franchise, Damian Lillard.
From a purely statistical standpoint, Lillard had one of the best campaigns any single Trail Blazer has ever had. He joins Kiki Vandeweghe and Clyde Drexler as the only Blazers to average 25 or more points per game for a season. He holds the franchise record for 3-pointers made in a season, knocking down 229. Lillard also owns positions 2, 5, and 6 on the record boards for most threes made in a season.
Throw in the fact that Lillard joins Larry Bird, LeBron James, Steph Curry, and James Harden as the only players ever to average 25 or more points, 6.5 or more assists, and 37 percent or better from the 3-point line in a single season and you begin to see what kind of a statistically incredible year Lillard put together.
If you're going to review Lillard's season, it's probably a good idea to start first with the crown jewels and move on from there - performances that transcended anything Portland has experienced since arguably Clyde Drexler concerning the level of superstardom.
Lillard had career highs in points per game, assists per game, free throw percentage and attempts, field goal attempts and makes, as well as 3-point field goal attempts and makes. Across the board Lillard registered some of best single season numbers in Trail Blazers franchise history. With that level of success, both the local and national media spotlight has focused in on the man who wears the letter "O," and they're familiar with his hashtags.
People around the country and the world have come to find that #LeaguePassAlert and #LillardTime are one and the same. What has made both hashtags so wonderful is that Lillard usually saved them for matchups with Stephen Curry and the Warriors.
This season, three of Lillard's five highest scoring games came against the Warriors. The pièce de résistance: a 51-point, seven assist, six steal game on February 19 in Portland that featured Lillard launching from 3-point range, hitting seemingly everything he threw at the rim (9-for-12 from distance) and setting basketball Twitter on fire.
This wasn't the only time that Lillard would hit the 50-burger. In one of the crazier games in recent memory, Lillard went for 50 points in a loss to the Toronto Raptors in March. In what seemed like a lost cause heading into the fourth quarter, Lillard went full blown supernova, dropping 22 points in the period - nearly leading the Blazers back from the dead.
Then of course there were the times he dropped 40/10, once in a victory over the Washington Wizards, consistently torching Wizards guard John Wall all game long. Then once more against the Warriors, when even his superhero-like performance couldn't keep Golden State from winning by 20.
While Lillard saved some of his more ridiculous individual heroics for the Warriors, his overall play skyrocketed at home, regardless of the opponent. Of his 20 best +/- ratings on the season, 17 of them came in the Moda Center. The same pattern holds true with his assists, 16 of his top 20 games came in the Rose City. Lillard saved five of his top eight scoring outputs for the Portland faithful, leading the Blazers to victories in all but one.
Besides his on-court exploits, Lillard has capitalized off the hardwood this year as well. While "No good clipper" and "dropping dimes, dropping dimes" continue to play over the national airwaves, customers can also pick up one of many different colorways of the Lillard 2 shoe.
Today, Lillard is the face of Adidas. He's featured with some of the biggest names in the NBA in a series of State Farm commercials. This seems to be the business world imitating the sports world, or perhaps the other way around. Some of the largest brands in the world are investing in a 25-year-old point guard from Weber State to be their face going forward. Lillard shows his ability to lead, and to be at the forefront not only on the court but off it as well.
How this relates to this season is simple. If companies this large were willing to back you as the face of their company, what would that do for your confidence? Imagine an NBA team, and numerous Fortune 500 firms are backing you with their support to the tune of tens of millions of dollars. That kind of endorsement breeds confidence, and that confidence has oozed from Lillard since the day he was drafted.
Given the reigns to the team as the unabashed leader of the franchise this offseason, that confidence was put on full display. While it may seem like a trivial photo-op - something the team may have highlighted heading into a season that on the outside looked doomed from the start - the bedrock of this team was laid down during the team trip before the season was underway in San Diego.
There Lillard got out his message for the season: accountability. With the confidence of the team fully invested in him, Lillard was able to confidently convey his message to his teammates. In September, Casey Holdahl of ForwardCenter.net highlighted the San Diego trip. A few lines from Lillard really stood out concerning accountability:
"I came to the gym yesterday and Luis Montero was playing one-on-one and I jumped in, just challenged him a little bit," said Lillard. "Like, I got real physical with him and I went hard on him, kind of beat him up a bit in the one-on-one. You could tell he looked a little shocked.
"But now, me and him just had a long conversation about international play, stuff like that. You can tell that me being around instead of trying to be a star — I get my workout then I disappear or I lift separate from everybody else, not communicating — you can tell it really has an impact. Now when I walk up to him and I'm like ‘Luis, you got to have your ass in the corner! You got to be there!' he's just gonna say ‘Alright Dame, I got you' instead of him thinking I'm just coming down on him because I think I'm a star. I think that's why being around each other is so important. Now we can hold each other accountable."
