Portland Trail Blazers guard Damian Lillard is having another career-defining season, averaging 27.5 points and 7.2 assists per game after returning from season-ending abdominal surgery last year. His team’s production is more muted. 18-16 falls below the aspirations of the star-led lineup.
As is usual, this is leading to the question of whether being star-led is as important as coming up with a new alternative to mediocrity. That’s the subject of today’s Blazer’s Edge Mailbag.
There’s a lot of emotion in conversations about which way the Blazers should go; let’s get rid of the love for Dame, history, loyalty, and even players names to look at the situation with cold, unfeeling statistics.
We’re currently 17-15, ranked 10 of 30 in offensive rating and 22 of 30 in defense, with a Net rating of 15/30 (stats from Basketball Reference.) The offense ranks in the top-10 in a few categories, such as 3-point and free throw attempts. In most other categories the team ranks right in the middle of the NBA on offensive-focused stats and in the bottom third on defense. To summarize: the team is pretty good at some offensive things, pretty bad at many defensive things, and the result falls right in the middle of the pack. Certainly not a top-tier contender or anyone’s pick to make a serious playoff run.
Our #2 scorer (Anfernee Simons) is 23 years old. The next 3 scorers are all 27 or 28 years old. While Sharpe is only #6 in points and #7 in minutes, you’d imagine that the 19-year-old is a large part of the team’s future plan.
By far the biggest asset the team has is an all-star caliber scorer in his early 30’s. But what if, instead of Damian Lillard the beloved loyal Portland icon, you just had a block of nameless stats? How would that change your calculus on what the team should do going forward?
Here are a few players, for comparison:
Player 1 (33) 21.8 PTS 5.8 AST 6.8 REB 25.6 PER
Player 2 (33) 26.0 PTS 5.0 AST 5.0 REB 22.1 PER
Player 3 (33) 22.0 PTS 11.2 AST 6.5 REB 22.1 PER
Player 4 (32) 27.5 PTS 7.2 AST 3.8 REB 23.4 PER
Player 5 (32) 23.7 PTS 5.2 AST 6.2 REB 19.8 PER
For a team that’s essentially middle-of-the-pack in the league both in standings and statistics, are any of those guys in their 30’s worth $50M/year and shaping your roster around? Or would Nameless All Star Guy be a better value as a long-term trade to build around the young guys on a different timeline?
For the above nameless stat blocks, #1 is Jimmy Butler, #2 is DeMar DeRozan, #3 is James Harden, #4 is Damian Lillard, and #5 is Paul George.
Would fans still be committed to letting this cake bake if our All Star was Bulter or Harden instead of Loyal Lillard? Or do the numbers show that this isn’t a winning formula no matter how charismatic our star player is?
What do the numbers tell you, and how would they influence your decisions if you were in charge?
Honor for the work. As long-time readers know, very seldom do we present a question unedited. You went through enough to earn it.
Here’s my initial reaction. The stats of your five players are pretty good. Their teams aren’t eager to trade them either. All of them have moved in the past, of course, but none are rumored to be on the open market now.
That’s simply because players with that kind of talent aren’t replaceable. Superstars are the rarest, most prized commodity in the NBA. They influence the game like no other controllable quantity can. They cannot be created or re-created. You have a finite number in any generation. Once they’re claimed, everybody else is out of luck.
Having a prime player is like having a Ferrari in your garage. You may not drive it every day. You may not make use of it at all, in fact. But you’re not going to trade it away for six Cadillacs and a Honda even if the theoretical value matches up.
You don’t even have to show me the stats. I don’t think Damian Lillard is untouchable. But the bar to trade him or Jimmy Butler, or James Harden, or anybody else on your list is incredibly high. The team losing that kind of player has to have a reason and a plan. The team receiving them doesn’t, because they just got freakin’ Damian Lillard or James Harden. That IS the plan.
Usually the reason for a superstar trade is the superstar demanding one, either forcing himself out or indicating that he won’t re-sign with the team. Damian Lillard has done the opposite in Portland. (Although we should add an asterisk that Portland has made that easy for him, financially.) Lillard has proclaimed loyalty to the Blazers and continues to do so. That’s also a commodity that can’t be purchased.
By that, I don’t mean it’s inherently valuable. Loyalty is ephemeral. Its value depends on the quality and production of the player. If Joey Schmupwhite, who averages 2.2 points and 4.3 turnovers per game, is loyal to your franchise, that’s a mixed blessing. But either way, loyalty literally cannot be bought. It’s either there or it isn’t. It wasn’t in Clyde Drexler or LaMarcus Aldridge, past generational superstars. It is in Lillard.
The Blazers have seen fit to invest in Lillard’s production, his rare ability to change the game, and his loyalty. They’re also investing in his public image and ability to draw interest, plus a couple other things. Put them all together, and they’ve decided that they can’t replace Lillard with anything equivalent. They’ve declared that the rest of the roster is less central to their mission than Dame is. If changes need to be made, Portland will move around everyone else before they’ll move Lillard.
I can certainly justify Portland’s decision. We can make the argument that Lillard commands defensive attention as soon as he crosses halfcourt, allowing everyone else on the floor more freedom to operate. We can also point out his calm presence, his ability to choose spots to take over, his experience and on-court coaching.
I also see the age disparity between Lillard and the rest of the roster that you pointed out. I anticipate his percentages will continue to decline in the coming years even if his aggregate production doesn’t. At the same time his salary will rise. Like an aging vehicle, you’re going to have to put more into Dame in order to get the same out of him.
We can also look at the stretch between November 21st and December 3rd this year when Lillard was absent and point out that Anfernee Simons and Jerami Grant both averaged 29 points per game during that span against season marks of just over 22.
Ultimately, the point is moot. Portland has already decided what they want to do with their franchise superstar. Moving him doesn’t appear to be on the table. His irreplaceable qualities mean more to them than any quantifiable quibbles.
They may be right, for all the reasons I just talked about. But in the end, it’s also a human game, played by human beings. If you live in England, you don’t trade The Queen. End of story.
Debating otherwise is a fun exercise, but ultimately, we should probably get used to analyzing the team with Lillard as a given until the Blazers give signs that they’re open to other possibilities. Trading him doesn’t appear to be one of them, at least not right now.
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