In the history of the NBA, there have been legends that have beaten the best of the best to stand at the top of the NBA mountain – and be called a champion. We know these players, we know their names and their legacies. But what about the guys that have not been able to reach that level? What about the guys that never even made it to the FInals? For every champion, there are a lot of “other” guys that never made it to the game’s grandest stage, but they still had amazing careers that deserve to be celebrated.
After the 2021 season, Damian Lillard stands among those “other” guys. But he’s the farthest thing from just another player in the NBA.
With the future of the Portland Trail Blazers in flux due to a variety of issues, including but not limited to a vacancy at head coach, questions about who will be on the roster next year, and a general manager showing a reluctance to accept any blame whatsoever; Lillard has a lot to consider. If, for some reason, he decided he had had enough and retired tomorrow, how will he be remembered? Before we get into how his play will be remembered, here is how he lines up on paper via the all-time statistics.
15th all-time in points per game with 24.7. The only active players above him on the list – Kevin Durant, LeBron James, and James Harden.
10th all-time in three-point field goals with 2,051. Steph Curry, James Harden, and Jamal Crawford are the only active players above him on the list.
3rd all-time in three-point field goals per game with 3, only two active players are above him on the list, Steph Curry and Duncan Robinson, who just completed his second season.
37th all-time in assists per game with 6.6. Seven active players are above him on the list – among them John Wall, Rajon Rondo, Ben Simmons, and Ricky Rubio. It’s not likely any of those players will be remembered fondly once their careers come to an end (Simmons perhaps, but we’ll see). Still, I think it’s very likely that Chris Paul, Russell Westbrook, and LeBron James will be remembered fondly well after the end of their careers, and those are the other three guys above Lillard on this list. It’s safe to say Lillard belongs in the same group as Paul, Westbrook, and Westbrook as generational stars, not just guys who learned to stuff the stat sheet but were not thought of as superstars.
8th all-time in free throw percentage with 89.3%. Steph Curry is the only active player above him on the list.
I think we can all assume LeBron James, Steph Curry, Kevin Durant, and James Harden are going into the hall of fame someday. If Lillard is that close to some of the games’ all-time greats in some of the most crucial stats, doesn’t that tell you where he stands in the history of the game?
Before we get to Lillard, let’s look at players past and present who have been through similar career paths and never won an NBA title or even had the chance to win one –
Hall of Famers that never played in Finals
Dave Bing (1966-1978) – a seven-time all-star who appeared in the playoffs six times from 1968-1977. Washington, where he played two of his last three seasons (after nine seasons in Detroit), won the championship the year after Bing departed.
Pete Maravich (1970-1980) – The man, the legend, the all-time NCAA scoring leader who averaged 44.2 points per game (nearly 14 more points than the next person on the list, PSU alum Freeman Williams). “Pistol” Pete never saw the court in the NBA Finals, the closest he came was playing in the conference finals with Boston in 1980. Boston would win the championship the following season.
Artis Gilmore (1971-1988) A giant of the game, figuratively and literally. Gilmore played in the ABA Finals twice, winning once in 1975. That would be the closest he ever came to NBA glory. He played for Chicago once he joined the NBA, never making it to the conference finals. He did finally get to that point with San Antonio in 1983, losing in six games. He made it back to the conference finals with Boston in 1988, where they lost to Detroit in six games.
Bernard King (1977-1993) One of the few New York legends who never got to play on the biggest stage of their sport. King bounced around the league the first five years of his career, playing for three different teams. He finally found stability in New York in 1982, playing there through 1987, spending a few years in Washington before finishing his career where it started with the Nets. While he made the playoffs in his first and last seasons, he never made it past the second round of the playoffs, never even appearing in the conference finals.
Dominique Wilkins (1982-1999) “The human highlight film” was a full-time starter the exact minute his career began nearly four decades ago. Wilkins was a spectacular player in a conference dominated by Larry Bird and Dr. J early in his career, and Michael Jordan and Isaiah Thomas later on. Wilkins advanced to the second round of the playoffs just three times in his career, never seeing the conference finals or the NBA Finals. He ruptured his Achilles tendon in 1992, which used to be a career killer. Wilkins bounced back the next season, winning comeback player of the year while scoring nearly thirty points per game. After leaving Atlanta in 1993, he played for four more teams before calling it a career just before the year 2000.
