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Is Damian Lillard the Best Trail Blazer Ever?

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Lillard’s time will come, but for now Bill Walton and Clyde Drexler still sit atop Mt. Hood.

Bill Walton, Portland Trail Blazers 1977
MILWAUKEE, WI - CIRCA 1977: Bill Walton #32 of the Portland Trail Blazers looks to shoot a free throw against the Milwaukee Bucks during an NBA basketball game circa 1977 at the MECCA Arena in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Walton played for the Trailblazers from 1974 - 79. (Photo by Focus on Sport/Getty Images)
Focus on Sport

Last month the NBA announced that Damian Lillard had become the third Trail Blazer ever to make the all-NBA first team, joining former stalwarts Clyde Drexler and Bill Walton.

With that accomplishment, many Portlanders have begun to ask if Lillard is in the running for the crown of best Blazer of all time. Speaking in broad strokes, one can answer that question by examining a player’s short-term peak, or his long-term contribution to the franchise. With that in mind, let’s look at how Lillard stacks up:

Short-Term Peak

Bill Walton stands head and shoulders above everyone else in team history in this category. He’s the only Blazer to ever win the NBA MVP award (1978) and the only Blazer to ever captain an NBA champion (1977).

Frustratingly little game tape survives from the late-’70s, but watch enough of the extant peak-Walton video and it becomes clear Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was his only competition for the title of “best basketball player alive” before a broken foot derailed Walton’s career in the 1978 playoffs. Big Bill was one of the rarest of rare players in NBA history who could stake claim to the title of both best offensive player and best defensive player simultaneously.

Clyde Drexler never reached the same heights as Walton, but he did, briefly, attain the title of second best player in the NBA, finishing as runner-up to Michael Jordan in both the 1992 Finals and the 1992 MVP race.

Drexler had stiff competition in 1992 — all of his Dream Team teammates (except Bird and Magic) as well as Mark Price, Hakeem Olajuwon, and Tim Hardaway played 70 or more games. And Clyde still blew them all way, finishing as a near unanimous second place.

In comparison, Lillard deserves all the credit in the world for finishing on the All-NBA first team, and presumably in the top 5 in MVP voting, but he does not occupy that upper echelon of best-of-the-best players that Clyde and Walton briefly ascended to.

Further damning Lillard is the fact that he needed injuries to several competitors (Steph Curry, Kawhi Leonard, Kyrie Irving, DeMarcus Cousins) to join the league’s most elite ranks, while both Drexler and Walton were indisputable top-two players at their peaks.

Long-Term Impact

Unless Lillard makes another leap in the near future, and begins to compete with the likes of Curry, Leonard, Kevin Durant, James Harden, and Giannis Antetokounmpo for MVP (not impossible but very unlikely), his best-ever case will likely hinge on long-term impact.

Lillard’s off to a good start, but his long-term numbers don’t yet stack up to Clyde. Drexler played 11.5 seasons in Portland, making eight all-star appearances, while Lillard has played “only” six seasons so far and appeared in “only” three all-star games. Clyde also leads handily in virtually every counting stat as well as in advanced stats including Win Shares, Win Shares per 48 minutes, Box Plus/Minus, and Value Over Replacement Player.

Dame does lay claim to a couple per game advantages, most notably points per game, but that pales in comparison to Clyde’s overwhelming advantage in virtually every other statistical category.

Dame’s Not Quite There Yet

Many BlazerManiacs are eager to insert Dame into the “Best Blazer Ever” conversation, but he hasn’t quite reached the level of Walton and Drexler yet. Both of those former greats ascended to the very top of the MVP ladder, while Dame has managed to only get into the conversation because of injuries to some peers. Lillard, however, will likely have a claim for best ever several seasons from now when he can begin to challenge Clyde for the top spot on the franchise leaderboards.

(Note: FWIW, I’m taking Bill Walton. Can’t argue with an MVP.)