It’s clear at this point that Lillard has all-star potential. He averaged 19 points, 6.5 assists and 3.1 rebounds during his rookie year, and he shot nearly 37 percent from long range to top it off.
All that said, the 23-year-old has some stiff competition at the guard positions, and he’ll likely have to wait at least one more year before representing the Western Conference.
At the time of the 2012 NBA draft, the hope in Rip City was that the Weber State product could be the point guard of the future. As it turned out, Lillard instantly became the best player on the roster behind LaMarcus Aldridge.
Following his Rookie of the Year campaign, he’s established himself as a cornerstone piece of the Portland Trail Blazers franchise. There’s no evidence of a slump on the horizon, but the question is whether or not he’ll boost his production enough to make the All-Star team.
Lillard is going to elevate his game in 2013-14. He adapted to double-teams throughout his rookie season, and now he’ll have a legitimate bench to help relieve some of the pressure.
In the backcourt, the Blazers have two new additions who should surpass all bench production from 2012-13. C.J. McCollum and Mo Williams are now on board, which means Lillard will spend fewer minutes on the floor—a good thing, considering he played the most minutes in the NBA as a rookie.
On the surface, fewer minutes sounds like an instant drop in stats.
But not so fast.
Having fresh legs on offense will allow him to finish both at the rim and behind the arc more easily at the end of games. He has quickly become the epitome of today’s athletic, score-first point guard, yet he possesses the jump shot that many of the game’s top floor generals simply don’t have.
His defensive efforts should improve as well, as he had trouble staying in front of the ball. His hands were quick enough to make plays in transition, but fresh legs should make a difference in half-court sets.
Fans in Rip City should be excited about his future—as well as his confidence—but you still can’t ignore the competition at this point in the process.
Last year’s Western Conference backcourt comprised Chris Paul, Kobe Bryant, James Harden, Tony Parker and Russell Westbrook. Also, consider this: Stephen Curry proved during the postseason why he deserves to be an All-Star, while Mike Conley showed that he’s arguably the best two-way point guard in the Association.
Don’t forget, either, that Jrue Holiday is now a member of the New Orleans Pelicans following his first season as a full-fledged All-Star.
If Lillard wants to make the All-Star team, he needs a few things to happen.
First and foremost, his defensive efforts must improve.
It’s true that the All-Star Game is rarely—if ever—touted for its defensive matchups, but while fans want high-scoring, entertaining affairs, coaches are responsible for choosing the benches.
Additionally, the Blazers must be winning. The Pacific Northwest may be a fabulous place to live, but when it comes to the NBA, Rip City is largely ignored by the national spotlight.
If Portland is on pace to make the playoffs by All-Star Weekend, Lillard is going to be a huge reason why. He made headlines last season with his production on the floor, but those individual accomplishments will only garner attention if he’s leading his team back to prominence.
As much as Lillard won’t want to admit it, the health of his competitors will also be a difference maker.
Bryant is coming off of a brutal season-ending injury, and while all signs point to the Black Mamba making a big-time return, restricted minutes and games missed could go against him at 35 years old.
Another player coming off of a season-ending injury is Westbrook. The ultra-athletic point guard is young enough to recover nicely, but there’s always the chance he slows down in his initial return.
And then, of course, there’s Parker and Curry.
Parker, despite being one of the game’s top floor generals, has been banged up constantly throughout the years, and Curry has a pesky ankle that could creep up on him at any point in the season.
Lillard must improve his play if he wants to make the All-Star team, but he also needs a little bit of help.
When it comes down to it, know one thing: Lillard will play his heart out in 2013-14.
Anybody who’s been around the guy knows that he’s not going to give up. That’s why Portland drafted him in the midst of a rebuild, and that’s why there will be All-Star appearances in his future.
The problem is that his fate as an All-Star is not in his own hands.
Lillard can improve defensively, boost his assists and remain the No. 2 option on offense—yet he’ll still be overlooked if the Western Conference guards are healthy in February.
Should the backcourt out West be decimated with injuries, count Lillard in. But if that’s not the case and the conference is at full strength, we’ll have to wait a bit longer to see Lillard strutting his stuff on All-Star Sunday.