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 was a career-best. His 20.0 shots per game and 9.2 makes per game were a career-high. So was 45% and 39% from three. His assists had never been higher and necessary. He was nearly a 30 ppg player for the first time in his career, and his offensive rating of 125 shattered his old record of 121 (2018-19). Dame’s defense was mediocre but that’s not what he was being asked to do. He’s a playmaker and a put the ball in the hole player. Plus a leader.
Early in 2020, Lillard’s “worst” was 47 points and his “best” was 61 points. He fed his inner James Harden. His 61 point game was possible because he took 37 shots. Lillard was also getting to the line. He was averaging 8 free throws per game, making 88%, before the season stopped.
How did he rank against the rest of the league before Covid changed things? He was the 6th ranked point guard (Real Plus-Minus). But the question for the 30-year-old remains. What are the consequences of his explosion? It’s obvious how he benefits but does his team? Does he need to do less to get more out of his teammates?
The Blazers are hoping for that 8th seed. Despite Lillard’s heroics, a lot is working against the Blazers. Their defense was atrocious. Very few teams gave up as many points as the Blazers. Depending on older players like Melo and without Trevor Ariza, they are thin on the defensive end. The Blazers are an average shot-making team. They were 29th in the league in steals which impacts fast break opportunities. They were last in the league in assists. Their three-point defense was soft. There is a reason the Blazers didn’t have a winning record. Damian Lillard playing out of his mind only fixes a small part of the problem.
In the restart, the Blazers have to transition from Lillard our hero to Lillard our facilitator. Since he came into the league, Lillard’s role was doing what he had to do to keep the Blazers afloat. It’s a stunning thought that he turned 30 years old today. When he was drafted out of Weber State no one heard of him. A couple of years later, he hit that buzzer-beater against the Rockets to carry the Blazers to the second round. He was the star and the Blazers had no use for LaMarcus Aldridge.
But the team that was in the Western Conference Finals last spring cannot depend on Lillard’s Superman act to carry them into the playoffs without a lot of help. 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. Melo is…Melo. Rodney Hood tore his Achilles. Mario Hezonja is a lottery bust. Trevor Ariza is sitting at home. Moses Brown and Jaylen Hoard are on two-way contracts. Zach Collins went down with a shoulder injury and is expected to play. Jusuf Nurkic hasn’t played this year and will be rusty. Hassan Whiteside has been a bright spot but is that enough?
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 the others do to support 30-year-old Dame.