It may not be remembered when we look back through the widening lens of history, but for a short time (the first half of the ’14-’15 season), the Portland Trail Blazers had the look of real deal contenders. Behind the talents of LaMarcus Aldridge and young flame thrower Damian Lillard, the Blazers roared out of the gates 30-11, clicking and rolling and flattening any and all comers.
Then the counter-jabs started landing. Key players started missing time, a promising season began to slip away. Then came the haymaker.
“Star” isnt the adjective normally associated with Wesley Matthews, but in the context of that year’s Blazers roster, the powerful wing had evolved into a pseudo-star. Matthews was averaging a shade under 16 points per game on 58.6 percent true shooting and playing airtight, smothering defense when on March 5, 2015, his left Achilles tendon ruptured.
As Matthews’ tendon gave way, so too did any hope of the Blazers making serious playoff noise. Portland limped to a 10-12 finish, ending up fourth in the Western Conference with a 51-31 record. The Memphis Grizzlies made short work of the slumping Blazers – a 4-1 “gentleman’s sweep”that was anything but gentlemanly.
Before the wheel jammed and the brakes were cut on that ’14-’15 season, the basketball world caught a glimpse of where that Blazers team was headed – a fun and legitimately competitive team. Bad luck and wandering free agent eyes unceremoniously tossed yet another talented team into bottomless bin of what-could-have-beens.
Long months of rehab and free agency loomed for Matthews (optimism around him was scarce – the lasting impression of a lessened, post-Achilles-tear Kobe Bryant has been seared into our minds). Robin Lopez, the team’s starting center and professional mascot-terrorizer, was set to hit free agency as well.
But those two were relatively small peanuts; coming off two straight All-NBA appearances, LaMarcus Aldridge was primed to be the prize of free agency. He was the superstar. The future of the franchise rested on his free agency decision.
July 9, 2015 was the Oregon exodus. Lopez took his talents to New York, Matthews surprisingly found a max deal in Dallas, and Aldridge migrated south to join the white walkers, better known as the Spurs.
Starting small forward Nicolas Batum was traded to the Charlotte Hornets in late June, so by July 10th, the Blazers were down to just one starter from that briefly brilliant team of 2014-15: Damian Lillard.
Then just 24, Lillard was viewed as a rising star, a fearless scorer with a penchant for big shots. For all of his offensive fireworks, he wasn’t LeBron James- he couldn’t take the court with four CPAs from the YMCA who hadn’t played basketball competitively since high school and will them to the NBA playoffs.
When the great Marc Stein ranked the Blazers 28th in his 2016 preseason power rankings, he wrote that “the West, strange as it sounds, can be a cold, cold place for basketball franchises trying to reboot.”
Stein wasn’t wrong- unless the rebooting franchise has a high end mainframe on par with Dame Lillard.
With Dame in sole control of the ’15-’16 Blazers, the team won 44 games, placing fifth in the West. Portland won its first-round series against the Los Angeles Clippers (with both Chris Paul and Blake Griffin now toiling elsewhere, another team that joins the 2014-15 Blazers in the bin of what-could-have-beens).
Last year, the Trail Blazers collected 41 wins before losing to the eventual NBA champion (and convincing Death Star replica) Golden State Warriors.
With four games left on the slate this year, the Trail Blazers sit third in the West with a 48-30 record.
In the midst of three years of personnel shuffling, questionable drafting, and clunky roster construction, there’s one constant, a bonfire that just won’t go out no matter how torrential the downpour: Dame Lamont Lillard.
There are levels to this. There are good offensive players who can put up numbers, and then there are offensive engines, top flight powerhouses who can drive whole offensive schemes. Theres always a place for guys who get just “get buckets”, sure, but more important are high usage scorers for whom the threat of them putting the ball in the basket creates positive team offense.
Stephen Curry, James Harden, LeBron James: these guys are the best offensive hubs in the world. Lillard isn’t that far behind.
Since the Blazers became Lillard’s, the team’s offensive ratings with him on-court have been 110.5, 113.5, and 111.8. All of those rank in the 82nd percentile or better among all players.
