Steve Nash left the Staples Center floor and headed toward the Los Angeles Lakers locker room long before the Portland Trail Blazers had decided what the final score would be in their 124-112 win on Tuesday night. Nash's back was acting up again, as it so often does, but this time, the pain was sparked by a first-half ankle tweak.
Not to mention that the Lakers' 49th loss of this dismal season was already well in hand. There was no way that Nash, who tallied a double-double (10 points, 10 assists) in 22 minutes off the bench, was going to wince his way through the rest of the game while watching from the sideline.
Had Nash been able to hang around, though, he would've witnessed the remainder of a virtuoso performance by the NBA's next great point guard, the one who, perhaps, is best equipped to dominate the league that Nash once revolutionized as a two-time MVP with the "Seven Seconds or Less" Phoenix Suns.
Respect Your Elders
I'm talking, of course, about Damian Lillard. The Blazers' second-year stud torched the Lakers (as he's wont to do) for 34 points and eight assists, with five three-pointers and three steals to boot. It was Lillard's second such game against L.A. in as many Aprils, one in which he seemingly distinguished himself from Nash. He was more aggressive offensively than Nash typically would be—and was certainly more athletic in his application of that attitude.
Yet, when asked after the game by TNT's Craig Sager about what it's been like to watch and play against Nash—for whose late-career struggles with nerve root irritation in his left leg Lillard is at least partly to blame—the Oakland native had nothing but praise for his predecessor.
"It's tough in this league for everybody, so for a guy to be able to do it, year after year, at the level that he's done it...I've always looked up to him," Lillard told Sager during his postgame interview. "I've got a lot of respect for what he does and what it took him to get to this point. I know he's another mid-major point guard, so he was definitely one of those guys that I idolized."
That shared heritage as mid-major point guards—Nash from Santa Clara, Lillard from Weber State—may be all that binds these two together at this point in their respective careers. Nash has attempted 20 or more shots in a game just 45 times in his 18-year career, despite spending so much time with the ball in his possession. Lillard, on the other hand, has done so 29 times in less than two full seasons as a pro.
You'd be hard-pressed to find much footage of Nash dunking at all, much less over multiple 7-footers or in the Slam Dunk Contest during All-Star weekend, as Lillard has this season.
On the flip side, the purity of Nash's point guard pursuits far outpaces that of Lillard's. Nash has nearly as many games with double-digit assists (12) as does Lillard (14) since the latter came into the league, despite the former playing just 63 games to Dame's 158 in that span.
Not to mention Nash's being nearly a full human generation older than Lillard.
In truth, comparing Lillard to Nash doesn't do either one any good. Nash, at 40 years old, is well past his prime. Lillard, at 23, is barely approaching his. There's no contest between the two on the court now, just as there wasn't when their legs collided on that fateful Halloween night.
A Changing of the Guards
If anything, Lillard is more appropriately measured against the new-age combo guards who've ramped up the excitement of NBA basketball in recent years.
Among fellow All-Stars, Lillard can be located somewhere on the spectrum between Kyrie Irving, Russell Westbrook and Stephen Curry. Like those three, Lillard is more of a scorer who can handle the ball and run an offense than he is a passer who can pile up. As far as categories go, his (and Irving's, Westbrook's and Curry's) isn't one so easily shared with the likes of Chris Paul, John Wall and Ricky Rubio, even though they all ostensibly play the same position.
What all of today's top point guards share, though, is proficiency in the pick-and-roll. Lillard's performance in the NBA's pet set is comparable—and, in some cases, superior—to most of his point guard peers:
|Pick-and-Roll Proficiency Among Top Point Guards, 2013-14|
Lillard isn't the most prolific purveyor among pick-and-roll point guards. Nor is he the most efficient, particularly when it comes to shooting. But the areas in which Lillard is superior (i.e., drawing shooting fouls and taking care of the basketball) say plenty about how good he already is and how great the Blazers might eventually be as he develops.
Lillard isn't considered to be quite the athlete as which Westbrook and Derrick Rose have long been touted. Then again, those two are such freakish specimens for point guards that to measure anyone against them in that regard is inherently unfair.
For Lillard, being well above average in terms of leaping ability, agility and quickness is more than sufficient for his court-traversing needs. According to NBA.com's SportVU stats, Lillard drives to the hoop 7.7 times per game—the 14th-highest mark of anyone in the league. As far as the number of points scored per drive, though, Lillard (0.75 points per drive) outpaces 12 of those other 13.
The lone exception? Eric Bledsoe (0.78 points per drive), who also happens to fit the mold of a brawny, athletic point guard in which Westbrook, Rose and, to some degree, Lillard have been formed.
Bledsoe might actually make more sense as a Westbrook-Rose facsimile than does Lillard. Bledsoe's speed and athleticism lends itself to spectacular plays, albeit with a sizable share of turnovers (16 percent on pick-and-rolls, per Synergy Sports). Bledsoe's lack of a reliable jump shot only further encourages his forays into the paint, which, in turn, yield the sorts of recurring knee injuries to which Westbrook and Rose have become accustomed.
Lillard hasn't had any such problems to date. In fact, he's yet to miss a game since turning pro and has cut his turnover rate, from 14.5 percent as the 2012-13 Rookie of the Year to 11.4 percent this season.
Stylistically speaking, Lillard wouldn't appear to be in the same danger of devastating injury that's recently afflicted the aforementioned trio. Contrary to what his pick-and-roll shooting numbers might suggest, Lillard is actually an expert marksman. He ranks second in the league in attempts per game (6.9) and third in makes (2.7) for a sturdy percentage of .390.
That prolific shooting stroke has allowed Lillard to shatter the record for most three-pointers made in a player's first two pro seasons. He's knocked down 389 treys so far. For comparison's sake, Klay Thompson tallied 322 during his rookie and sophomore seasons, barely breaking Stephen Curry's previous record of 317.
