The Portland Trail Blazers’ 2016-17 season was a year defined by high ambitions and unmet expectations. The team saw a regression to the mean after shocking the league just a year prior, but there is plenty of talent on the roster that can help the team improve.
Ahead of 2017-18, Oregon Sports News’ Jared Wright and Bryant Knox will be breaking down the strengths, weaknesses and recent showings from each and every Trail Blazers player. Today, we take a look at the resident All-Star, Damian Lillard.
As you can see from the table, Lillard had a Lillard year last season. He shot many threes (579, in fact), made many threes, initiated offense, served as the steady anchor to CJ McCollum’s explosive barrage, and above all, scored a heaping pile of points.
Lillard last season scored 2,024 total points, the first time he crossed the 2K point barrier in a single season during his career. His 27 PPG was good for sixth in the NBA during a year that saw insane offensive production, the kind of league-wide offensive supremacy not seen since Bill Russell and Wilt Chamberlain were prowling basketball courts in the Northeast 50 years ago. He also had a career-high 24.1 Player Efficiency Rating, along with 10.4 Win Shares (16th in the Association).
Lillard did use 31.5% of his team’s possessions in 2016-17 (seventh leaguewide), but considering the production and his position both as point guard and as team leader, that huge usage rate is mostly justified. After all, it’s not like the Blazers had anyone other than McCollum capable of scoring on their own until the Jusuf Nurkic trade.
As usual, Lillard contributed to the Blazers’ defensive woes, and as usual, I don’t really know what he can do about it that he and his coaches haven’t tried already. Hopefully, Nurkic can help him out both by covering for the inevitable times when Lillard runs right into a screen, as well as being an offensive weapon that can let Lillard relax a bit on offense, sparing some energy for defense.
Lillard is at the peak of his athletic prime currently, so get used to seeing these kinds of stats for at least the next four years or so…though with fewer of those angry dunks as he reaches his thirties.
What He Brings to The Table
Lillard brings leadership, intensity, and focus to this Blazers roster, as well as an unusual loyalty to Portland coach Terry Stotts, the only head coach he’s ever known at the professional level. Of course, it’s easy to be supportive of a man who says shoot all the time whenever you see an opening, but in the NBA, loyalty is not exactly a valuable commodity; just ask Isaiah Thomas, late of Boston, now hoping to co-exist with LeBron James, who might already have one foot out of Cleveland.
In the context of the Lillard-McCollum relationship, Lillard brings the fire to CJ’s ice. Where Dame will violently slam home a dunk like both the ball and the hoop owed him money and insulted his mother, and let everyone around know about it, McCollum is content to pull off a fancy move or three, drain home a silky-smooth midrange jumper over a confused defender four inches taller than him, then jog back like it was the most boring thing in the world to do.
On the court, they complement each other well, but the relationship they have off the court is pretty awesome. Dame and CJ are not only good teammates, they’re actually friends, a rarity between the top two players on an NBA team, or any sports team really. The level of competition and the alpha mentality that gets these guys to the pro level isn’t conducive to forming friendships, but given their similar backgrounds and shared desires to find interests outside of basketball (Lillard as a rapper, McCollum as a journalist), these two cornerstones of the Portland franchise have broken the typical jock molds.
The challenge is bringing in Nurkic and keeping him engaged. This season will test Lillard’s leadership qualities like never before, since he has a guy in Nurk who’s as unlike McCollum as it is possible to be, yet is so talented that he can’t be immediately stuffed behind the backcourt in the pecking order, not without being alienated like Nurkic was in Denver.
On the court, Lillard will bring the same shooting, toughness, and bottomless range (only Golden State’s Stephen Curry can equal Lillard’s insane shooting range) he’s brought to Rip City since day one. His intangibles will be more valuable than ever before this upcoming season.
What to Expect in 2017-18
I know what I’m expecting from Dame: 25+ points per game, maybe seven assists per game as he gets Nurkic engaged in the game, 200+ made threes, and a thousand botched defensive coverages.
One positive we can expect this season, health permitting: Lillard needs about 1200 points to cross the 10,000-point barrier for his career. Sounds crazy, but for a guy that’s made the top ten in total points in the NBA in four out of his five seasons, it doesn’t sound so insane after all.
So much of the upcoming season is uncertain for the Blazers. Most experts are thinking Portland will be in the bottom rungs of the playoff ladder, or out of the playoff race entirely, while certain unreasonable homers (including others on this very site) think the Blazers will surpass 50 wins in a Western Conference that is brutal beyond reckoning; the Blazers might miss the playoffs this year, but in the East, they might be competing for home-court advantage in the first round.
From the power forward question mark, to what Evan Turner can do a year after posting the worst adjusted plus-minus among players with 20+ MPG in the entire NBA, to the giant Bosnian Prayer that Portland President of Basketball Operations Neil Olshey traded for, there are quite a few questions surrounding this team.
One thing is for certain, though. Damian Lillard will set the NBA on fire, and not give a damn whether or not he makes an All-Star team, an All-NBA team, or gets invited to the national team.