Look back at analyst power rankings going into the 2013-14 NBA season, and the Portland Trail Blazers sat on the playoffs bubble across the board.
Fast forward nearly half a season and Portland sits in second place in the Western Conference at 28-9, ahead of the Thunder, Clippers, Warriors and Rockets.
Much of this newfound success can and should be attributed to an upgraded bench and improved team chemistry. But teams in the NBA live and die by their stars.
After bursting onto the scene in 2012-13 with a unanimous Rookie of the Year season, Damian Lillard has continued to torch the league as the Trail Blazers' first-half MVP.
His game has already gone through a maturation process after just one year in the league.
As per Dave Deckard of Blazer’s Edge,
This year the offense runs more through (LaMarcus) Aldridge and Nicolas Batum, plus Mo Williams when he's on the floor. Lillard is playing more off-ball. His attempts are more targeted that way. Even when he's responsible for setting the play he's usually letting others do their work and staying within his comfort zone beyond the arc.
Take a look at Lillard’s numbers, and you’ll see an even transition from one year to the next, a far cry from the dreaded sophomore slump:
One number, above all, jumps off the screen—his three-point shooting percentage.
Lillard’s clip from distance has jumped 75 points, and his shooting volume has only gone up. In 2012 he attempted the fourth-most threes and made the fifth-most.
This year only Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson have taken more shots, but nobody has made more than Lillard. In fact, he’s draining threes at a historic rate:
Damian Lillard is the 2nd NBA player to ever make 110+ 3-pointers in his team’s first 35 games of a season, joining Ray Allen (2005-06).
— Trail Blazers PR (@TrailBlazersPR) January 8, 2014
Aldridge has gotten the lion’s share of praise for Portland’s surprising start, and rightly so. He leads the team in player efficiency rating (22.7), points (23.6), rebounds (11.0) and field-goal attempts (20.8). To put it simply, the eight-year veteran is Portland’s focal point on offense more than he’s ever been.
But Lillard’s body of work speaks for itself.
He provides steady contribution, having scored at least 20 points in 21 of the team’s 37 games. He is capable of insane scoring bursts, evidenced by his 26-point fourth quarter in a recent loss to the Sacramento Kings—which included 14 points in less than one minute.
And he has the clutch factor, hitting five game-tying or game-winning shots at the end of regulation. He hit these back-to-back game-winners in December:
As the GIFs show, opponents only have one option when Lillard has the ball in his hands.
There’s no doubting Lillard’s status as a shoot-first point guard—only Kyrie Irving, Stephen Curry, Russell Westbrook and John Wall shoot more per game. But he still finds time to dish nearly six assists per contest, good for 16th among point guards.
Lillard’s fingerprints are all over the NBA’s third-best record. Per Basketball-reference.com, his 4.4 offensive win shares rank fifth behind perennial MVP candidates Kevin Durant, LeBron James, Kevin Love and Chris Paul. Lillard’s 5.0 total win shares are tied with Dirk Nowitzki for 10th.
The second-year guard isn’t without his flaws, which echo a potential red flag for the Trail Blazers on the whole.
While Portland owns the fourth-best point differential in the league at plus-6.2, they also give up 102.9 points per game. Only lottery-bound Philadelphia, L.A., Sacramento and New Orleans allow teams to score at a more prolific rate. Lillard is certainly part of that problem. He struggles in transition defense and against the pick-and-roll, but he's working hard to make the necessary improvements.
For an in-depth breakdown on Lillard’s progress, give Dane Carbaugh’s article on Blazer’s Edge a read.
You’re definitely doing something right when Kobe Bryant wants you to take his place in the All-Star Game.
Kobe Bryant told fans to vote for Damian Lillard instead of him. Catching KB will be hard though. He has 844,538 votes. Lillard has 162,363.
— Alex Kennedy (@AlexKennedyNBA) January 9, 2014
Lucky for Portland and its fans, both Aldridge and Lillard recently expressed interest in sticking around long-term. Lillard told CSNNW:
Portland just fits me. This is home to me. I’m very comfortable here. I think once guys spend a decent amount of time here, they’ll start to love it too.
Though he likely won’t be starting this year’s All-Star game in New Orleans, Lillard—along with Aldridge and the sharp-shooting Wesley Matthews and Batum—has Portland positioned to be a factor in the Western Conference playoffs for the first time in three seasons.