Damian Lillard ranks among the most interesting players in the NBA for 2023, according to Kevin O’Connor and Chris Vernon of The Ringer. But that’s not necessarily a good thing.
The duo analyzed their five most intriguing players heading into the 2022-23 NBA season. Among their tirades and praises was a lengthy critique of Lillard and the status of the Portland Trail Blazers’ organization.
O’Connor had choice words about Dame Dolla and Rip City’s’ entire franchise, saying:
The Billups offense – far too stagnant still. Far too stagnant. I think this team is a mess. How much of that has to do with Dame not being at optimal levels yet. How much of that has to do with Chauncey Billups having a scheme that makes no sense. And in a year when you have Victor Wembanyama – one of the best prospects we’ve ever seen enter the NBA draft, could the Blazers reach a point when they’re just in the play-in bubble say, “you know what, we don’t need Dame to say ‘I want to go to a winner,’ we’re gonna pull the plug on this.” So I’m interested in Lillard for a long list of reasons.
The duo made note of Lillard’s underwhelming preseason performances thus far, where he has yet to score 20 points in any of their games, and has struggled to impose his will. In all fairness, this is the first in-game action we’ve seen from Lillard since his season-ending abdominal injury.
Notwithstanding an injury-plagued 2021-22 campaign, Lillard mustered up 24 points per game – his lowest since his third season in the association. In 29 games played, he also shot an atrophied 40.2% from the floor, and a less than stellar 32.4% from 3.
Of all 40 players who averaged 20 points per game or better, Lillard ranked dead last in field goal percentage, narrowly edging out Toronto Raptors point guard Fred Vanvleet by a tenth of a percentage.
The Blazers just recently established Josh Hart as their starting small forward, which gives relative credence to O’Connor’s critique of Billups’ scheme.
It is not a stretch to expect Lillard to take 19 to 20 shots a game, which has been the norm for him over the last seven seasons. Improving upon his efficiency – barring any health issues – warrants an everyday-at-the-mill 25 PPG or more, and similar assists numbers, which cracked the threshold of 7 APG in 2019-20 and hasn’t looked back since.
Expect Lillard to contend for the highest usage rate in the NBA as well, as regulars James Harden and Russell Westbrook battle with age, Trae Young now has another point guard in town, and Luka Doncic has a more balanced team that can create their own shot.
Last season was the first time since Lillard’s rookie season that the Blazers failed to make the playoffs. It might be wise to be given the Weber State product some benefit of the doubt.