With the conclusion of the Portland Trail Blazers’ preseason schedule last night, the countdown is on to the start of the 2021-22 NBA regular season. Blazer’s Edge will be running our season preview from now until the Blazers tip off the year against the Sacramento Kings next Wednesday. Appropriately we’re going to begin with the man around whom everything centers: franchise super-legend Damian Lillard.
Damian Lillard 2020-21 Stats
AGE: 31 EXPERIENCE: 9 Seasons
CONTRACT: $39.3 million in 2021-22, guaranteed through 2024
28.8 points, 4.2 rebounds, and 7.5 assists in 35.8 minutes per game over 67 appearances
45.1% field goal percentage, 39.1% three-point percentage, 92.8% free throw percentage with 7.2 foul shots per game
2nd in the NBA in total points scored, 3rd in points per game, 7th in total assists, 7th in assists per game, 2nd in free throw percentage, 3rd in three-pointers made, 1st in field goals missed, 3rd in free throws made, 5th in free throw attempts, 5th in minutes played, 7th in minutes per game, 10th in turnovers committed, 8th in PER, 3rd in Win Shares
For the umpteenth year in a row, Lillard was Mr. Everything for the Blazers in 2020-21. He led not just the team, but most of the league in minutes played. He ranked second in the league in points scored, trailing only Steph Curry. In the final season of Head Coach Terry Stotts, Lillard had complete command over Portland’s offense. He finished Top Ten in the league in field goals made and missed more than anyone else as well. “Logo Lillard” became a catch phrase as Dame launched from lunar orbit, hitting highlight threes on the regular.
Ultimately, the Blazers didn’t succeed despite Lillard’s prodigious output. Injuries to fellow starters and playoffs mismatches combined to scuttle their run, leaving Lillard grasping an all-too-familiar first-round exit from the 2021 NBA Playoffs.
Lillard can’t, and presumably won’t, take a back seat to anyone in the NBA, let alone on Portland’s roster. The Blazers don’t have a recognizable franchise right now without him. One of the huge questions heading into the season is: If nearly 30 points per game didn’t do it last year, what will? That thorny issue is weighing heavily on the minds of Blazers fans and, as we saw this summer, on Lillard himself.
Areas for Improvement
In Lillard’s case, the header is a misnomer. He doesn’t need to improve. He’s already the best player the Trail Blazers have ever fielded. Critics will cite his defense. The claim is valid; it’s not a strong point. But he’s hardly the first NBA Superstar to skimp on that side of the floor. Successful franchises anticipate the weakness and build around their All-World scorer. The Blazers haven’t.
The big question this year isn’t whether Lillard will improve, but whether the team has improved around him. Larry Nance, Jr. was their big summer acquisition. He defends willingly and well, but he’s one player. He’s also slated to come off the bench as the season starts. Will his impact be big enough, especially since the bottom half of Portland’s roster is populated exclusively by rookie-scale and veteran minimum contract players? If not, what else can Lillard do but continue to score and pray?
Even that normally-sure bet is in question. Lillard just turned 31. Pundits are no longer asking how much he can grow, but whether he can sustain, particularly given the heavy-minute demands he’s endured with the Trail Blazers over nine seasons, including last year. Portland still doesn’t have a true, accomplished back-up point guard. If Anfernee Simons can’t fill that role, Portland’s coaching staff might not have a lot of options aside from leaning into Dame more.
That may not be as simple as usual either. New Head Coach Chauncey Billups is trying to institute an inside-out offense, with guards driving and the ball passing through the hands of multiple players before the shot goes up. This is a departure from Stotts’ isolation-heavy, perimeter-based approach. Taking the ball out of Lillard’s hands may alter Portland’s offense in unforeseen ways, including turnovers, lack of efficiency, and diminished scoring for Dame. What will happen if the new coach’s schemes and Lillard’s style clash?
Frustration is one of the watchwords for the upcoming season, particularly with regards to Lillard. Over the summer, his public declarations morphed from undying loyalty to the Blazers franchise to, “We’ll see.” If the Blazers don’t perform, if the new offense isn’t effective, if Lillard’s role and scoring diminish, most observers expect disenchantment to mount. A poor record could lead to mid-season trade demands, either explicitly involving Lillard or to change the franchise to avoid losing him next summer. As either is a longshot, that development would be unwelcome. But if Portland doesn’t make a leap this year, this may be the end of the relatively happy and stable Lillard Era that Blazers fans have depended on for a decade.
The franchise is at a crossroads, with victory down one path and volatility down the other. Whichever direction they travel, Lillard remains the hub.