At the youthful of age of 32, Portland Trail Blazers point guard Damian Lillard is enjoying the best of season of his almost 11-year career. After missing half of the 2021-22 campaign to recover from an abdomen complaint, Lillard stopped by the fountain of youth, plowing through opposing defenses with relative ease.
He’s rediscovered the athleticism and somehow improved on the phenomenal shooting stroke that launched him onto the national stage a decade ago. Good thing too, because the Blazers are set to pay him $63 million in 2026-27.
Last Sunday, Lillard registered 71 points against a lowly Houston Rockets team. And while the competition was relatively non-existent, the fact that he put up the eighth highest single game total should be widely marveled at by basketball fans, young and old.
Lillard started this season on 17,510 career regular season points, good enough for 90th on the NBA All Time Scoring list. Through 50 games, he’s put up more than 1,600 points, vaulting him to 62nd. With 19 games left, he’s on track to finish the season in 52nd surpassing Bernard King, Tony Parker, Gail Goodrich, Bob Lanier, Jamal Crawford, Dwight Howard and Cliff Robinson.
Lillard also owns the third highest NBA point average points this season, with the scoring title a real possibility.
Unfortunately, one man alone cannot drag a team up the standings. It’s fair to say, this team’s current performance has placed a slight downer on Lillard’s play, especially, given his age and likely lack of prime years to come.
Having said also that, two things keep my spirits up.
First, it appears that Lillard has a reignited commitment to the franchise. The other hope is General Manager Joe Cronin’s words post trade deadline, pointing to the front office being “borderline anxious” to build a contender around Lillard.
“The goal that we set when I started this job was to build a championship roster around Damian Lillard, so over the past year we’ve been transacting with that goal in mind. The goal going into this trade deadline was to be extremely aggressive. We had identified several players who for us were difference-makers. ... [We] worked it super hard and came up empty.”
“We’re borderline anxious to push all of our chips in. We cannot wait for that moment to happen, it just hasn’t come up yet. It’s my job to be the voice of reason, to be very diligent to not make a big mistake, to not get the wrong guy, to not overpay, to not give up on somebody that could eventually become a really good player. I’ve got to be really smart about this because it’s trying to thread a really thin needle here. We don’t have room for error, we need to get this right. We wanna maximize Damian’s time.
“We feel extremely obligated to put a great roster around Damian Lillard. When I say ‘we’ that’s from the top. [Blazers owner Jody Allen] and I have had a lot of conversations about how important it is for us to do right by Damian and we plan to do that. You can ask Damian this but he understands this that it doesn’t always fall into place immediately. We understand the timeline is short as far as we want this runway to be as long as possible for him, but at the same time, as long as the intentions are in the right place, we’re willing to wait it out for that terrific opportunity to present itself.”
To the numbers
This season, Lillard is enjoying a career high in points at 32.3 a game. The closest he’s come to this was during the COVID-interrupted, 66-game 2019-20 season when he averaged 30.0 points.
But there’s also context here. Lillard’s 2019-20 average was helped by his explosion in the Orlando Bubble where through eight games, he averaged 37.6 points in what appeared to be last-gasp effort to get the team into the playoffs. His career average sits at 25.1 points.
At the charity stripe, Lillard has been one of the league’s most reliable free throw shooters over the past decade. But he’s stepped it up this year putting up 92 percent, a mark he equalled in 2020-21. Outside these two seasons, he’s stayed predominantly in the high 80 percent range with his career average currently at 89.5 percent.
His field goal and effective field goal percentages are also the highest they’ve ever been. This season, his field goal percentage has been 47.2 percent. The closest he’s gotten to that was again during the Bubble 2019-20 season with 46.3 and 45.1 percent in 2020-21. Lillard’s career average is 44 percent.
His effective field goal mark (field goal percentage adjusted for the fact that three pointers are worth more) is at an impressive 57.5 percent, which is in the 95th percentile for all point guards. His next best was again 2019-20 at 56.3 percent and 2020-21 at 55.4 percent. The only other guards with a better effective field goal percentage this season are Steph Curry, Kira Lewis Jr. (who has played 16 games this season) and Luka Doncic.
Lillard’s phenomenal efficiency is also highlighted by his 131.4 points per 100 shot attempts, considered the 98th percentile, second to only Curry. The closest Lillard has come to this was in 2019-20, which resulted in 127.3.
While his long-range shooting has been remarkable, Lillard is only making 38 percent of his threes, good enough for his fourth-best split. But there’s more to this than just simple counting stats. This season, 7.6 of his 11.2 three point shots are being taken from more than 25 feet out — the highest rate of his career.
For those playing at home, Lillard’s best three-point shooting year was 2019-20 at 40 percent, but he was only taking 6.8 of his 10.2 shots from beyond 25 feet. His career average from three is 37.3 percent.
Lillard’s involvement on the offensive side of the ball is also been the highest it’s ever been with his 2022-23 usage (including free throws) up to 35.6 percent, good enough for the 93rd percentile among guards.
This has no doubt been helped a long by the mounting injuries to teammates who feature heavily in the offense. Clearly, Lillard has had to take on more of the scoring responsibility with Anfernee Simons and Jusuf Nurkic out. The only other guards with a higher usage this season are Doncic, Ja Morant and Trae Young.
His closest usage to this occurred in 2020-21 at 34.1 percent and 2015-16 and 2019-20 tied at 33.4 percent with is career average at around 29 percent.
Finally, Lillard’s not quite at career heights for rebounds (4.4), assists (7.1) and steals (0.9) but his not far off those heights, which are 4.9, 8.0 and 1.2 respectively.
Last Sunday’s 71-point performance was truly inspiring, but I don’t want that to take away from the consistency the 32-year-old has maintained through 50 games. Last night he also notching up his 24th straight game with at least 20 points — a career high.
His 32.3 point average is the third best rate across the league this season, behind only my future fantasy Portland Trail Blazers center Joel Embiid at 33.0 points and Luka Doncic at 33.2 points.
This could be the season Lillard snares that scoring title. Not sure whether the MVP is in his grasp given the team’s current status, but he’s a chance to earn a few votes. And for those who thought he wasn’t able to do it, Lillard has able to further extend his range, hitting shots from behind the timeline in non-All-Star games.
The key take away from this remarkable season is the fact that Lillard’s effective field goal percentage is the highest it’s ever been despite his ridiculous usage. He’s almost impossible to guard, it’s just a shame he doesn’t have the teammates to help him along the way.
Whether Lillard is the NBA’s Benjamin Button remains to be seen, but if he can maintain some semblance of what he’s doing now, the Blazers shouldn’t have any qualms about that gaudy salary ahead.