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Lillard vs Drexler: Who’s the Greatest Blazers Playoffs Performer Ever?

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Records, stats, and context all add up to a tangled conclusion, but an illuminating one.

Portland Trail Blazers v Chicago Bulls

In the 2020-21 season, Portland Trail Blazers All-Star Damian Lillard made great strides towards being named the greatest player in franchise history. He currently ranks first overall in points per game, second in total points scored and total minutes played to Blazers legend Clyde Drexler. As Clyde the Glide recedes into the annals of history and Lillard continues to sink impossible three-pointers nightly, Dame is encroaching upon the sacred territory once held by Drexler alone.

If Lillard remains with the Blazers for the balance of his career, or even a couple more years, he’s a sure bet to own all Portland’s scoring and endurance records. But is that the true mark of greatness? Drexler’s advocates would point to playoffs success as the ultimate benchmark. Here Clyde still rules over Dame...but how strongly?

As Lillard fights through the 2021 NBA Playoffs, we’re going to compare him to Drexler in playoffs production. We know Dame will overtake Clyde in overall stats, but how close are the two—and who’s the greatest—when the games mean the most?

In this comparison, we’re only going to look at Drexler’s numbers with the Blazers. His late-career years with the Houston Rockets will not count.

All stats are courtesy of basketball-reference.com.

Games and Records

Clyde Drexler played 94 playoffs games with the Trail Blazers over 11 seasons. His post-season record in Portland was 45-49, a 47.9% winning rate. He reached the Western Conference Finals 3 times and the NBA Finals twice, but never won an NBA Championship with the Blazers.

Damian Lillard has played 59 playoffs games over 8 seasons. his record is 22-37, a 37.3% winning percentage. He’s reached the Western Conference Finals once.

Obviously Lillard’s career with the Blazers isn’t over yet. If you want to cut back Clyde’s performance to his first 8 years when comparing him to Lillard, Clyde went 30-36 in 66 games over that span, winning 45.4% of his games. If Lillard wins his next 7 straight games, he would finish his first 66 post-season appearances with a 29-37 record, just slightly below Clyde.

Whether you measure the initial parts of Drexler’s Portland career or the entire scope, there’s no doubt his teams fared better in the playoffs than Lillard’s have.

Per Game Production

Here are the numbers Drexler and Lillard put up per game during the playoffs, again considering Drexler’s Portland career only.

As you can see, Lillard scores significantly more points per game in the playoffs than Drexler did. Only twice in his career—in 1988-89 and in 1991-92—did Drexler average more points in a single post-season run than Lillard averages overall. Dame is unquestionably the most prolific scorer the Blazers have ever sent into the playoffs.

Three-pointers factor in heavily for Lillard. His 3.8 point edge over Drexler in per-game scoring is largely due to him attempting a whopping 6.3 more threes per game than Clyde did.

Drexler only averaged 0.6 made threes per game during the playoffs, while Lillard averages 3.1. The extra point per shot on made threes for Dame gives him a 2.5 point cushion over Clyde based on shot selection alone. That’s most of the difference between them.

Clyde’s assists per game eat away at Lillard’s statistical dominance, though. Dame plays in a pace-and-space, ball-movement era. Clyde played at the advent of the iso-ball era. Yet Drexler averaged 6.8 assists per game in the playoffs versus 6.1 for Lillard. That’s an astounding number for Clyde.

Clyde also obliterates Dame in rebounding, but that’s to be expected given their relative size and roles on the team.

Lillard makes up a little ground in free throws drawn per game. Clyde lived on drives to the hoop, peppered with jumpers. Lillard feasts on jumpers, yet he draws nearly the same amount of foul shots per game as Clyde did.

Adjusted Production

The 1983-1994 Trail Blazers played a different style and pace than the 2012-2021 versions. Here are the stats for Lillard and Drexler adjusted per 36 minutes and per 100 possessions.

Again Lillard streaks past Drexler in scoring, both per-minute and per-possession. But the edge isn’t as big as you’d think, especially since Lillard is getting more attempts—and triple the number of threes—than Drexler managed. Once again Clyde’s assist and rebounding numbers are superlative, though.

