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How Much Higher Can Damian Lillard Keep Raising the Bar?

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How Much Higher Can Damian Lillard Keep Raising the Bar?
Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

Damian Lillard has been taking the NBA world by storm during the 2013-14 season, taking no prisoners as he unleashes a barrage of game-winning shots, highlight plays and incredible stat lines. 

And he's getting better by the week. 

Lillard dominated heading into Christmas, torching opponents he helped the Portland Trail Blazers maintain their spot at the forefront of the Western Conference, and he did so despite facing an increasingly difficult slate of matchups. 

He got the better of Kyrie Irving in a head-to-head battle that turned into an offensive duel down the stretch. One night later, he exploded for 36 points and six dimes against the Minnesota Timberwolves, albeit in a loss. Next game, he recorded 29 points and five assists, beating Jrue Holiday and the New Orleans Pelicans in a tight game. 

But now Lillard faces the ultimate test: a clash with Chris Paul

The two squared off twice during Lillard's rookie season, and he came out on the losing side both times, averaging 14 points and six assists on 40 percent shooting, according to Basketball-Reference. It's a tough matchup for him, as he not only has to navigate past CP3's intense defensive pressure, but also expend energy chasing around the league's best point guard on the other end. 

To be the best, you have to beat the best. And that's the opportunity that this matchup affords Lillard. 

 

Not Done Improving

Steve Dykes-USA TODAY Sports

It's easy to watch Lillard run the show for a competitive Portland team and assume that he's a seasoned veteran with plenty of experience calling the shots for a true title contender. Yet nothing could be further from the truth. 

Not only is Lillard a 23-year-old point guard in his second professional season, but he played his college ball at Weber State. He didn't exactly find himself on national television that often, as the marquee games were few and extremely far between. 

In all honesty, he's still learning on the job, and each game brings him at least one fresh experience. So far he's been able to meet each and every one of them in stride, but there are still areas where he could improve. 

Thus far, there are two overarching weaknesses: shooting efficiency while driving to the basket and defense. 

Although he's developed into quite the potent scorer, one who can average well over 20 points per game, he's struggled when heading to the tin. Lillard might be a supreme athlete, but he's not the biggest point guard in the league, and he struggles with body control and his finishing ability at times. 

According to NBA.com's SportVU data, the Rip City floor general is driving to the basket 7.9 times per game, making him one of the 10 most frequent drivers in the league. The site defines a drive as a non-fast-break touch that begins at least 20 feet from the hoop and finishes within 10. 

Problem is, Lillard is converting only 33.3 percent of his looks in such situations. He's scoring via pull-up jumpers and spot-up shots, not drives. 

To put that in perspective, no player in the top 15 is shooting less than 40 percent. Jeff Teague is the second-least efficient driver in the top 10, and he's still converting 42.6 percent of his attempts. You can see these numbers represented below in visual form: 

Infogr.am.

Yep; that would be Lillard at the very bottom. 

It's not an easy area to shore up, but it's one he desperately needs to improve upon. Without the ability to finish around the basket, Lillard will inevitably be prone to more cold nights, as he's relying on scoring from areas that are farther from the hoop. Jumpers are typically less efficient than shots in the paint, even if he is refusing to acknowledge that fact. 

As for defense, the young floor general is starting to improve, which shouldn't be at all surprising. 

Below, take a gander at his points per possession allowed in certain situations (and overall), courtesy of Synergy Sports (subscription required): 

Infogr.am.

He's clearly getting better across the board, and I'd argue that he's actually improved as a pick-and-roll defender despite what the numbers indicate. 

Terry Stotts' new defensive system involves shutting down the perimeter at the expense of leaving big men out to dry, so Lillard is asked to pursue PnR ball-handlers with less intensity. It's more important that he prevents a potential pick-and-pop situation from developing, leaving Robin Lopez and LaMarcus Aldridge to protect the rim against the drives. 

Steve Dykes-USA TODAY Sports

For him to give up only 0.1 points per possession more despite the shift in mentality is a great sign. 

That said, his numbers are getting better, but they're still far away from the realm of the elites. Despite making a big jump as an isolation defender, Lillard has a ways to go.

It's also notable that per NBA.com, the Blazers are allowing 0.7 points per 100 possessions fewer when he's on the court than when he sits. Solid, but nothing special since he's typically replaced by the defensive sieve known as Mo Williams.  

Don't despair, Portland fans. 

Wouldn't you rather Lillard have some weaknesses at this point in his career? That way he has stuff to work on, fixing the weaknesses while strengthening the parts of his game that are already looking good. 

And there's a lot that looks good. 

 

Watch the Throne

Evan Gole/Getty Images

One day, Lillard will challenge Chris Paul for the title of the best point guard in the NBA. 

That day is not today, but it's also not too far off in the future. Despite only being in his second professional season, Lillard is already truly elite at his position (subjectively defined as one of the top five players). 

When I last ranked the league's premier floor generals in mid-December, here's how the top five looked: 

  1. Chris Paul
  2. Stephen Curry
  3. Russell Westbrook
  4. John Wall
  5. Damian Lillard

Guys like Rajon Rondo (when healthy) and Tony Parker (when he starts getting more involved in the San Antonio Spurs offense) will challenge Lillard for the right to hold down that No. 5 spot, but he still has it at the moment. And that was before he kept exploding heading into the brief Christmas break. 

