After the NBA crashed to a sorrowful halt at the end of January, two stories lingered. The death of Kobe Bryant and the dominance of Damian Lillard. In January, Lillard pushed his name into the MVP race, particularly with his performance in front of a somber audience still stunned by Bryant’s tragic death. Pragmatic and lethal as always, Lillard immersed himself in the moment. He could not be stopped. He continued his 2020 onslaught.
How good was Lillard in January? Let’s start here. In January, Lillard made 22 more threes than in December and 46 more baskets. His assists improved by 15 from the month before. He scored 133 more points. His 45.1% from three for the month was a season high, as was his 48.8% field goals. His offensive rating was a monster 131 and he averaged 34.1 points and 8.4 assists.
Of course, he made the All-Star game. That was a given.
Lillard’s methodical 2019-2020 season has been a career best. His 20.2 shots per game and 9.4 makes per game is a career high. So is 46% and 39% from three. His assists have never been higher and necessary. He’s nearly a 30 ppg player for the first time in his career, and his offensive rating shatters his old record of 121 (2018-19). Dame’s defense is mediocre but that’s not what he is being asked to do. He is a play maker and a put the ball in the hole player. Plus a leader.
5 out of the last 6 games, Lillard’s “worst” was 47 points and his “best” was 61 points. He’s feeding his inner James Harden. The last two games he has taken 30 shots and 29 shots respectively. His 61 point game was possible because he took 37 shots. Lillard is also getting to the line. He’s averaging 8 free throws per game, making 88%.
How does he rank against the rest of the league? He’s the second ranked point guard (Real Plus-Minus). He should be the first guard taken in the All-Star draft on Thursday. None of this is new, Lillard balling out to carry his team. But the question for the almost 30 year old is what are the consequences of his explosion? It is obvious how he benefits but does his team? Does he need to do less to get more out of his teammates?
The Blazers are 9th in the west, four games below .500. Despite Lillard’s heroics, a lot is working against the Blazers. Their defense is atrocious. Very few teams give up as many points as the Blazers. Depending on older players like Melo and Trevor Ariza doesn’t help in that department. The Blazers are an average shot making team. They are last in the league in steals which impacts fast break opportunities. They are last in the league in assists. Their three point defense is soft. There is a reason the Blazers don’t have a winning record. Damian Lillard playing out of his mind only fixes a small part of the problem.
When Jusuf Nurkic returns in February that will be a boost. But first the Blazers have to transition from Lillard our hero to Lillard our facilitator. Currently, Lillard is doing what he has to do to keep the Blazers afloat. But the team that was in the Western Conference Finals last spring cannot depend on Lillard’s Superman act to carry them farther than an early exit as the 8th seed. The Blazers are their own worst enemy trotting out a heavy iso system night after night.
Lillard has to try to score 50 because…
Anfernee Simons has great potential but he is a young player who isn’t a reliable shooter. Kent Bazemore doesn’t do much offensively. Melo is Melo. Rodney Hood tore his Achilles. Mario Hezonja is a lottery bust. Trevor Ariza is the new guy on the block. Zach Collins went down with a shoulder injury. It leaves Lillard in no-man’s land.
Unlike most NBA superstars, Lillard doesn’t want to be defined by titles. He is a basketball player but he is more. He is a rapper but he is more. He was the MVP of January. And he is a lot more. How much more will depend on what the Blazers can do to add more to the Damian Lillard 2020 beast mode.
Lillard has done his part. But at the end of the day, it will be what Neil Olshay and the Blazers front office can do to give Lillard a shot at a playoff run.