Lillard has a long way to go before he's considered a shooting specialist on par with Curry. According to Basketball Reference, Curry's career three-point percentage (.439) is the third-highest in NBA history, behind only those of Steve Kerr and Hubert Davis. Neither of those two shot the ball nearly as frequently as Curry and Lillard do.
Lillard isn't quite as prolific or as creative a passer as Curry's proved to be. Curry's assisted on nearly 40 percent of his teammates' makes this season (third-best in the NBA), while Lillard has accounted for just over 25 percent of Portland's helpers.
This isn't all just a matter of Curry being a superior passer, though that remains the case at this point. Of greater import is the role that each occupies within his team's offense. Curry is the focal point of the Golden State Warriors' uneven attack. They run their offense through him, and defenses devise game plans to stop Curry from shooting. To his credit, Curry's responded by upping the ante in assists.
Lillard, on the other hand, is the Blazers' second option. He may handle the ball aplenty, but Portland's floor-spreading offense still runs through LaMarcus Aldridge. Their recent struggles in Aldridge's absence, with Lillard still in the lineup, further highlighted this reality.
Stay to Play
Yet, in some respects, Lillard might be better equipped to be "the man" on a championship-caliber club than Curry is. Lillard may not finish as well at the rim as Curry does (50 percent to 58.7 percent), but he gets there far more often; 31.3 percent of Lillard's shots have come in the restricted area, compared to 16.7 percent of Curry's.
This shouldn't come as any great surprise. Curry is hardly considered the biggest, strongest or most athletic player at his position. His long and troubling history of ankle injuries might only further deter him from venturing into the paint, where pain and gain are more often one in the same than they are on the perimeter.
Lillard's thus far demonstrated an ability to get to the cup without getting hurt. His frame (6'3", 195 pounds) isn't all that much bigger than Curry's (6'3", 185 pounds), but his body control is certainly superior.
At that size, Lillard shouldn't be quite so susceptible to harm as the more diminutive Chris Paul has been. Paul no longer drives into the lane as frequently as he did during his early days with the New Orleans Hornets. His knees, which have been under the knife on multiple occasions over the years, would probably thank him for that if they could.
But like Lillard, Paul doesn't need to be on the attack at all times. Where Lillard can lean on Aldridge to pair with him in the pick-and-roll and generally make his team's offense go, Paul can appeal to Blake Griffin, now a bona fide MVP candidate, for support.
And to this point, Lillard has been fortunate to avoid the sorts of freak injuries that seem to submarine Kyrie Irving at nearly every turn. As it happens, everything else between these two All-Stars is eerily similar, including their suspect defense—a common trait among most young guards.
|Damian Lillard vs. Kyrie Irving: Career Numbers|
The biggest difference, of course, is games missed. Irving's missed 11 this season due to myriad maladies, though that total represents an improvement from his rookie (15 games missed) and sophomore seasons (23 games missed). Lillard has yet to sit out for any reason.
Lillard has the requisite skill and physical tools to become an elite point guard, assuming he isn't one already. In a league with an analytics-driven obsession over shooting threes and getting to the rim, Lillard is already the most prolific of his peers when combining the two. Others may shoot more efficiently or drive the ball more often, but nobody does the two in tandem as frequently or as well as Lillard does.
He's an athlete who plays under control, a shooter who doesn't chuck needlessly, a mature leader who seems more than comfortable with playing second fiddle to a player who, were the Blazers located in a bigger city, would probably be considered a true superstar.
What makes Lillard the perfect fit for the modern NBA—more than his sweet stroke, his fearlessness with the dribble, his court vision or his flight patterns—is his durability. He's played in and started every game since the Blazers made him the No. 6 pick in the 2012 draft.
Of course, that could change at any moment. One awkward landing or unfortunate collision is all it takes for a player to go from "Iron Man" to "Injury Prone." Ask Westbrook or Rose about that.
And just because Lillard's medical rap sheet has been clean over the last two years doesn't mean he's not susceptible to future setbacks. He's played the sixth-most minutes of anyone this season after leading the league in that regard as a rookie.
That sort of wear and tear doesn't read as a sound path to longevity for any player, but especially not for one who missed most of his junior year in college on account of a foot injury.
But that's the nature of being an elite point guard in today's NBA. Players like Lillard are expected to do more for their teams than ever before. More often than not, that means playing tons of minutes and doing plenty within those minutes, too.
It doesn't have to be that way, though. As someone who followed Nash's career growing up, Lillard is probably well aware that the future Hall of Famer never averaged more than 35.4 minutes per game in a given season.
Nash's minutes regimen as a matter of necessity. His back problems—the same ones that began during his days with the Dallas Mavericks, continued throughout his tenure in Phoenix and have exacerbated his initial injury since joining the Lakers—forced his coaches and trainers to monitor how much he played from night to night, lest his team risk losing Nash's considerable services for an extended period.
Lillard may never need such careful monitoring, or he might need it tomorrow. Such is the nature of injuries in an acrobatic contact sport like basketball.
It would behoove the Blazers, then, to continue to watch Lillard's minutes. They've done well to reduce his load from nearly 39 minutes in 2012-13 to a more modest 36 this season.
That's a smart move for a franchise that's been crippled by more career-threatening injuries than anyone in Rip City would care to recount. It's even smarter when considering their hopes of building a perennial title contender around a young point guard, in Lillard, whose tremendous talent is already trending toward greatness.
Perhaps even the kind of greatness that Nash peddled with regularity once upon a time. Lillard's, though, figures to be a brand all his own, one that may push the NBA's proverbial envelope beyond where Nash took it during his own heyday.
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