It feels like Damian Lillard has been around forever, but the fact is he’s just entering his fourth year in the NBA. But this one will likely test both his patience and his immense talent.
Lauryn Hill once rapped, “It’s funny how money change a situation.” That’s exactly what happened in Portland. In July, Lillard signed a five-year, $120 million contract extension with the Trail Blazers, but that deal came with an even heftier price tag that couldn’t be quantified on paper.
Two days after, LaMarcus Aldridge decided to go back to his home state of Texas to play for the San Antonio Spurs. A little more than a week before both of those deals were consummated—on the night of the NBA Draft—Portland traded do-it-all swingman Nicolas Batum to the Charlotte Bobcats for Gerald Henderson and Noah Vonleh.
The Blazers also made a draft day swap with the Brooklyn Nets for athletic big man Mason Plumlee, and signed Al-Farouq Aminu away from Dallas in free agency, while ironically, losing Wesley Matthews to the Mavs. When the remodeling was over and the roster dust settled, it was clear to whom the franchise was entrusting the keys to the car.
And it’s not like that confidence was unwarranted.
In Lillard’s second year as the Blazers’ lead guard, the team was +21 in the win column and made the Playoffs after a two-year drought. Once in the postseason, on the NBA’s biggest stage, Dame didn’t disappoint.
He knocked down a memorable buzzer-beating three-pointer to knock off Dwight Howard and the Houston Rockets in six games in the first round of the 2014 NBA Playoffs. In the second round against the Spurs, Lillard cooled off, but there was no shame in losing to the eventual NBA champion who seemed to lock everybody down on their way to the title.
In his third season, Lillard once again helped the Blazers make the Playoffs, but they lost in the first round to the Memphis Grizzlies. By that point though, Dame was already on his second All-Star Game appearance and had cemented himself as a bona fide player to watch in the NBA, and in the conversation as a top-five point guard in the League.
But that was then. Now, Lillard is a man on an island playing in an unforgiving Western Conference where you need no less than 45 wins to even sniff the Playoffs. Looking at the roster, it’s a safe bet the only thing Portland will be smelling after this season is lottery balls.
Lillard will most likely lead Portland in scoring, assists and steals, as well as field-goal, three-point and free-throw attempts—also turnovers. But all of that is to be expected given the personnel on the team. With the SLAM Top 50 voting criteria of “expected contribution to a team, the NBA and the game,” Dame should probably be a little higher on this list.
But winning still counts at SLAM, and Portland probably won’t be doing a whole lot of that in 2015-16. Still, the Blazers will be an interesting team to watch and Lillard will be must-see TV.
Steph Curry, Chris Paul, Russell Westbrook, Rajon Rondo, Mike Conley, Tony Parker, Deron Williams, Jrue Holliday and Eric Bledose. At least seven of these Western Conference point guards will play on teams with records good enough to make the Playoffs.
Of those, Damian Lillard will probably have a better individual season than all but three. That’s the only thing he’ll be able to hang his hat on during the 2015-16 campaign.
Well that, and being the best rapper ever in the NBA.
|SLAM Top 50 Players 2015|
Rankings are based on expected contribution in 2015-16—to players’ team, the NBA and the game.