*Photo via CSN
How things have changed for both Damian Lillard and the Portland Trail Blazers since last season. At this time last year, Lillard was the starting point guard for a Portland team coming off a 54 win season and poised to challenge the top powers in the West. The Trail Blazers were finally getting healthy as All-Star weekend approached and were poised to make a run in the playoffs. After acquiring Arron Afflalo at the trade deadline, Portland appeared to be a legitimate dark horse to win the west. All of these hopes came to an end once Wesley Matthews tore his Achilles tendon and was lost for the season. Matthews’s injury would turn out to be a fatal blow to Portland’s season, as they would lose to the Memphis Grizzlies (4-1) in the first round of the playoffs. Despite back-to-back 50+ win seasons, the Trail Blazers were forced to rebuild. Nicolas Batum was traded, and Afflalo, Matthews, Robin Lopez, and perennial All-Star LaMarcus Aldridge left the team via free agency. The only remaining starter from last season’s playoff team is Lillard. In fact, as everyone else left Portland, Lillard signed a 5-year $95 Million extension.
With a new and unproven supporting cast, little was expected from Portland this year. Fast-forward to today and the Trail Blazers find themselves just a game under .500 (26-27) and ½ a game behind the Houston Rockets for the final playoff spot in the Western Conference. Lillard may have been snubbed from this year’s All-Star game, but he has nonetheless been playing great basketball as Portland’s undisputed leader. Lillard has posted strong numbers with 24.2 PPG (6th in the NBA), 7.3 APG (7th in the NBA), 4.4 RPG, and 0.9 SPG. Lillard is also sixth in the league in made three-pointers (134). Lillard is still a below average defender, but he is quite the talent. Outside of Kyrie Irving and Stephen Curry, there are no other players that possess his combination of passing, finishing, ball handling, and shooting prowess.
*Photo via USA Today
Portland has enough talent on the roster to make a push into the postseason. It all starts with the backcourt: Lillard and CJ McCollum. The two can be a bit of a defensive liability given their small statures, but they more than make up for it on the other end of the floor. They are both great playmakers (10.6 APG between the two of them) and deadly shooters. After Stephen Curry/Klay Thompson and Kevin Durant/Russell Westbrook, Lillard and McCollum average the third most PPG (45) of any pair of teammates in the NBA.
It’s easy to forget that Lillard is only 25 years old and in his 4th season out of Weber State. Nevertheless he already has two All-Star selections, a rookie of the year award, and a number of unforgettable highlights and game winners. Despite a tough offseason the Trail Blazers should feel good going forward. They have extra draft picks, no bad contracts, and a lot of intriguing young talent. Lillard will be leading the way for Portland in the coming years as he enters his prime.
*Info and Stats courtesy of Bballreference and ESPN