Shooting Percentages

The two guards twine together in shooting percentages just as much as they did in production.

Drexler’s overall shooting percentage is vastly superior to Lillard’s, but that’s an artifact of time as much as skill. Clyde wasn’t taking the longer shots that drag Dame’s percentage down. But Lillard’s corresponding dominance in three-point shooting easily makes up for Clyde’s edge in overall shooting.

Drexler was an excellent free throw shooter, but Lillard is otherworldly, approaching Larry Bird territory. (Bird holds an 89.0% career free throw percentage in the playoffs.)

Lillard’s edge is reflected in the all-important True Shooting Percentage, which adjusts for three-pointers and free throws. Even though Drexler took higher-percentage shots, Lillard is the more efficient scorer.

Usage Rate and Global Stats

We’ll throw in one last wrinkle, looking at the amount of team possessions each guard used and the percentage of team production each contributed.

As you can see, Lillard took a slightly higher percentage of his team’s possessions to generate his numbers than Clyde did. This might dull the edge of some of Dame’s advantages; he simply has more opportunity with the ball than did Drexler.

We see Drexler’s facility with assists playing out here. Clyde accounted for 28.1% of his team’s dimes, Lillard 26.0%. Both were the hubs of their respective offenses and both shared the ball. It’s also notable that neither player turned over the ball much, despite the possessions and passing.

In the “cocktail” stats that summarize player performances, Clyde beats out Dame by at least a little, sometimes by a lot, depending on the formula. Drexler has more Win Shares per 48 by a fairly significant amount, and his Value Over Replacement Player dwarfs Lillard’s. In Player Efficiency Rating, they’re close, with the difference easily attributable to Drexler’s rebounding, which that stat favors.

Final Judgment

Both Lillard and Drexler have had incredible post-season careers. Dame’s scoring dominance is jaw-dropping. He’s the best point-producer the franchise has ever known. Drexler passing like a point guard and rebounding like a forward—putting up huge numbers in every category while playing alongside All-Stars—clarifies just how great of an all-around player he was. It’s easy to underrate Drexler through the mists of time and in comparison to Jordan, his contemporary and nemesis. That would be a mistake. He was a demigod in Blazers clothing.

Forced to choose between Drexler and Lillard as the greatest playoffs performer in franchise history, the nod still goes to Clyde. His record mandates it; the overall stats don’t disagree. He produced on a wider field, and to greater success, than Dame has so far. Drexler’s one clear deficit to Dame—scoring—can be attributed in part to fewer shots and fewer threes, products of team and era as much as talent. Lillard may yet go down as the greatest overall Trail Blazers player ever, but if you’re looking at playoffs performers, Clyde still outranks him.

Postscript: The Big Game

Well, well, well...

Because of publishing deadlines, everything prior to this paragraph was written before Game 5 of the Blazers-Nuggets series on Tuesday evening. And oh, what a game Damian Lillard had.

Lillard’s stat line for the evening reads: 55 points, 10 assists, 6 rebounds, 17-24 (71%) from the field, 12-17 (71%) from the arc, 3 blocks, 1 steal, 1 turnover, and no fouls.

This was one of the best performances in NBA playoffs history. Not only did Lillard set the post-season scoring record for his franchise, he set the NBA record for most three-pointers made in a playoffs game while ensconcing himself into 7th place all-time for points scored in a single outing.

Lillard’s 55 points were only 8 shy of Michael Jordan’s 63 points versus the Boston Celtics in 1986, the highest single-game output ever. Only five other players besides Lillard and Jordan have reached those heights: Elgin Baylor, Wilt Chamberlain, Allen Iverson, Donovan Mitchell, and Rick Barry.

So here’s the big question: even though the Blazers lost the game 147-140, does Tuesday’s superlative performance lift Lillard even with Drexler, or perhaps move him past? Team records aside, Lillard has now done something Clyde couldn’t dream of.

We’re not going to answer definitively, but we’ll leave it to you in the comments. Does one night make a difference in your perception? Let us know below.

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