Portland Trail Blazers point guard Damian Lillard is one of the greatest Blazers of all time — if not the best. Outside of the franchise, his place among the pantheon of greats in league history has been debated. Today, we will dive into this murkiness as we conclude our running series where we rank current NBA players into three tiers: generational superstars, superstars and stars.
Last post covered shooting guards, so this final installment will analyze point guards, with a special focus on Lillard.
DAMIAN LILLARD: Tier I, Generational Superstar
Lillard is in the midst of one of the worst shooting slumps of his career to start the 2021-2022 season, but let’s not get over-reactionary to a 10-game span that makes up 1.2% of Lillard’s career. The Blazers’ franchise cornerstone is a generational NBA talent. The media and current and former players agree, as Lillard was named to the NBA’s list of the 75 greatest players of all time, one of only three current players bestowed with the honor before playing a full decade.
In his career, Lillard has been named to six All-Star teams and six All-NBA teams. A shining example of the modern-day renaissance of the point guard position, in which ball-handlers are expected to score, as well as set up teammates, Lillard is an offensive dynamo waiting to explode. Still in his prime, he ranks No. 98 on the league’s all-time scoring list, No. 10 on the all-time three-point field goal list and is tied for seventh in league history for most 50-point games with 12. Statistics and accolades are just a part of his greatness. The thesis for Lillard’s “Generational Superstar” argument consists of three components: closing in the clutch, pioneering the long bomb and “going out on his shield.”
Lillard’s crunch-time resume is headlined by two playoff series-ending buzzer beaters which put him in company with Michael Jordan as the only other player with multiple series-ending buzzer beaters in league history. The 0.9 shot against Houston in 2014 launched Lillard into national fame in just his second season. The 35-footer in Paul George’s face in 2019, complemented by a wave goodbye to the Thunder bench, is the most audacious thing I’ve ever seen on a basketball court.
Our all-access look at Damian Lillard’s epic game-winning buzzer beater that sent the @trailblazers into round two of the #NBAPlayoffs! pic.twitter.com/jIWj7k3c3M— NBA (@NBA) April 27, 2019
Lillard’s magic in the clutch goes beyond two timely-made shots. When the chips are down, he has a way of willing his team to victory few else can replicate. That game-winner against OKC was the cherry on top of a 50-point barrage. In the 2020 NBA Bubble, when it seemed the Blazers were out of playoff contention, Lillard erupted for 51, 61 and 42 points in the final three games to secure a playoff berth. Then there was Game 5 against the Denver Nuggets in last season’s playoffs. Lillard hit a game-tying three-pointer to send the game into overtime and then again in double-overtime. The performance marked the first time a player recorded at least 55 points and 10 assists in a loss. In that game, in which Lillard hit 12 three-pointers (a playoff record), he was so hot that Nuggets guard Austin Rivers thanked the heavens when he finally did miss a shot in the second overtime.
Damian Lillard finally misses. Austin Rivers thanks God pic.twitter.com/WTgLvNwElL— DARIUS A (@IAMDARIUSALFORD) June 2, 2021
During these scoring tears, the degree of difficulty and volume of Lillard’s shots are so high, it’s like witnessing a supernatural phenomena. As a fan, I can’t fully explain it, but you just feel so confident that he’s going to make the shot. It’s why Rivers clasped his hands to the sky. It’s why fans can be seen tapping their wrists as Lillard dribbled down the clock against Oklahoma City. Dame Time isn’t just a catchphrase or a brand slogan. It’s an all-consuming atmosphere, felt in arenas and living rooms. There are moments when it’s a privilege to watch Lillard play the game of basketball.
The game-winner Lillard hit against OKC is a high-profile example of his most generational skill: The long bomb. Stephen Curry may have been the first to consistently add three-pointers from over 30 feet out into his offensive arsenal, but Lillard has joined him as the second pioneer in this new basketball venture and taken it a step further. Last season, according to Basketball News contributor Spencer Davies, Lillard took the most shots from beyond 30 feet, connecting on 45 shots out of 130 attempts for a 34.6% clip. Curry was the only other player to reach more than 100 attempts. The two of them have brought something to the game never seen before, like the Flint Tropics discovering the alley-oop. The ability to shoot 30 to 35 footers in his normal shooting motion and off step-backs is a physical marvel that has become Logo Lillard’s signature move. It’s the greatest timeout-forcing play in all of basketball, worth three points and tons of momentum.
"BOMBS AWAY!"— Sporting News NBA (@sn_nba) April 17, 2019
The 3-point line is just a suggestion for Damian Lillard.
It also changes the way defenses must play and could have a ripple effect for generations to come. Evidenced by Trae Young, more players will work deep threes into their game and it may become commonplace. No matter what happens from here, Lillard and Curry will always be the pioneers.
Finally, the last element of Lillard’s greatness is something intangible. “Going out on his shield” he calls it, Lillard possesses a conviction to see challenges through and swear off super teams to bring a championship to small-market Portland. Among a generation of players that embraces stars teaming up, Lillard’s conviction and loyalty is unique. Lillard could have left for a bigger market by now and probably have a ring, along with more exposure and fame. Instead, he embraces the role of the underdog, making him one of the most compelling sports figures and an inspirational quote machine. Like David vs. Goliath, Lillard is launching 35-footers out of his slingshot at the LAs and Brooklyns of the NBA world. His loyalty may keep him from ever reaching the basketball mountaintop, but his attempt at the climb and how he carries himself as a leader make him a role model beyond the world of sports.