Over the last five games before his Dec. 26 showdown with CP3 and the Los Angeles Clippers, Lillard was just scorching hot. He averaged 28.0 points, 3.8 rebounds, 6.8 assists, 0.4 blocks and 1.2 steals per contest, shooting 46.9 percent from both the floor and beyond the three-point arc. 

Amazingly enough, that's almost par for the course in December. 

Throughout the month, the Weber State product has posted 23.8 points, 3.3 rebounds and 5.9 dimes per contest with percentages of 43.2 percent from the field and 46.2 percent from downtown. Not too shabby, huh?

If he continues to post those types of offensive numbers and continues tracking toward being viewed as a quality defender, he's going to challenge for ultimate supremacy among the floor generals in the Association. 

Sam Forencich/Getty Images

It would be unrealistic to expect Lillard to rise any higher than No. 4 during the 2013-14 campaign, even if he dominates against Paul and still looks good in every head-to-head matchup with an elite point guard. Eventually, he's going to wear down under the stress of an NBA season and the insane burden he carries in the Rip City offense. 

But the third season is when a lot of players typically break out. Just look at Paul George if you want an example. 

During his rookie season, Lillard had an interview with CSNNW.com's Chris Haynes, and displayed confidence in his abilities:

I think I can be a first team All-NBA, I think I can be an All-Star, I think I can be an MVP. That's just my opinion. I don't know when, but how I plan to work and how much better I want to be, I feel like anything is possible.

What is Lillard's ceiling?

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The order of his tricolon crescens is a little out of whack, as the predictions are supposed to grow in importance. He should have led with the bit about becoming an All-Star, but his skills in rhetoric aren't particularly relevant. 

This season, Lillard deserves to be an All-Star. 

Bleacher Report's Grant Hughes predicts that Lillard will make the 2014 roster as a reserve for the Western Conference, and it'll only be the first of many selections throughout his career. We'll have to wait a little while before he can top the established set of guards that always holds down the All-NBA first-team spots, but he'll get there too. 

He just needs to take it a step at a time. 

 

Championship Dreams

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Individual awards are one thing. Winning a championship is an entirely different story. 

Nothing would aid his legacy more than winning a ring as a dominant point guard. It's something that hasn't been done since Isiah Thomas sparked the Detroit Pistons in the late 1980s and early 1990s, although you could make an argument that Tony Parker deserves some credit for what he did with the San Antonio Spurs. 

But Parker never averaged more than 18.6 points per game during a championship season while playing alongside Tim Duncan (a bona fide MVP candidate/winner during the championship seasons), and Lillard is currently blowing that mark out of the water as a sophomore. 

Lillard doesn't have two other members of a Big Three to support him during his quest for a title, yet the Blazers are still in a great spot to make a deep playoff run.

Although there still seems to be an underlying assumption that the Blazers are going to fall back to earth and then bow out rather early in the postseason proceedings, we can't just look past what they've done thus far. 

Steve Dykes-USA TODAY Sports

No team in the Western Conference has a better record, though the Oklahoma City Thunder match them at 23-5 after a Christmas Day shellacking of the embarrassingly bad New York Knicks. According to Basketball-Reference, Rip City boasts the best offensive rating in the NBA, and it's not even close. 

And it's not like Portland has played an easy schedule. 

In fact, the Trail Blazers rank No. 15 in strength of schedule, and their margin of victory trails only four teams throughout the league: the Indiana Pacers, Oklahoma City Thunder, Miami Heat and San Antonio Spurs.

Basketball-Reference also displays the team's simple rating system, which accounts for margin and strength of schedule. Here's how the top 12 teams in the league stack up thus far: 

  1. Indiana Pacers, 8.45 SRS
  2. Oklahoma City Thunder, 8.13
  3. San Antonio Spurs, 8.07
  4. Miami Heat, 6.35
  5. Los Angeles Clippers, 6.32
  6. Portland Trail Blazers, 6.02
  7. Houston Rockets, 4.29
  8. Golden State Warriors, 4.13
  9. Phoenix Suns, 3.87
  10. Minnesota Timberwolves, 3.80
  11. Dallas Mavericks, 1.63
  12. Atlanta Hawks, 1.42

I've included a dozen squads so you can see how distinctly this rating system splits teams up into tiers. 

Among these top teams in the league, there are quite clearly four different tiers for contenders and fringe contenders. 

The Pacers, Thunder and Spurs belong in a class of their own, but Portland is in that next tier. And it's one that also includes two teams that are commonly viewed as contenders. The Heat may even be regarded as the favorite at this stage. 

It's time to discuss Portland in the same light, even if that means tossing aside what we all thought at the beginning of the year. I'll be the first to admit that I was wrong, as before the start of training camp, I predicted that the Blazers would go 40-42 and be the last team left out of the postseason. 

Thanks to some excellent play from Lillard and a roster that has been put together with undeniable skill, that prediction just looks silly now. 

Can the Blazers win a championship?

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To make a long story short, Portland can win a championship. That's well within the realm of realistic possibilities based on what we've seen during the pre-Christmas portion of the 2013-14 campaign.

It's possible because Lillard is running the show and developing into one of the best point guards the NBA has to offer. 

That's how high he's already raised the bar, and he's not done with that process yet.

Far from it. 

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