Today we’re celebrating the Thanksgiving holiday by running down the Top 5 stories in the Portland Trail Blazers season so far. You may think that a .500-esque record wouldn’t leave many distinct points to talk about. You’d be wrong. Check throughout the day as we unveil (and invite you to examine) the trends typifying Portland’s year to this point.
We’ve reached the #1 story of the season to this point. Nobody who has watched the Blazers play more than two games will be surprised at the subject: Damian Lillard.
The big question during 2021 off-season was whether Lillard would stay with the Blazers. That appeared to be answered at the outset of the regular season campaign when Lillard vowed that he would remain with the team for now and had no firm plans to leave.
The collective sigh of relief around Portland has been replaced by scratching of heads. The franchise superstar may be staying, but this doesn’t look like the Damian Lillard Blazers fans are used to.
Through 17 games, Portland’s All Star is shooting 40.2% from the field, a drastic career low. That’s eclipsed by his 30.8% success rate from the three-point arc. For reference, 34.3% is the lowest mark Lillard has ever registered in a season.
Thanks to a couple huge games, Lillard is averaging 21.8 PPG. That’s impressive, but it’s also his lowest mark since 2014-15, when he played alongside LaMarcus Aldridge and attempted 2.4 fewer shots per game.
Lillard is averaging 7 fewer points this season than last while taking only 1 less field goal attempt per game. That’s quite a drop.
Free throw attempts account for part of the discrepancy. Lillard is averaging 4.0 foul shots each night compared to 7.2 last year. He attempted 14 free throws in a 39-point effort against the Chicago Bulls last Saturday, 16 in a 32-point game against the Sacramento Kings last night. Easy points certainly help him look like his old self.
But foul shots do not, by themselves, explain Lillard’s reduced production. Often times this season he’s looked slow on the floor, almost strained or halting. Normally sure shots have sprayed wide enough to clang off the side of the rim...unheard of for a shooter of his caliber.
Fatigue has been offered as one explanation. The 2020-21, COVID-compacted season strained even the best NBA athletes. Lillard not only participated in 73 of Portland’s 78 total games last year, he followed that up with an appearance in the Tokyo Olympics, helping Team USA to a gold medal. That shortened an already-short off-season, putting extra burden on the early weeks of 2021-22.
Age could also be a factor. Lillard is 31, with almost 28000 competitive minutes logged in the NBA. That’s high mileage at a high-demand position.
Injuries have been suggested as a factor, including an abdominal strain that kept Lillard inactive for a November 14th contest against the Denver Nuggets. Lillard has dealt with that injury before. Perhaps it’s haunting him more than he’s letting on.
Portland’s most consistent player is also dealing with a new system instituted by Head Coach Chauncey Billups...an organized inconsistency. After nine years under Terry Stotts, Lillard is having to think and feel his way through sets instead of running—and often dominating—them consistently. That’s likely slowing down his game.
Smart money says all four factors have come into play for Lillard during the opening fifth of the Blazers’ season. But whatever is happening, the combined results have not been pretty.
The Blazers supposedly have the deepest, most talented lineup they’ve ever fielded around Lillard...at least according to President of Basketball Operations Neil Olshey. Whether that’s true or not, they cannot survive long without their central star. If Damian Lillard does not excel, the Blazers have no chance at relevance in a deep and powerful Western Conference no matter who else steps up. That’s why he is—and probably will remain—the #1 story of the season so far.
How do you feel about Lillard right now? Do you think things are getting better? If not, will they? And how? Share your thoughts in the comment section below, and Happy Thanksgiving!