The point guard earned Rookie of the Year honors in 2012-13, and he made the Western Conference All-Star team this year. On top of that, his team, the Portland Trail Blazers, has been taking the league by storm for much of the season. Yet for the first time in his career, Lillard has gone into a protracted slump.
The point guard has struggled for the last couple of weeks, and as such an integral part of the Blazers, the team has been in a bit of a slump of its own.
So the question is whether this is just a small bump in what's been an otherwise smooth road or an ominous sign for the remainder of the season.
A Smooth Start
After finishing last season at 33-49, the Trail Blazers came into 2013-14 without much fanfare.
There were thoughts of the team being a sleeper in the Western Conference and potentially sneaking into the back end of the playoffs, but nobody saw this coming.
The Blazers won 15 of their next 16 games, including an 11-game winning streak.
After 20 games, their record stood at 17-3—an incredible .850 winning percentage. The next 20 games saw Portland come back to earth a bit, but it was still a very strong team, winning 14 of 20, giving it a 31-9 record through 40 games.
Naturally, the team's success coincided with a period of stellar play from Lillard.
During that span, the point guard averaged 21.4 points, 5.8 assists and 3.8 rebounds in 36.1 minutes. Those figures, while obviously very good, were somewhat par for the course after what Lillard did in his incredible rookie campaign.
What stood out most for Lillard was his incredible outside shooting. The 23-year-old hit 42.2 percent of his field-goal attempts and an out-of-this-world 43.8 percent from downtown.
His contributions largely led to Portland's league-best offense, both in terms of offensive rating and points per game.
To be sure, the Blazers aren't nearly the same team when their floor general is resting on the bench.
When Lillard is on the court, Portland has a 111.2 offensive rating and a 105.6 defensive rating. With him on the bench, the Blazers' offensive rating drops to 104.5, and their defensive rating sits at 105.5
To put that in perspective, the team's Lillard-less offensive rating of 104.5 would be tied with the Detroit Pistons for 20th in the league. Its 111.2 offensive rating would pace the league.
The presence of Lillard in the lineup takes the Blazers from an average offensive team to an elite one, which is why it could be concerning if the point guard's play dips. Unfortunately that's what has happened of late.
Bumps in the Road
It was probably unrealistic to expect the Blazers to keep up their torrid pace throughout the season.
Their 31-9 record through 40 games was a .775 winning percentage. Only the defending champion Miami Heat posted a higher winning percentage last season and that was including their 27-game win streak.
As was probably to be expected, the Blazers have hit some bumps in the road over their last stretch of games.
The team is 2-4 in its last six games.
In fairness, three of those losses were to current playoff teams (Oklahoma City, Golden State and Houston). The other was to an incredibly hot Memphis team who has won nine of its last 10.
“I don’t think there are glaring problems,” head coach Stotts said of the team's struggles, per Mike Tokito of The Oregonian. “There have been opportunities where we could have made a pass here or there, but I don’t think it’s necessarily an overriding theme of why we haven’t shot the ball well, but it’s part of it.”
That the Blazers have dropped some games, especially to such quality teams, isn't really noteworthy. What is noteworthy, however, is that their struggles have coincided with a cold streak for Damian Lillard.
The point guard is only averaging 15.8 points, 4.0 assists and 1.7 rebounds during that stretch.
Most alarming has been a shooting slump, as he's only shooting 38.5 percent from the field and 21.6 percent from three-point range.
On the season, the Blazers are averaging a league-best 108.4 points. During the six-game slump, they're only putting up 100.7 points.
Overall, a six-game slide isn't much to be concerned with.
It represents less than 10 percent of the regular season. It's only a blip on the radar. Of course, that's assuming the Blazers are past these issues.
What if they aren't?
Smooth Travels Ahead?
It's certainly too early to panic over Portland's and Lillard's struggles.
In all likelihood, it'll get everything turned around. However, if there's one thing to be concerned with, it's the Blazers' reliance on three-pointers.
They're the second-best three-point shooting team at 38.3 percent.
Their 25.1 three-point attempts per game are third most in the league. So generally speaking, the Blazers shoot a lot of threes and are effective doing so.
The only problem with that is you either live by the three or you die by the three.
Since Lillard's been struggling to find his stroke, the Blazers have been dying by it. Assuming his struggles shooting the ball continue, Portland's issues could continue as well.
However, that simply doesn't seem likely to happen...at least not for an extended period of time.
Lillard shot 36.8 percent from three-point range as a rookie, and he was hitting 43.8 percent from downtown before his slump. There's absolutely no indication that he's going to keep making only 21.6 percent of them.
And as Lillard goes, so do the Blazers.
When he finds his shot, they'll get back to their winning ways. If anything, this could be an ominous sign for their playoff chances, though, but that's mainly because these cold streaks crop up from time to time, and they can last for a few games. In a seven-game series, that could be enough to cost them.
Over the course of a season, however, it's not concerning at all.
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