Resume: 21.0 points, 4.6 rebounds, 6.2 assists, 1.2 steals, 196 three pointers made (6th in league), 35.7 minutes (10th in league), 43% FG, 34% 3PT, 86% FT … Team Record in Games Played: 51-31 … Playoffs: 21.6 points, 4.0 rebounds, 4.6 assists, 40.2 minutes, 41% FG, 16% 3PT, 78% FT, 1-4 record … All-Star
Damian Lillard‘s top 50 case was an interesting one to evaluate, because if you go through my criteria he gets a check mark in just about every category. Check it out:
1: Last Year and This Year
-Lillard is only 25 years old and he’s never suffered any sort of serious, or even nagging injury. In fact, in his three seasons Lillard has never missed a game. There isn’t any plausible reason to believe that Lillard should drop off in quality of play in any sort of significant way.
2: Individual Statistics and Accolades
-Last season Lillard posted career bests in points and rebounds per game, and also shot a better percentage from the field than he had in his previous two seasons. The biggest reason for the latter increase … per Basketball-Reference, Lillard improved his shooting percentage from 0-3 feet from the basket from 51 percent in 2013-14 to 65 percent in 2014-15.
-Hold this thought. We’ll get back to this one in a bit.
4: Team Success
-Last year the Blazers won the Northwest Division and probably wouldn’t have gotten bounced in the first round of the Playoff had Wesley Matthews not torn his Achilles tendon. Matthews played the first 60 games of the season and the Blazers were 41-19. In the 25 games without him (Playoffs included), Portland was 10-15.
5: Late Game Chops
-I’ll just leave these here:
Late Game Chops … CHECK!
-Through three seasons Lillard is known mainly for two things. Unfortunately the first is for being an absolutely atrocious defender, one of the worst of all players who cracked the top 50. Second, and this one’s a good one, for being a crunch time assassin and competitive gamer who truly wants to have the ball in his hands late. Check out these two quotes on Lillard that I found in my research that kinda make the fact that he’s an abysmal defender tolerable.
“I think he has a knack for those moments, I think he wants to be great in those moments. I’ve seem him do it over and over again so I’m never surprised by it.”
“Oh he definitely rises. He’s fearless. He plays with a chip on his shoulder.”
7: How Does He Stand Out
-It’s already been mentioned, but Lillard is a stone cold killer in big moments and he plays with an obvious chip on his shoulder. Lillard was a two star recruit and had to fight his way to the NBA at Weber State. He was left off of USA’s FIBA World Cup team in 2014 a former Duke Blue Devil Kyrie Irving and a returning Derrick Rose could join Stephen Curry as the point guards on the roster. He’s constantly knocked for his defensive struggles and never given quite enough credit for how great of a scorer and competitor he is, but it’s that criticism has made Lillard so much fun to watch.
-“Talent” is such a tricky concept to understand, but in a vacuum Lillard is just as talented as point guards like Kyrie Irving and John Wall, both of whom are ahead of him. Nobody would dare say that guys like Mike Conley, Goran Dragic or Kyle Lowry (the previous three point guards listed) are as talented as Lillard is.
So we’re left with the third point in the criteria, Status. With LaMarcus Aldridge on the roster, Lillard was in an absolute ideal role. He wasn’t the primary focus of the offense, but armed with a perfect pick and roll partner, Lillard was one of the premiere pick and roll point guards in the league. Last season Lillard attacked the basket much more and finished at a higher rate. Even though his three point shooting percentage dipped, he hit 196 three pointers, the sixth best total in the league. He could create off the bounce and get a plethora of talented teammates involved when opposing defenses collapsed on him.
Now Lillard is without four starters from last years team. He’s without question the number one option on a team that is lacking a true number two scoring option, unless of course you’re willing to put your faith in Gerald Henderson, Noah Vonleh or Al Farouq-Aminu filling that role.
You could argue that it’s unfair that I’ve bumped Lillard down a few spots from last years rankings just because he’s stranded on a crappy team in a loaded conference. But I’m not just ranking how talented players are. Truthfully, I think it’s unfair that Lillard, a guy who is one hell of a competitor and a seriously talented player, is being miscast in a role that he just isn’t capable of properly filling.