Lillard shares the court with fellow flamethrower CJ McCollum a lot, and CJ’s a very good offensive player in his own right (though his efficiency as a scorer is surprisingly lackluster: the Blazers see no drop-off offensively when Lillard is on the floor without him). After their star guards, care to take a guess as to who’s appeared in the most games for the Blazers since the exodus?
Pat yourself on the back if you had Maurice Harkless, Al-Farouq Aminu, Ed Davis, and Noah Vonleh. The first three are certainly good players, but none is a luminary in the department of offense, and the fourth is well on his way out of the league.
No matter who the Blazers trot out, when Lillard is on the court with them, Portland’s offense is consistently good-to-great. So, how does he do it?
Three parts pull-up shooting, one part explosion, and dash of guile. Shaken, not stirred.
This season, Lillard has taken 370 pull-up threes and 184 off the catch; the fact that hesh taken more than twice as many pull-up threes as catch-and-shoots is wild. Lillard converts those pull-ups respectable 36.8 percent on those pull-ups, which is good, but it’s his willingness to pull that is the impetus for Portland’s offense.
The Blazers run the most pick-and-roll in the NBA, which makes sense for an offense built around two dynamic guards. They’re also the second-most efficient pick-and-roll team after the aforementioned Death Star Replica. It’s easy to see why head coach Terry Stotts has built his offense around the action, and it all comes back to Lillard:
Yes, this is a miss, but look at what happens when no one is there to meet Lillard when he gets around a ball screen. The Blazers screen the screener, preventing Nurkic’s man, Emeka Okafor, from showing and discouraging Lillard from pulling. Typically, Lillard capitalizes on that opportunity:
Here, the screener’s defender, Cheick Diallo, is there to meet Lillard, but he’s not up far enough, not committed enough to discouraging Lillard, so Lillard yells “pull” and that clay pigeon doesn’t stand a chance. To be fair to Diallo, there is good reason for not selling out too hard to stop Lillard’s pull-ups:
The screener’s defender has to be able to recover to the roll man, because otherwise, Lillard, while not an incredible passer, will his roll-man with a slick pocket pass. Help must come, leaving a shooter open, and you end up yielding a more open three than the one you sold out to stop.
The solution isn’t to switch pick-and-rolls either:
It’s too easy for Lillard to get by even mobile bigs like Capela for this to be a viable solution. Help has to come, and shooters are open. Getting by defenders, by the way, is what makes Lillard such a terror:
Dame has all sorts of hesitations and other feints in his boundless bag of tricks. His trickery throws the defense off just enough to allow Dame to jet toward the rim unabated.
What sets Lillard apart from other guards with craft and pull-up shooting to spare (like his Dr. Watson) is his explosion:
Dame brings to mind The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift, the way he goes from zero to warp speed makes me suspicious that there’s a canister of nitrous oxide somewhere under that jersey. Right about when he crosses the foul line, he bursts forward, past the defense and onto the scoreboard; it’s a boost that allows him to attempt 11 percent more of his shots at the rim than McCollum:
McCollum deploys an incredibly effective hang dribble, but then meanders toward the rim more like my Honda Civic than the supped-up drift mobile that is Dame D.O.L.L.A. MccollMc can’t get by Diallo, instead settling for tough fadeaway that hits nothing but O2.
While McCollum has some of the traits that make an offensive player great, he lacks that extra juice that allows offensive engines to compromise an entire defense simply by existing. McCollum is an immensely talented player, but he provides perfect contrast for his teammate, offering demonstration of what transforms good into special.
That, ultimately, is what Lillard is: special. He has this nasty combination of offensive capabilities, which allows him to routinely victimize defenses, but more importantly, he is the Arc Reactor. Drop him into a hunk of metal and he turns it into Iron Man.
Lillard powers offenses, year after year, by himself. He breaks down defenses; teammates eat — it’s a proven formula. Don’t get me wrong: MVP is an open-and-shut case – congratulations, Mr. Harden – but keep Damian Lillard in mind, because for Portland, he is the offense. He is the superstar. He is now the franchise.