Damian Lillard is off to a scorching start.
Through 12 games, the All-NBA guard has carried the Portland Trail Blazers with 30.5 points and 6.9 assists per game on 63.9 (!) percent true shooting. He leads the NBA in minutes, and that scoring mark is second in the league. His true shooting percentage puts him in the ballpark of scorers Stephen Curry and James Harden – while Lillard has often been (rightly) mentioned in the same breath as those two, this year he’s bringing everything to the table.
Oh, and he still does a lot of this:
That remains a ridiculous shot. Primary defender Ky Bowman gets through the screen mostly unimpeded and stays near Lillard’s left side. Alec Burks never gets below the three-point line, and he’s still too low! You can see him look incredulously at his bench afterwards, where his coach is pleading with him to push up…on a guy over 30-feet from the rim.
This same stuff is happening while he ups his volume across the board – a career-high 20.4 field goal attempts, with 9.5 of those coming from three.
The Blazers, meanwhile, are faltering. Coming off a Western Conference Finals appearance, they’ve sputtered to a 4-8 start, putting them 13th in the standings ahead of only New Orleans and Golden State.
Everyone not named Anfernee Simons has struggled – and even he is playing on 21 minutes per contest. CJ McCollum has gone the opposite way of Lillard thus far with career lows in every major category. His 47.2 TS% puts him well below efficiency anti-heroes like Russell Westbrook and the revived Andrew Wiggins.
Rodney Hood has been okay. But if he’s your second-most effective player, you aren’t in a good spot.
Zach Collins is out with a shoulder injury until at least mid-March. Kent Bazemore, brought in for his perimeter defense and shooting, is shooting poorly.
During preseason, John Hollinger of The Athletic had this to say about Mario Herzonja: “Mario Hezonja is on his last chance. An annual first-team, all-layup-line performer, he’s never been able to figure out 5-on-5.”
He’s playing over 22 minutes per game.
Then there’s Hassan Whiteside. Whiteside’s size always allows his counting stats to look productive, but watching the games tells a different story. It’s hard to care much about rebounding and block numbers when you play defense like this:
Whiteside has been an offensive negative his whole career, and there isn’t evidence to suggest that will change.
Experts everywhere were cautious to pick against Portland to make the playoffs this year. Perennial All-Overachievers, the Blazers have gone over their projected preseason season win total five of the last six years. Two of those seasons (last year and 2013-14, Lillard’s second campaign) saw them beat their projection by over 10 wins. The one year they failed to get there was 2016-17, and even then, they managed to sneak into the postseason as an eight seed.
Now, Portland finds itself on the outside looking in. They’re looking at not only missing the playoffs in an improved West (Phoenix, anyone?), but also wasting an MVP-caliber year from their franchise star.
This is what many speculated would happen with Curry in Golden State this year. The Kevin Durant departure and Klay Thompson injury left Curry largely as a one-man band, destined to push for a repeat of his historical 2015-16 season.
Instead, the Warriors are riding the rails on the draft lottery train with Curry sidelined – and Lillard is the one balling on a team that may be going nowhere. This is devastating for two reasons: One, Lillard is 29. He’s still in his prime, but there’s no telling how long that prime will last. His game should age well, but how many more years can he carry a team offensively? Three or four? Predictions for players past 30 are always murky.
Lillard has been in MVP discussions for years. It’d be a shame to squander his best play yet.
Secondly, there doesn’t appear to be a concrete path for improvement. McCollum likely will stabilize, but where is the rest of the help coming from? Even when Jusuf Nurkic returns, he will have been out of action for a while and will need time to get back up to speed. Thursday night, ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski reported that Portland signed Carmelo Anthony to a non-guaranteed contract to provide a boost to an already ailing frontcourt.
The Blazers are huge favorites to make moves at the trade deadline. How much does a Kevin Love help them? Would he be enough to compete with the top of the West? Plus, the deadline is in February. If Portland doesn’t right the ship soon, February could be too late.
This puts the Blazers in an interesting dilemma. Have they simply had bad breaks to start the year and will their fortunes will eventually flip? The numbers don’t necessarily show unluckiness – teams are shooting right around 35 percent from 20-29 feet against them.
Or, have they already reached their peak, and we’re watching Lillard carry a below-average team? The front office will have to make those decisions sooner rather than later.
The “big stats on a bad team” guy is not someone you want to be in the NBA. Devin Booker is working to shed that label now. Zach LaVine is hoping that mark doesn’t stay with him in Chicago.
Over his now eight-year career, Damian Lillard has never been that. He shouldn’t be, and won’t be. He’s too good and has been a winner since he entered the league.
But unless Portland figures this thing out, years down the road, “big stats, bad team” is exactly how his 2019-20 season is going to look.
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