The Portland Trail Blazers are a very lucky team.
To those in Portland, you may be wondering if I have taken leave of my senses. Isn't this the same team that saw Bill Walton, Greg Oden and Brandon Roy all have their careers cut short due to injuries? Isn't this the same team that drafted Oden over Kevin Durant and Sam Bowie over Michael Jordan?
No, historically this team is incredibly unlucky. But its recent past shows a different story. This is a team that avoided another slip when they drafted Damian Lillard, arguably the best player in this year's draft class.
And given the fact that this is a point guard-driven league, I would say that that qualifies the Blazers as fortunate at the very least.
That being said, Lillard is only just scratching the surface of his potential.
Bench play needs some help
The Portland Trail Blazers have a solid starting lineup. They have one of the best power forwards in the game in LaMarcus Aldridge and a very talented small forward in Nic Batum. Wesley Matthews is solid if unspectacular, and J.J. Hickson is undersized but plays with ferocity.
Unfortunately, that is where the help for Lillard ends. The bench for this team is anemic at best and pathetic at worst. When Aldridge needs a break, the team turns to either Joel Freeland or Jared Jefferies, two players that have a combined average of six points and three boards in about 18 minutes per game.
When Batum needs a rest, the team turns to Luke Babbitt, who is shooting less than 40 percent from the field.
When Matthews needs a break, more often than not it is Sasha Pavlovic taking over, and he is such a sad example of inefficiency one shudders at the thought of him having to start.
Even though I am not a huge fan of the player efficiency rating statistic, it tells quite a tale when not one player on the Blazers' bench has a rating higher than 13.1, and only two bench players have a PER higher than 10.
The Blazers' starters have been severely taxed even just a quarter of the way through the year. Four of the five starters are averaging over 37 minutes per game, and all four of those players are in the top 17 in the league in minutes. In fact, three of the five starters are in the top 11 in minutes.
It is not a good thing to ride your starters into the ground, but the Blazers really don't have a choice right now. Their bench is just that bad.
Therefore, a distributor like Lillard has an even larger burden on this type of team. Lillard is being forced to run the show and he really only has four other guys that he can count on.
When you look around the league at the top point guards, they all have more options to work with. Generally, they have a few good options in their starting rotation and at least two or three more players that they can turn to on their bench.
This leads to greater assist numbers and fresher legs.
Bring on the post
Another way that Lillard is at a disadvantage as a distributor is the overall nature of this Blazers team. This is not a team built strong down low. They are a jump-shooting squad, plain and simple.
There isn't necessarily anything wrong with being a team that scores predominantly from the perimeter. The Dallas Mavericks won a lot of games over the past decade scoring mainly from the perimeter.
But playing in this manner severely limits the effectiveness of the point guard as a distributor.
So instead of having a built in safety valve in the post, the point guard instead has to initiate all of the offense himself.
Teams that have effective post games generally have point guards with high assist numbers. Of the top 10 distributors in the league, only Jrue Holiday with the Philadelphia 76ers and Ty Lawson with the Denver Nuggets lack a traditional post scorer, although JaVale McGee is certainly becoming more effective these days.
So you might be asking yourself why additional assist numbers are that important. The fact of the matter is that we judge the effectiveness of point guards through a few tangible statistics. One is obviously the winning percentage of their team. But beyond that we judge point guards based on their assist numbers and their assist-to-turnover ratio.
Having a strong post scorer generally increases each of those statistics in a positive manner.
A good offensive post game leads to higher percentage shots that lead to higher assists. This also takes the pressure off of the point guard, meaning that he doesn't have to force the issue quite as bad. Knowing that he has a high percentage option down low, the point guard's turnovers naturally go down.
As of December 17, Lillard is only averaging 6.3 assists and his assist-to-turnover ratio is at 2.1. These aren't bad numbers, but they are far from the top 10 in the league. And that is exactly where Lillard's talent is taking him.
Shot selection should improve
So far this season, Lillard has done an admirable job of scoring a high percentage of his team's points He is averaging 18.8 points per game and assisting on about 12 other points. Therefore, Lillard is directly responsible for around 30 percent of his team's points.
That's just his direct contribution. He also frees up easier shots for his teammates because he commands so much of the defense's attention.
Lillard's game in general makes life easier for his mates as well. He can score from anywhere on the court, and his three-point range in particular is pretty good (36 percent).
That being said, Lillard is a much better shooter than his numbers indicate.
As a result of his team's lack of high percentage low post scoring, Lillard often has to attack the defense from deeper than he might like to.
Nearly 39 percent of Lillard's shot attempts come from three-point range, specifically from around the top of the key (stats courtesy of NBA.com).
While Lillard is shooting a respectable percentage from this spot, it is technically the lowest percentage shot available to him outside of full-court shots.
Compare this to the 49 percent that he is shooting from the mid-range, and you can see how his shooting percentage will improve if he can consistently get closer to the hoop. As of now, only about 28 percent of his shots come from the mid-range.
Compare this to Rajon Rondo, who gets over 35 percent of his shots from mid-range, and you can see why he is shooting over 50 percent from the field and playing a more effective point guard.
This number is sure to go up for Lillard as team's are being forced to play him tighter due to his ability to hit the three.
Defense will help
Right now, one of the biggest stumbling blocks for Lillard and the Blazers as a whole is their porous team defense. Not only are they allowing a ton of points per game (nearly 100), but they are not making it tough on opponents in the slightest.
In fact, the Blazers are allowing 1.25 points per shot, which is third worst in the league.
So why exactly does team defense effect the efficiency of a team's point guard?
Simply put, a team that does not effectively stop its opponents will not have as many opportunities for easy shots.
The easiest way for a team to score in this league is through fast-break opportunities. The only way to get fast-breaks is to get stops. If a team can stop the other team, it allows them a chance at getting out in transition.
For a team like the Blazers, transition hoops are incredibly critical.
We already highlighted their lack of a post game and why that makes things difficult for Lillard. As presently constructed, this team will struggle on most nights simply because their half-court offense doesn't give them high percentage shots.
Therefore, they need better opportunities to score easy hoops in transition.
That being said, this team only averages 10 fast-break points per game. This puts them 26th in the league.
This is an especially frustrating situation for Portland and Lillard when you look at their team. They have a bunch of highly athletic guys that would be great in transition.
Lillard would most certainly see much improved numbers in a higher tempo game.
It really is impressive to see Lillard's development. For a number of reasons, he should not be having as successful of a rookie season as he is.
He has very little help, and defenses on most nights are focusing on ways to stop him. He has become the most important player on Portland's roster outside of Aldridge.
And he is doing this in spite of the fact that his roster is not being properly utilized.
The simple truth is that the Blazers' and Lillard's futures are both tied to his development. As far as Lillard goes, so will go Portland.
Part of that development will be up to upper management as they will need to surround Lillard with the right players and coaches to get the most out of his talent.
But thus far, it is truly stunning to watch him progress.
The best is certainly yet to come with Lillard.