If you’ve watched the Portland Trail Blazers play over the last two weeks, you can’t help but be awed by the production of All-Star point guard Damian Lillard. Lillard has not posted fewer than 30 points since a January 6th game against the Indiana Pacers. Since then he’s scored 30 versus the Orlando Magic, 50 against the Cleveland Cavaliers, 36 the first time against the Dallas Mavericks, 40 the second time, and 44 last night against the Denver Nuggets. That’s an average of 39 points over a half-dozen games, facing fairly stiff competition. Lillard owns a 29.3 point per game scoring average in 32 appearances for the Blazers this season, adding 7.1 assists and 3.9 rebounds besides.
Those numbers are phenomenal. They’re also coming in a season where plenty of NBA glitterati are performing such feats. 43 players are currently averaging 20 or more points this season, with 7 averaging 30 or more, rounded. SBNation writer Damon Allred points out that the league has seen a record 105 40-point games in the first half of this season, obliterating the old record of 77 set back in the early 1960’s. In an inversion of normal protocol, scoring is like sawdust this year, great defense like a carton of eggs.
There’s zero doubt that Lillard’s value to the Blazers goes well beyond scoring. The league-wide stats do put his contributions in perspective, though.
After scanning Allred’s piece and the stats, I wondered about Lillard’s place in the current NBA pantheon. I’m putting the question before you today.
Let’s pretend that we’re assembling a Dream Team of the best players in the league, two per position. It’s not quite like the Olympics, as we’re drawing from all players, not just United States citizens. We’re also going for 10, not 12 or 15. Pretend this is Space Jam and you have to pool a team to play—maybe for a season and not just a game—for the fate of the planet or something. Would Dame make your team?
I’ll admit, for me this was a head-scratcher. Lillard is certainly close, but is he there?
Here’s the team I assembled myself. Note that I was loose on the positions. You can feel free to follow suit, within reason:
Center— Nikola Jokic and Joel Embiid
Power Forward— Giannis Antetokounmpo and LeBron James
Small Forward— Kevin Durant and Pascal Siakam
Point Guard— Steph Curry and Luka Doncic
And THIS is where it gets tricky, because the NBA doesn’t feature a ton of transcendent shooting guards nowadays. Repurposing point guards and small forwards is the way to go. This gives Lillard a chance.
Donovan Mitchell is the most obvious true shooting guard candidate available. Jayson Tatum is the best player I haven’t mentioned, but he’s a swing forward, not even a true power forward. A healthy Kawhi Leonard would certainly bull his way onto this team, but Leonard hasn’t been reliable for a while. Lillard also lives in this territory for me. But let’s get real, so does Memphis Grizzlies point guard Ja Morant.
I’m left trying to shoehorn four players—Mitchell, Tatum, Morant, and Lillard—into a slot that will only fit two, that’s the natural position of only one.
Arguments for Lillard include his resolve, leadership, and willingness to do anything—including play off the ball—for his team to win. Also this team is replete with bigger players, lacking in smaller, speedier ones.
Arguments against Lillard include his relatively pedestrian shooting percentages this season and his high usage rating, which wouldn’t be able to be exercised on this team. Also Doncic is more than capable of handling passing while Curry excels at shooting, leaving Dame no real distinct ground in which to shine.
In the end, even though the positions are mismatched, I’m going to depend on bigs to slide down and/or Doncic and Curry to team up, leaving the need for only one more point guard to slide into a third-guard role. That makes my hierarchy Tatum (for talent), Morant (for athleticism), Lillard, and then Mitchell, simply because I trust Dame more than Donovan for his tenure and consistency. I can see Mitchell passing Dame because of his phenomenal shooting percentages, though.
Either way, that leaves Lillard just outside my team, present if we pick 12 players, not there if we go with 10.
I’ll admit, I ached over this far longer than was healthy for an imaginary exercise, so I’m curious to hear your rendition of an NBA Dream Team. Does Lillard make it for you? Am I overrating him, or do I not give enough credit? Whatever you choose, how does making this choice affect your perception of Lillard’s value relative to the league?