While on the topic of accountability, it wouldn't be totally fair to not hold Lillard accountable for both the good and the bad. Lillard gets all the credit for the spectacular and amazing feats - carrying the team for large portions of the season, overachieving beyond what anyone outside the organization felt was truly obtainable.
However, Lillard also has to carry the torch for times that both he and the team failed to deliver when they really should have. In the 35 losses that Lillard was on the floor for, he averaged just over 24 points and nearly 6.4 assists. On the surface, those are spectacular numbers, but what it took to generate those is quite the opposite.
On any given loss it took over 20 shots to generate just over 24 points. He shot under 39 percent from the field and a shade over 34 percent from 3-point range while committing nearly 3.5 turnovers per game. While #LillardTime has become a staple to tune into as soon as the hands on the clock point to the wrist and the pinwheel, it's also become somewhat of a problem this season.
Lillard was third in the league in fourth quarter scoring this year, not surprising considering his vastly increased role and his penchant for late-game heroics. The problem? Of the 54 players to score at least four points per game in the four quarter, only Kobe Bryant shot worse from the field in the closing frame (34.3 percent) than Lillard (37.7 percent).
If you look at Lillard's ratings in "clutch time" he doesn't fare much better. Shooting 37.4 percent from the field and 30.8 percent from 3-point range, he ranks below the median across the board. Essentially what that says is that #LillardTime has become the exception and not the rule.
While it's hard and probably not fair to pin down Lillard forcing the action late game as the sole reason contributing to losses, it at times did factor in.
Much has been made about Coach Terry Stotts' ability to craft an offense around this team featuring so many new players. Many wondered where the shooting would come from, how the ball movement would look, and how they could possibly run an offense that resembled anything that has been on the court since he arrived in Portland.
For large portions of games and the season in general, his offense was on full display. Ball movement, player movement, off-ball screens, and pindowns - all of which orchestrated by Lillard and CJ McCollum like maestros of the top symphonies of the world. Then as the the piece is coming to a conclusion, the brass players get off music, the strings come to a screeching halt, and the percussion section just decides to hit the gong because, why not?
This is essentially what it looks (and sounds like in my head) when the beautiful offense that has been on display for 42 minutes a night devolves into 90's era hero ball. When it works, it makes for captivating television. When it doesn't? Take a look at the closing minutes of Games 4 and 5 of the Blazers-Warriors series.
It's easy to say that as Lillard goes, so do the Blazers. No really, it's that easy. In wins this season Lillard put up 26.5 points per game, 7.4 assists, 3.8 rebounds, 1.02 steals while shooting over 45 percent from the field and nearly 41 percent from deep. When he's on, totally engaged and playing within himself and the gameplan, he's nearly unstoppable.
What we've learned about Damian Lillard this year is that he's capable of carrying a team to the playoffs nearly single handedly, and in nearly historic fashion. We've also learned that it took Chris Paul and Blake Griffin going down in the first round for the Blazers to advance to the Western Conference semifinals.
We saw Lillard drop 51 points on the Warriors in a demolition in Portland, while also shooting 4-for-18 for 14 points and two assists in a 25-point blow out loss to the Philadelphia 76ers. In the playoffs Lillard exploded for a 40-point, 10-rebound, 5-assist game against Golden State. It was Lillard at his absolute best, and one of the best performances in Trail Blazer playoff history. Meanwhile, two weeks earlier he shot 6-for-22 for 17 points and four turnovers in a 22-point loss in the opening round to the Clippers.
Heading into this season I wondered what this team would look like after 82 games. Here we are after 93 games and I'm still not certain who or where this team, and particularly Damian Lillard, belong. Are they the team that is closer to the 26.5 wins projected by Las Vegas? Perhaps they're the team that went on a complete tear from mid-January into mid-March.
When reviewing Damian Lillard's season, the biggest takeaway seems to be is that while he has the highest ceiling of any Blazer in recent memory - heck, maybe even ever - his consistency is still in question. Arguably no Trail Blazer has ever been capable of greater heights, or more captivating feats. At the same time he's just as capable of taking over a quarter, half or game as he is at shooting a team out of a game in a matter of minutes. While the latter is rarely true, it's something that the franchise has to consider going forward.
If the Trail Blazers are to build upon the success they had this season - if Damian Lillard is going to continue to grow - they both need to build on the foundation of this year's achievements, and also learn to be less volatile. Here's the really crazy thing to remember though: With Lillard only 25 years old and the Blazers having the lowest payroll in the league, both the player and the team have the ability and the capacity to build and grow at the same time. So while we may not know exactly where this team stands today, by opening night of the 2017 season we should know whether or not this iteration of the Trail Blazers can be a title contender.