It’s a question that will keep friends arguing well past the witching hour. It’s the kind of question that asks you to twist fate, to re-imagine the past while visualizing a future that either doesn’t exist yet or never will. Who would you rather have: Brandon Roy or Damian Lillard?
Roy and Lillard have played nearly the equivalent amount of time as a Portland Trail Blazer. If both were guaranteed to have healthy careers, unhampered by knees, ankles, or any other physical ailment, with each player’s potential as their only ceiling, who would you pick to lead the Blazers? Roy or Lillard?
Let’s break it down.
Does the comparison of stats alone give you an answer?
Take away Roy’s final, injury riddles years (2010-2013), and you really can’t make heads or tails of who was the better player. As you can see, the numbers for both Lillard and Roy bear close resemblance. Lillard has an edge in assists and has been much better at drawing fouls and getting to the line the last couple of years.
Roy, meanwhile, has an edge in steals and field goal percentage and averaged less turnovers per game.
Hands down, Lillard is the better three-point shooter, averaging nearly four more attempts per game than Roy which has helped give him an edge in scoring as well. Though to be fair, the game as evolved into a more three-happy league since the short time Roy has been absent from the game.
Brandon Roy’s Stats
Damian Lillard’s Stats
Roy’s final couple of years dampen his overall career numbers. But, when excluding those, it’s pretty even.
There was a reason Blazers radio play-by-play announcer Brian Wheeler nicknamed Roy “The Natural”. His ability to score was as effortlessly as anyone in the game. Kobe Bryant once labeled Roy has the hardest player in the league to guard. From the toughest of angles to the most complex of maneuvers, Roy could score from anywhere on the court. He had a lethal fade-away jumper, could create inside with a variety of fakes, and at any time could throw a dagger from outside. He was simply a marvel to watch.
However, while Roy was a phenomenal offensive player, it often required the ball to be solely in his hands in order for him to create. It would have been interesting to see Roy in Terry Stotts’ motion offense, where isolation plays are usually a last resort. Roy was criticized most often when the ball became stalled in his hands and the offense struggled to generate points.
Lillard is a natural shooter, tailor made for today’s game. With a quick release that nearly rivals Stephen Curry, Lillard can launch it at any time, from anywhere, without notice. His improvement at penetrating the lane has made him an even harder opponent to guard as Lillard can now beat you in multiple ways.
But just as Roy had his offensive weaknesses, so too does Lillard who often falls in love with heat-check and hero shot moments, sometimes with a full shot clock and when completely unnecessary. When Lillard is not on target, he’s still not as great a playmaker as, say, a Chris Paul who can beat you by controlling the tempo of the game while setting up teammates, all without scoring a bucket. But, Lillard does average almost seven assist a game, so it’s not like he doesn’t get his teammates involved.
Lillard’s game was born for today’s NBA and while I loved watching Roy in his prime, I’ll give a slight advantage to Lillard in this category.
This one seems like a no-brainer. And it is. If there was a Lillard tribute video made today, you wouldn’t see nearly as many defensive moments as you do in Roy’s. Roy was an average to solid defender, able to come up with key defensive stops when time required it. Though he would never make any all-defensive teams, he was rarely a liability on defense until his knees began to deteriorate.
Take a look at this college video of Roy hustling to make a defensive block when he played for the University of Washington. You will notice how deceptively high he could jump. When Roy wanted to, that boy could lift off.
Lillard has yet to raise his game on the defensive end and it appears questionable if he ever will do so. It’s not that Lillard doesn’t put any effort at that end the court, but it is something he constantly struggles to improve on. Unfortunately, Lillard’s defense is often just as much a liability as his offense is a strength, especially when playing against other elite point guards. Here’s hoping that changes, even if ever so slightly.
The real fun question is: who would you choose to take the final shot to win a game?
In their brief careers, both Roy and Lillard have highlight videos of clutch shots that most players will never accumulate over a 20-year career.
While Roy could beat you in a variety of ways, Lillard was born for the clutch shot. Every time he shoots the ball with the game on the line, I’m betting it goes in. That’s how much confidence I have in Lillard when he lets if fly in the waning moments of a game. I mean, he’s got a time of the game named after him! Lillard plays with ice in his veins when the clock drops to below two minutes in the fourth quarter, and for that alone I give him the edge over Roy.
If there is a knock on Roy, it’s that he never got the Blazers past the first round of the playoffs. He too had his issues with the perpetually moody LaMarcus Aldridge while also dealing with the ongoing saga of Greg Oden. But, Roy took a team that was nationally known as the Jail Blazers, that won only 21 games the season before his rookie year, and almost single handedly led them back to respectability and a winning culture. Roy led the Blazers out of the dark ages. He saved basketball in Portland.
Lillard, however, made one of the most memorable shots in Blazers history when he sunk that glorious three to beat the Rockets and send the Blazers into the second round of the playoffs in 2014. He also helped lead the Blazes to the second round in 2016.
Lillard seems to have complete command of the locker room and is respected among teammates, unless your name was LaMarcus Aldridge. He isn’t afraid to be vocal with teammates, refs or opponents. He leads by example as much as he does vocally. Lillard looks poised to grow as a leader as much as a skilled basketball player.
That said, it remains to be seen if he can lift his teammates to something more than just a second-round playoff appearance. This year is proving to be a true test of Lillard’s leadership skills. His team is underperforming, the playoffs are in doubt and the chemistry amongst the players seems less cohesive. What happens next, either the rest of this season or next, will help define Lillard’s leadership capabilities.
Roy and Lillard will be mentioned among the Blazers greats, that much is certain. Roy is already a legend, which speaks volumes considering his shortened career. Lillard is working his way up, and if he can somehow take the Blazers to the promised land, then his stature will be up there with the likes of Bill Walton and Clyde Drexler.
Roy, at one point, was considered no less than the second-best player in the Western Conference. He had few weaknesses and turned the tide of a flailing franchise. That’s no small feat.
Even though Lillard wins most of the offensive arguments, Roy was at least an solid defender, something that can’t be said of Lillard without some cantankerous catcalls by Waldorf and Statler. The difference on defense between Roy and Lillard narrows much of the argument to what has now been mostly in Lillard’s favor on offense.
If Roy’s knees hadn’t quit on him, he could have had an amazing NBA career beyond what he had already achieved, and only the imagination can take us where Roy might have led the Blazers.
For Lillard, we will hopefully be fortunate enough to see where he can take the organization and the city of Portland. An All-Star with more chips on his shoulder than me on a Sunday evening after a day of watching football, Lillard’s motivation to succeed never seems close to running on empty.
Two All-Stars. Two players who helped re-define a franchise. Two players whose highlight reels will stand the test of time. One player whose career was cut short. One player who is only beginning to define his career.
It’s a close call.
But, if I had to choose right now, I would choose Brandon Roy.