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Damian Lillard vs Clyde Drexler, Who’s the Greatest Trail Blazer Ever?

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Lillard is great. Is he already the greatest?

NBA: Los Angeles Clippers at Portland Trail Blazers Al Sermeno-USA TODAY Sports

Dave,

Damian Lillard just passed Terry Porter for scoring with the Blazers. Only two players are above him now. The big dog is Drexler. How do you think Dame compares with Clyde? He seems destined to pass him in scoring at least. Is Dame the greatest ever even head to head with Clyde? You saw them both play. What’s your judgement?

Ronnie

Lillard will pass Drexler in all-time scoring if he remains with the team and stays healthy. There’s little doubt of that. If and when he does so, he’ll likely be acclaimed the Best Blazer Ever.

To see where the two sit now, let’s look at a couple comparative stats based on their time with the Trail Blazers:

Career PPG: Drexler 20.8, Lillard 23.3

Career FG%: Drexler .478, Lillard .423

Career 3PT%: Drexler .303, Lillard .367

Career TS%: Drexler .545, Lillard .574

High Season Scoring: Drexler 27.2, Lillard 27.0

Playoffs PPG: Drexler 21.4, Lillard 23.9

Playoff Games Played: Drexler 94 (8.5 per season), Lillard 35 (7 per season)

Average Team Wins: Drexler 49.8, Lillard 45.3

As you can see, Lillard meets or exceeds Clyde in multiple places. Drexler sustained his scoring average longer, but Lillard’s is higher (and he’s not done yet). Drexler has a substantial edge in field goal percentage due to the relative rarity of the long-distance shot in his era compared to now. Lillard’s three-point marksmanship pushes his True Shooting Percentage over Clyde nonetheless. Laying aside longevity, Dame wins the stats game. There’s no reason to think that’ll stop.

For the Clyde partisans out there, two factors still argue for Drexler.

First, we only saw Full Clyde for a couple seasons between 1987 and 1989. During those years he was in his prime and was clearly THE reason for the Blazers to exist. Prior to 1987 he was finding his way through the systems of multiple coaches. After that point he pulled back to accommodate the obvious talents of Jerome Kersey, Buck Williams, Terry Porter, and the other players around him during the championship run. Those two years were pure, undiluted Drexler. During that span, Clyde averaged 27.0 and 27.2 points respectively.

In 1991-92, when it became quite evident (after two tries) that the Blazers were not winning a title as-is, Drexler took over as the focal point again. In one season he pumped his scoring average from 21.5 to 25.0.

Clyde was capable of doing that any time he wanted; he just had good reasons not to. Had Drexler been in Lillard’s situation for a longer time—with the team centered around him, getting all the shots he wanted—he might well have made up the 2.5-point difference between their scoring averages. Lillard is a better shooter than Clyde was by far, but the stats don’t tell the whole story about their scoring ability.

The second factor, obviously, is playoffs appearances and wins per season. Lillard’s Blazers are decent at 45 victories per, but Clyde’s Blazers averaged nearly 50 over 11 full seasons. To put that in perspective, Lillard’s teams will need to average 56 wins over the next five years (including this one) for him to surpass Clyde in that category. Add in the NBA Finals runs, and Drexler streaks way ahead of Dame when it comes to winning.

In the end, the difference between the two probably boils down to three things:

  1. They were completely different types of players. Throw up a wall and Lillard will dodge around it or shoot over it. Throw up a wall against Clyde and he’d bust through it like Superman. Which style you idolize will influence which player you favor.
  2. Perceptions about the importance of winning will lean you one way or the other. Clyde won more, but Clyde also had better teammates. On the other hand, those same teammates might have blunted him from getting numbers like Lillard has. All we know for sure is that his teams rocked the league. Lillard’s haven’t.
  3. Though best player is up to debate, most marketable player is not. Damian Lillard combines charisma and image with his talent to a degree unmatched by anyone in the history of the franchise. This also translates in some circles to leadership. In the public facets of leadership, Lillard has no equal. That’s going to make a difference in the “greatest ever” debate.

Personally I’d like to see career longevity and deeper playoffs runs before I declare Lillard has clearly overtaken Drexler, but I understand those who’d make the argument that he has already. I’d not disagree, either. We’re in the “eye of the beholder” stage of the comparison.

In 2-3 more years, the only thing missing on Lillard’s ledger might be the NBA Finals appearances. At that point it probably won’t matter. His statistical edge and aggregate production will put him over the top. People may end up liking the teams of Drexler and Bill Walton better for their achievements, but Lillard will be considered the best individual Trail Blazers player in history.

Thanks for the question! Keep them coming to blazersub@gmail.com!

—Dave / @davedeckard / @blazersedge / blazersub@gmail.com