The hopes of the Portland Trail Blazers are pinned firmly to All-NBA guard Damian Lillard. Everyone knows it, from NBA Commissioner Adam Silver to the newest Portland newborns, 85% of whom are swaddled in “Letter O” jerseys before they’re two minutes old. The Blazers will go as far as Lillard takes them.
Dame is unquestionably one of the top two players ever to don Portland’s uniform. 28.8 points per game this season, 34.3 in the playoffs, cemented his status. Assuming he stays with the Blazers in reasonably good health, he’ll pass Clyde Drexler as the franchise’s leading scorer next season. He’ll surpass Clyde in assists as well, moving into the #2 spot, passing Terry Porter for the lead spot the season after.
There’s no doubt Lillard is great, superlatively so. But is he unique?
Even acknowledging Dame as the best there ever was in Portland, the question has importance. The NBA is about competition. Teams don’t succeed because they’re good; everyone at this level is. They succeed because they’re better than their opponents. Is 120 points per game a good scoring average? Sure, but not if you allow the opponent 124.
Though it’s harder to quantify, the same principle applies to players. Lillard is great, but is he greater than players other teams can boast of? More importantly, is he so much greater that the Blazers can lay claim to contention by the mere fact of having him on the roster?
Up until the 2021 NBA Playoffs, the answer was easy. If he wasn’t unique, Dame was at least differentiated sufficiently to be considered an ultra-rare asset. Ironically, he just posted the best playoffs showing in franchise history in the exact year that the value of same (vis a vis other teams) is drifting into doubt.
Dame and Steph
Lillard didn’t set the mold for the deep-shooting offensive point guard. High-scoring guards have prospered through most of the millennium, but Lillard’s precursor arrived in 2009, in the form of Golden State Warriors guard Stephen Curry. Curry not only proved that shooting deep and often was possible, he made it a viable strategy for multiple championships.
Dame played in Steph’s shadow for the early part of his career. He has since emerged to stand side-by-side, or nearly so, with the future Hall-of-Famer. Most observers would probably select Curry first, but honestly, nobody would be disappointed (or feel themselves at a huge disadvantage) having either.
Just as Curry paved the way for Lillard, the duo together have opened doors for a whole new style employed by multiple guards across the league. The 35-foot jumper is still a spectacular shot, but nobody blinks when a guard takes one anymore. 30 points used to be the gold standard for an awesome performance. Now guards score 30 seemingly as easily as sneezing, even in the playoffs. A player has to get 40 before we pay attention.
The ongoing 2021 post-season has given us multiple examples of young players who, if not a threat to the Lillard-Curry Crown, at least are getting close enough to that level to dampen the advantage of the league’s best pair of guards. Luca Doncic in Dallas is the obvious example, already spoken in the same breath (or instead of) the elder duo. Trae Young has taken the Hawks to the Conference Finals. Lillard’s 55 points in Game 5 of Portland’s series with the Denver Nuggets was an all-time achievement, one which Jazz shooting guard Donovan Mitchell had already exceeded by 2 points a year earlier. Similarly, Devin Booker is setting the universe on fire in Phoenix. He averaged 26 per game in the regular season; he’s scoring 29 per game so far in the playoffs.
Those are the obviously glittering examples of backcourt mastery. We’re not even mentioning the crop of really good point guards that their respective teams are excited about: Jamal Murray, De’Aaron Fox, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, and, of course, Ja Morant. Nor are we delving into hoary veterans Russell Westbrook and Kyrie Irving, nor shooting guard scoring machines Bradley Beal, Jaylen Brown, and Zach LaVine.
Few among the assembled names rise to Lillard’s desirability level. His franchise leadership, proven performance, and clutch play float him above all but Curry and Doncic, with an asterisk towards the brightly-twinkling Booker, Mitchell, and Morant.
But that’s the point. These players don’t have to ascend to Lillard’s level absolutely. Getting close gives their teams an advantage, making those guards a huge asset when playing Portland. More players are close to Lillard now than were two years ago, even with him playing the best basketball of his career. That’s a quiet *cough, cough* moment for the Blazers.
The Nuggets and Sixers can claim to have truly unique assets in Nikola Jokic and Joel Embiid. That’s natural, as 7-footers of that caliber are considerably more rare than brilliant 6’3 players. LeBron James, Zion Williamson, and Giannis Antetokounmpo exemplify the same phenomenon at the forward spot. Aside from Anthony Davis in some cases, you can’t imagine replacing any of these players with one of their NBA colleagues and getting anything close to the same result.
Lillard is like that too...sort of. His age and the presence of Curry make him slightly more “one among” than “one apart”. He will undoubtedly carry the Blazers to good seasons as long as his legs hold out. Is he sufficiently separated to be THE one who makes his team an automatic championship threat? That’s dicey.
Being special in (and to) Portland doesn’t equate to reigning above the entire NBA. The Blazers need Lillard in order to have any hope of succeeding. They need to get him more help than their opponents are getting their analogous players—in some cases CLEARLY more—in order to translate his greatness into dominance.