Future hall of famers never played in Finals
Steve Nash (1996-2012) Nash was drafted by Phoenix, starting just eleven games before being traded to Dallas in 1998. There he developed a great rapport with Dirk Nowitzki in their first few years together, and they reached the conference finals in 2003, losing to the Spurs. After a first-round exit the following year, Nash signed with the Suns after Dallas declined to match their offer. Nash led the Suns to the conference Finals in 2005, 2006, and 2010, losing all three times, likely the most devastating one the loss against Dallas in 2006. Nash joined the Lakers in 2013, hoping to get to the Finals with Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol, and Dwight Howard. The Lakers were swept out of the first round, and Nash retired.
Vince Carter (1998-2004) Carter’s career spanned nearly two decades, and he played for more than a quarter of the teams in the league. He is in many fans’ personal hall of fame for his amazing dunking ability, great all-around game, and how he always found a way to win. He spent the first six and a half years of his career in Toronto before bouncing around and trying to get to the Finals. He only got as far as the conference finals, reaching them with Orlando in 2010 before losing to Boston. Carter joined Dallas in 2012, hoping to help them get back to the Finals, but the road ended early. After stops in Memphis, Sacramento, and Atlanta, Vince called it a career.
Future hall of farmers not likely to play in Finals
Carmelo Anthony Anthony joined the NBA after winning the NCAA title as a freshman, and reaching the conference finals in 2009 with Denver is the closest he’s come to tasting the same victory at the NBA level. One of the game’s best pure scorers, Anthony could have retired three years ago when he left Oklahoma City but decided to give it another chance with Portland in 2020. Melo returned to try and help Portland get back to the big dance in 2021, but after another first-round exit, it might be time for him to consider calling it a career.
Chris Paul The Suns are looking hot right now (pun intended), but this isn’t Paul’s first rodeo, although it might be his last at 36 after a career filled with injuries. Paul is a living legend, but even legends fall short. Paul has been to the conference finals just once – a seven-game slugfest with Golden State in 2018 when he was with Houston. If he fails to reach the Finals this year, he might go down as the most decorated player never to reach the game’s biggest stage, or he’d be near the top of the list at least.
Damian Lillard And that brings us back to Lillard. He has played nine complete seasons in the NBA, made the postseason eight times, with just one appearance in the conference finals, where he was sent home in just four games. It’s possible a new coach and a couple of new teammates could be just what the doctor ordered for Lillard while he’s still in the prime of his career, but with the competition league-wide getting younger and stronger, it’s the farthest thing from a lock to think his best days are ahead of him.
One of the game’s best shooters today, and owner of some of the toughest clutch shots in league history, the question isn’t if Lillard has earned his spot among the greats, but when he wants to claim it. Whether he ever steps on the NBA Finals as a player remains to be seen, but one thing is clear – we know he’s an all-timer, no matter what he does from this point on.
In Portland’s franchise record books, Lillard leads an impressive seven statistical categories. Clyde Drexler has his name at the top nineteen times, Bill Walton owns three, and LaMarcus Aldridge two. We know Walton did a lot with his limited time here, but the fact that Lillard has managed to own seven franchise milestones when we know how great a player Aldridge was, is very impressive. Lillard will need a few more years of playing time to reach Drexler’s numbers, but that’s fine. The fact that he is nearly halfway there before he even gets to season number ten is very impressive.
But that’s just local flavor, where we know Lillard is a legend. In the scope of the history of the entire league, Lillard likely has his place there as well. Chris Paul might be the point god, but Lillard is known among fans as Logo Lillard for his amazing range. Even if he never gets to the game’s biggest stage, his clutch play, shooting ability, and his gift to make a city and their opponents believe – will be remembered long after he stops playing.