While Lillard doesn’t have a championship or MVP to his name yet, he’s one of the most unique talents and greatest competitors in the game. For his performance in the clutch, revolutionary logo shots and resilient mindset, he’ll be remembered as one of this generation’s best.
THE REST OF TIER I, GENERATIONAL SUPERSTARS: Stephen Curry, Chris Paul, Russell Westbrook
If Damian Lillard is one of the best point guards of this generation, Curry is the point guard of this generation. The Golden State point guard has changed the game with his three-point shot, with many teams and kids across the country trying to emulate Curry’s shot selection, but unable to come close to his production. He’s second all-time in three-point field goals made and will likely shatter the record before his career is over. Curry’s also a two-time scoring champ, a two-time MVP and a three-time NBA champion as the leader of one of the NBA’s greatest dynasties.
Phoenix Suns point guard Chris Paul is a more traditional floor general on the court. He isn’t capable of the consistent offensive outbursts Curry and Lillard produce, but his passing ability, shooting touch and control of the ball make him an all-time great. Paul is second on the all-time leaderboard in assists and fifth all-time in steals. Last season, as a 16-year veteran, he was a central part in the Suns’ run to the Finals. The longevity of his production is a testament to his skill and mastery of the game.
The fact there are four point guards in the “Generational” tier is a testament to the talent level of modern NBA guards and the variety of skills they possess. Speaking of all-around skillsets, let’s introduce possibly the most potent example: Los Angeles Lakers point guard Russell Westbrook. In 2017, Westbrook became the first player to average a triple-double over the course of a season since Oscar Robertson. Last season, Westbrook averaged a triple-double for the fourth time in five seasons. In two of those seasons, he won the NBA scoring title with averages of 28.1 and 31.6 points per game — again, that’s on top of averaging a triple-double. LeBron James recently donned him the most explosive guard ever and for good reason.
TIER II, SUPERSTARS: Kyrie Irving, Luka Doncic
When Brooklyn Nets point guard Kyrie Irving is available to play, he’s one of the best pure scoring point guards in the league. Last season, he became a member of the elusive 50-40-90 club, becoming just the ninth player in history to shoot over 50% from the field, 40% from the three-point line and 90% from the charity stripe over the course of a season. Back in the 2016 Finals, he demonstrated his elite ability to put the ball in the basket during the Cavaliers 3-1 series comeback against the Warriors. Irving averaged 27.1 points in the series and hit the championship-clinching shot in Game 7.
Dallas Mavericks point guard Luka Doncic will almost assuredly go down as a generational talent, but until his production has more longevity he remains under Tier II. Over the past two seasons, Doncic — who is garnering comparisons to NBA legends like Larry Bird — has averaged an eye-popping 28.3 points, 8.7 assists and 8.7 rebounds per game. Reminder: Doncic is only 22.
TIER III, STARS: Trae Young, Ja Morant, Ben Simmons, De’Aaron Fox, Jrue Holiday
The number of players in the “Star” tier again shows the wealth of talent at the point guard position in the league. Atlanta Hawks point guard Trae Young is fresh off a Conference Finals run in which he averaged 28.8 points per game in the postseason in just his third NBA season. With a logo shot in his arsenal and high assist totals, he has the potential to make the superstar leap. Memphis Grizzlies point guard Ja Morant also has the potential to move up tiers in his career. In just his third season, Morant is a walking highlight reel of athleticism and averaging 25.2 points through nine games. 23-year-old De’Aaron Fox took another leap with his game last season, averaging 25.2 points and 7.2 assists per game for the Sacramento Kings.
Then, rounding out the surplus of young guard talent, Philadelphia 76er Ben Simmons is unquestionably an NBA star. The situation in Philly is funky and his jump shot is broken, but the 2018 Rookie of the Year still has three All-Star selections and two First-Team All-Defensive selections to his name.
Lastly, holding it down for the veterans, Milwaukee Bucks point guard Jrue Holiday — fresh off an NBA title run — belongs in Tier III. He has been one of the most underrated two-way players in the NBA for the past decade.
Do you agree with this list and Lillard’s placement? Let us know below!
As a reminder, here’s the criteria that is evaluated during this selection process:
Tier I, Generational Superstars: Players whom front offices couldn’t trade for if they tried. Statistical juggernauts who can vault teams into contention and dramatically alter the league’s landscape when moved.
Tier II, Superstars: Similar to Tier I, they put up fantastic numbers and could be a franchise cornerstone, but not quite good enough to warrant the top-billing of “generational” talent.
Tier III, Stars: Players who put up all-star numbers and can be a main piece, but don’t carry nearly enough impact to be a top banana on a title contender.
The loose criteria used to assemble these tiers:
Offensive Production: Is this player an elite three-way scorer? Does he have the total package or is he elite in certain areas? Maybe most important on the “generational superstar” checklist: can the ball be put in this player’s hands down the stretch and can he carry his team to a win?
Defense: This category won’t knock a player down too far, but it can be a major plus if the player has elite defensive abilities or he’s caught in between two tiers and has some defensive acumen.
Playoff Success: Integral roles in deep-playoff runs or championships will be looked upon fondly. However, this one-person ranking committee understands that playoff success can be dependent on opportunity and quality of teammates. A player who elevates his roster well-beyond expectations but may not have a big playoff résumé won’t be knocked out of contention.
Icon Status: Star power can be enhanced by personality, swagger, patented moves, signature celebrations, and shoe sales.