Portland Trail Blazers: The quiet brilliance of Damian Lillard

Portland Trail Blazers Damian Lillard (Photo by Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images)
Portland Trail Blazers Damian Lillard (Photo by Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images) /

Portland Trail Blazers star Damian Lillard’s 61-point MLK day performance lacked one particular thing: proper appreciation

Damian Lillard scored 61 points the other night.

Sixty. One. Points.

That is otherworldly, even by today’s standards, where ridiculous stat lines are becoming the norm. (Granted, he was playing the Warriors – a team that ranks in the bottom third of the league in defensive efficiency – in a game that went to overtime, giving him five extra minutes to boost his point total.)

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But any 60-point outburst should be greeted with widespread acclaim and fanfare, no matter the circumstances surrounding the game in question. And yet, it feels as if this game came and went. The Portland Trail Blazers won a thrilling overtime game and we all just, sort of, moved on. To the next game, the next storyline, the next Giannis-to-Team X rumor. (Seriously, it’s time we start talking about the record-breaking Bucks and not what might happen two years from now.)

Maybe it’s because this performance came at the tail end of a Martin Luther King Jr. day that was chock-full of great basketball. Maybe it’s because half the East Coast was already asleep when Dame started pulverizing the Warriors. Could the lack of attention stem from his presence in a market that doesn’t afford him the same level of attention as some of the larger, shinier markets?

We’ll never know, meaning speculation is our best course of action. But the basketball world’s reluctance to discuss this game and its place in history among other all-time great scoring performances are emblematic of Lillard’s career in a strange way.

Lillard walked into the league from Weber State, a school most had never heard of before he came along, and promptly posted a 19/6.5/3 line with fine shooting splits. He was recognized with Rookie of the Year honors at season’s end.

While the recognition is nice, it doesn’t properly contextualize the brilliance of his rookie year or the rarity of his production. Only five NBA players have ever reached those numbers in their first season in the league, and Lillard ranks second in Win Shares among that exclusive group. After that, he got better. A lot better.

Once he reached his fourth year, the improvement began to show. It really felt like Lillard was entering basketball’s elite class. In the forthcoming two-year span, his numbers ticked up across the board. Most notably, he started taking more 3’s (7.9 vs. just 6.6 in his first three years), which likely facilitated his jump from 20.2 points per game to 26.1. But he didn’t sacrifice efficiency, posting a 43/37/89 slash line, not far off his career percentages up to that point.

But, in what will likely go down as one of the biggest all-star snubs in NBA history (for those keeping track), Lillard was omitted from the all-star team both years, despite also leading his team to the playoffs each of those seasons.

To Lillard, this exclusion was the ultimate sign of disrespect – an indication that his peers and fans weren’t appreciative of his contributions to the game.

Unfortunately, this lack of proper recognition has been the common thread running throughout his entire career. While Lillard has made the all-star game in the two years since the infamous snub, he’s still routinely overshadowed, especially in the areas where he excels. He’s often the victim of the success of his peers.

Lillard has spent considerable time extending his range over the course of his career. He attempted just 3.5 shots from 25-to-29 feet – deep 3-point range – in his rookie season. Over the last three years, that number sits at 6.2, almost double his rookie year output. The increased volume hasn’t affected his efficiency either; he’s managed a 37.5 percent mark on those 6.2 attempts per game. The only player who’s managed a significantly better percentage on similar volume over the same timeframe is perhaps the greatest shooter who’s ever lived: Stephen Curry.

Curry sits at 43.1 percent on 7.5 attempts per game during the two seasons in which he was fully healthy. Those are jaw-dropping numbers but, incredibly, it’s also what we expect from the league’s premier long-range marksman and two-time MVP.

Lillard isn’t quite at that level, at least not yet. After Lillard effectively put an end to an entire era of Oklahoma City Thunder basketball last spring, Paul George sat at the lectern for his post-game media availability and labeled his series ending buzzer-beater a “bad shot.” George surely wouldn’t have said that had Curry been the one to sink the Thunder that night (he does have experience doing just that).

Everyone in the league knows that Curry is a threat the second he crosses halfcourt, a classification that many would now likely bestow upon Lillard. In any other era, Lillard would be the premier deep threat, but instead, he’s stuck playing in the same league as the greatest 3-point shooter ever. Chalk it up to bad luck.

One of the other areas where Lillard excels, relative to his contemporaries, is in isolation. This year, he’s initiating an iso roughly five times per game, where he’s been scoring 1.11 points per possession, second only to – you guessed it – James Harden. The margin is razor-thin (1.11 vs. 1.12) but Harden spends roughly 15 possessions per game dribbling his defender to sleep – a stark gap. This surface-level analysis seems to indicate that Lillard is nipping at Harden’s heels as a one-on-one performer.

However, Harden’s body of work creates some notable separation, disproving this hypothesis. Over the last three seasons, Harden is scoring 1.15 points per possession on 13.7 isolations per game. Lillard sits at just 1.01 over the same time period, on significantly less volume. Again, Lillard is stupendous in this facet of the game (especially this year) but has been overshadowed by an all-time great at the absolute peak of his powers. When we think of isolation excellence, Harden is the one who comes to mind first.

This is not meant to diminish Lillard’s excellence. (The guy just scored 61 freaking points, for god’s sake.) Rather, the point of this exercise is to illustrate his unique place in today’s NBA, where he’s unfortunately stumbled into an era that possesses two special, Hall of Fame guards who has essentially changed the way we watch and think about the game of basketball.

Harden has warped our opinion of isolation basketball. When the Spurs and Warriors won back-to-back titles in the middle of the decade, it was seen as a triumph for the “beautiful game,” one in which ball movement reigns supreme and iso-ball is viewed as an inefficient exercise. But then along came Harden, the best scorer since Michael Jordan, and one who’s doing things we’ve never seen before and may never see again.

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Similarly, Curry has redefined our notion of a good shot, one 30-footer at a time. Lillard, on the other hand, has a metronome-like consistency to his game, which is ironic considering that one pre-draft profile questioned his ability to consistently produce against the best the world has to offer. He’s proved those doubters wrong, and then some. It’s time we start properly appreciating him.