Blazer point guard Damian Lillard's national profile soared to great heights last spring with "The Shot," propelling the 2014 All-NBA Third-Teamer into the consciousness of basketball fans everywhere.
Some even claimed Lillard had arrived as an NBA superstar this past summer.
(Okay, so that last piece admittedly came a year or two early. But still, you get the point.)
So, yeah. Lillard is really popular. What can Blazers fans expect from him for the 2014-15 season in terms of on-court production, though?
Last year, Portland participated 47 "clutch" games -- defined by NBA.com as matchups decided by 5 points or less. In the last five minutes of those games, the Blazers registered a +1.9 point differential, good for No. 2 in the NBA in that category.
To put that statistic in context, there is not a single non-playoff team in the top-16 in clutch point differential. Simply put, good teams win close games. Portland is a good team, and Lillard is a proven clutch performer at the age of 24 and a huge part of the team's success in close games.
In clutch situations, Lillard shot 47.3 percent from the field -- good for No. 4 on the list of players who played in five or more clutch games and averaged at least two field goal attempts in them. The players ahead of Lillard? Cavaliers forward LeBron James, Bulls guard Derrick Rose and Kings center DeMarcus Cousins. That's two NBA MVPs and one of the best young big men in the league. Not bad company for Lillard to be in.
Blazers fans hope the team's improved bench -- with the additions of center Chris Kaman and point guard Steve Blake to a reserve unit that now has a full year of playing together -- will help bring the team's average margin of victory up. Still, it's nice to know the Blazers have one of the best clutch performers in the league -- a trait that will win the team plenty of games again this year.
Last season, Lillard struggled to hit his shots inside the arc early on, making 43.9 percent of his 2-point shot attempts prior to the All-Star break. He showed improvement after that point, though, bumping his 2-point field goal shooting percentage to 45.9 percent after the 2014 All-Star game. In 11 playoff games, Lillard made 47.1 percent of his shots inside the 3-point line, a clear improvement from early on in the 2013-14 season, which should carry over to this year.
On the other hand, Lillard's 3-point shooting percentage tailed off a bit as last season progressed. Before the All-Break, he connected on 40.4 percent of his threes; after, Lillard was good for 37.3 percent. In the postseason, his 3-point shooting percentage leveled-off at 38.6 percent. Lillard's outside shooting is near the top of every opposing teams' scouting report and he'll likely get as much attention from their defenses as he did toward the end of last year, so he may not peak as high as he did the first half of last season.
Don't put it past Lillard to find a way to score from outside more efficiently, however, because he did show an improvement of 36.8 percent to 39.4 percent from his rookie year to his second season.
Lillard's average points, assists, rebounds and turnovers per game stayed consistent last season. He averaged fewer assists for the 2013-14 season than his rookie year, dropping from 6.5 per game to 5.7, though he attempted almost the same amount of field goals -- 15.7 and 15.9, respectively -- per game both years. This could be a result of Blazers coach Terry Stotts' gameplan, which puts less emphasis on a point guard dominating the ball and allows other players to initiate the offense. Mo Williams also had the ball in his hands a lot last year and played significant minutes with Lillard in the backcourt, which could also explain the dropoff in assists.
Either way, we may not see a huge increase in Lillard's assists this year, but that's part due to the system he's in and less indicative of his passing skills.
The 2013 Rookie of the Year decreased his defensive rating -- an estimate of points the opposition scores per 100 possessions when a particular player in on the floor, according to Basketball-Reference.com -- from 112 for the 2012-13 season to 110 last year, though the team, as a whole, also improved by almost two full points in the same category. While Lillard's defense got better over his first two seasons, his defensive stats probably did benefit from the Blazer's progress on that end of the floor. He still struggled in isolation situations and in defending the pick-and-roll last season, often ending up out of position when screened.
Lillard did, however, get some pointers from legendary perimeter defender Gary Payton this past summer and spent several weeks training with Team USA, learning from one of the league's best defensive minds in Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau. Lillard has the physical tools to become a solid defender, and if he put in the work this summer -- all indications are that he has -- it's not unreasonable to predict at least some improvement on the defensive end for him this season.
Will Lillard compete in five All-Star events again next February? Probably not, but he will almost certainly continue finding ways to score, setting up his teammates and taking another step forward as a defender and as a more complete player in his third year.
-- Chris Lucia | email@example.com | Twitter