Editor’s Note: Blazer’s Edge will be reviewing individual Blazers’ seasons for the next several days. We begin the series by taking a look at the team’s captain.
Damian Lillard and his team may have failed to meet the summer expectations placed on them after a 44-win 2015-16 season that saw them reach the second round of the NBA Playoffs. Still, the Trail Blazers point guard had the best individual year of his career, averaging 27 points per game, along with just under six assists and five rebounds.
After what seemed to be a breakout year where he averaged 25 points per game, Lillard built on that success by opening the 2016-17 season with a seemingly newfound ability to get to the rim at will. He always possessed a quick first step, and had improved upon his ability to finish through contact throughout his career, but from day one Lillard showed that he could, and would, get to the rack any time, against anyone.
This, coupled with a career-low 3-point attempt rate and career-high free throw rate, resulted in a more efficient Lillard than Blazer fans had ever seen before. Lillard shot 44 percent from the floor, 89.5 percent from the line, and had a .516 effective field goal percentage; all career highs.
While Lillard was hot from the get go, the team was struggling to find a rhythm and, when he went down with a sprained ankle against the San Antonio Spurs on December 23, hope seemed to fade quickly. The team had lost nine of 10 and with Lillard out; there would likely be little hope for the future. Lillard ended up missing five games due to the injury and after his return looked noticeably less effective until center Jusuf Nurkic joined the starting lineup. During that span, Lillard averaged nearly 24 points per game, but shot only 39 percent from the floor and 33 percent from long distance.
And then things started clicking.
With Nurkic playing big minutes, Lillard was instantly much more effective. He shot the lights out coming off of Nurkic’s impressive screens, and defenders were no longer able to help off Portland’s center like they could when Mason Plumlee was still in town. From Feb. 23 on, Lillard scored nearly 30 points per game and shot 47 percent from the floor, good enough to win the NBA’s Western Conference Player of the Week on March 20, and Western Conference Player of the Month.
As if to outdo himself, Lillard saved his best for last, setting a new Portland Trail Blazers franchise scoring record with 59 points against the Utah Jazz on April 8, which would be Lillard’s last regular season game of the year. The atmosphere in the Moda Center that night was absolutely electric, the kind of buzzing in the crowd you only get to experience a handful of times as a sports fan.
Though Lillard led Portland’s resurgence into the playoff picture, their early season struggles led to a date with the vaunted Golden State Warriors. Despite the Warriors sweeping Portland, they were only able to hold Lillard in check in Game 2, where he finished with 12 points in fewer than 30 minutes. The other three games? 34, 31, 34.
Off the court, Lillard had a big year. He continued to act as a model citizen within his role, receiving the PBWA’s Magic Johnson award, which recognizes on-court performance coupled with positive media relations. Lillard, as he always has, remained available to speak his mind to the media and never shied away from tough questions, even when the team was struggling earlier in the year.
A week before the season began, Lillard released his first full-length album The Letter “O” to generally positive reviews and held a quickly sold-out concert at the Crystal Ballroom last summer to celebrate his birthday. Additionally, Lillard’s signature shoe, the Dame 3, dropped on Dec. 13, eventually being released in multiple colorways. In other merchandise news, Lillard cracked the top 15 in NBA jersey sales for the first time.
While there was chatter this season among fans about whether or not a backcourt of Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum could co-exist, there is no doubt that Lillard was the Blazers’ MVP in 2016-17. He led the team in offensive output and is the bona fide leader in the locker room. Lillard has improved his on-court performance every season since he has been in the NBA and, as unlikely as it seemed, had yet another career year in 2016-17.