Is Damian Lillard the Portland Trail Blazers' Franchise Player?

Joshua J VannucciniSenior Analyst IIIMarch 10, 2014

Portland Trail Blazers guard Damian Lillard is shown during the second half of an NBA basketball game against the Atlanta Hawks in Portland, Ore., Wednesday, March 5, 2014. (AP Photo/Don Ryan)
Don Ryan/Associated Press

The Portland Trail Blazers have had an unlucky history of building around prospects as of late, but it’s safe to name LaMarcus Aldridge and Damian Lillard as the best of the team’s modern era. 

The Blazers haven't made the playoffs since the 2010-11 season but are well on track to do so this season. It's been a collective effort, but Aldridge and Lillard have been largely responsible for the turnaround as the team's leaders.

As such, it makes it difficult to pinpoint just who Portland views as its franchise player.

Aldridge, drafted second overall by the Chicago Bulls and traded to the Blazers, has been with the team since the 2006-07 season. His 23.7 points and 11.2 rebounds per game this season are both career highs, but his career-low field-goal percentage leaves a bit to be desired.

PORTLAND, OR - MARCH 1:  Damian Lillard #0 and LaMarcus Aldridge #12 of the Portland Trail Blazers walk up court  against the Denver Nuggets on March 1, 2014 at the Moda Center Arena in Portland, Oregon. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agree
Sam Forencich/Getty Images

It's more to do with his usage rate than anything he's doing wrong, with head coach Terry Stotts forcing the offense through Aldridge. He ranks No. 8 in the league in the category, cementing himself as the arrowhead of Portland's offensive attack.

Lillard is still young, so it makes sense to force it through a veteran player like Aldridge. He's just 28 years old, with plenty of good basketball left in him. Aldridge's style of play doesn't require a ton of athleticism, strength or speed, either, with his finesse, face-up game being one that will last well into the twilight years of his career.

Players like Tim Duncan and/or Dirk Nowitzki are prime examples of this, and Aldridge will follow suit as he ages. As such, it's difficult (and unnecessary) to put a time constraint on how long the Blazers can look toward Aldridge as their franchise player.

He can score at ease, rebound well and can pass from the high post. Aldridge is also a solid defender, with his lack of physicality really being the only knock on his game. So why would Portland consider anyone else?

Enter Portland's All-Star point guard in Lillard.

Despite this being his sophomore season, Lillard is playing like he's been in the league much longer. His 20.8 points and 5.6 assists are stellar, all the while shooting 43.3 percent and committing just 2.5 turnovers per game.

At 6'3" and weighing in at 195 pounds, Lillard has both the size and light-footedness to overpower and blow by defenders. It's common knowledge just how dominant he can be to even casual NBA fans, but his biggest confirmation as a star came when Aldridge missed time with a groin injury.

In five games without his big man, Lillard averaged 27.2 points and 5.4 assists on 51.7 percent shooting. Portland went 4-1 in that span, with Lillard's place amongst the league's best point guards much clearer.

That stretch alone isn't enough to cement Lillard as Portland's franchise player, but his potential to grow makes his case that much more convincing over Aldridge's. It's obvious what sort of player the latter has become, while Lillard's ceiling is sky high.

He's shown to be a deadly shooter and scorer, in addition to a fearless clutch shooter. Per, Lillard has knocked down 46.4 percent of his shots (45.7 percent from three-point range) in the last five minutes of the game when it's within five points.

Lillard is 23 years old in just his second season, due to spending four years of college at Weber State before declaring for the NBA draft in 2012. Aldridge is still young for an NBA player, but Lillard is younger and still getting better.

As good as he's been, the fact the Blazers play through Aldridge means we haven't really seen what Lillard can do unburdened by the team's game plan. His scoring spree without Aldridge in the lineup was a small window into that, but it's clear Lillard plays within his role.

So while the point guard can absolutely dominate offensively and is just biding his time to do so, he's also mature and composed enough to understand what Portland needs from him. Lillard isn't looking to explode every night or take the glory for himself.

Per an interview by's Mitch Stephens, Lillard's high school coach, Orlando Watkins, had kind words about his former point guard: "He wanted to be an NBA player. And that gave him a chance. … He was built to want to be the best. Awards have never been important. But he always has played with a little chip like he wanted to be better than what most people thought."

The interview later lists Lillard as sending his former high school team "shoes, traveling bags, practice jerseys and warm-up suits," with Watkins remarking that Lillard "looks out for our kids and hasn't forgot where he came from."

At Christmas time last year, Lillard provided a $100 gift card to 30 children from the Trail Blazers Boys & Girls Club. Per a report from The Oregonian's Sean Meagher, Lillard said: "Because of what I've been able to do as a basketball player, it makes this stuff that much more valuable. It puts me in position to do things for the community and for the kids. Just to see how they reacted and the smiles on their faces, that means everything to me."

Lillard's work in the community isn't obvious on the court, but it's a factor all teams consider when building around a prospect.

It's a bonus for an organization to know their franchise player extends himself to the community, but Lillard's absolute value comes from what he does on the court.

Lillard knows the ball runs through Aldridge, and that's that. He remains a competitor, but his "coachability," work as a role model and as a player makes his place as the Blazers' franchise centerpiece that much more distinct.

That isn't to say Aldridge is playing with a disregard to his coaches, but Lillard's youth and willingness to listen and learn while also competing every night makes him ever so valuable.

It makes him not only a dream prospect to develop and build around, but a dream franchise player as well.