Wednesday evening right before tip of Portland’s final road game of its seven-game, two week slog, the Trail Blazers announced that Damian Lillard had been awarded the NBA’s first Western Conference Rookie of the Month award.
The team’s official press release included this statement: “He (Damian) joins Arvydas Sabonis (April 1996) and Brandon Roy (January, February and March 2007) as Trail Blazers who have garnered the honor.”
Also Wednesday, this time in the afternoon, SI.com writer Ian Thompson put up a piece exploring Lillard’s roots as a young kid trying to find his way in the wilds of high-cost AAU basketball. The piece included a lot of very illuminating quotes and anecdotes about Dame, and where he came from, and how he feels about pressure, compliments, and preparing for the NBA.
Thompson’s piece also included this: “He (again Damian) became the first player to score at least 20 points in his first three NBA games since Grant Hill in 1994.”
On the 2nd of December, OregonLive dropped a piece about the phenomenon that has become Damian Lillard with regards to visiting media members. This piece highlighted that Lillard, who through 17 games has already become the favorite among the home fans, is basically a non-entity when it comes to East Coast and Southern media. Makes sense considering that Dame’s college ball was played in Utah for a school that never appeared on national TV.
This piece was chock full of historical comparisons. In one paragraph Damian’s early performances engendered comparisons to Isiah Thomas (the former miniature point guard not the current one), Oscar Robertson, and Allen Iverson. The next paragraph name-checks Blazer great Geoff Petrie.
Robertson and Thomas had at least 20 points and at least 10 assists in their debuts, so did Damian. Petrie was the first Blazer in franchise history to score at least 20 points in his first three games. Dame was the second. Iverson racked up at least 295 points and at least 94 assists over his first 16 games; ditto for Lillard.
It’s not just historical name-drops that pepper articles about Portland’s sensational rookie point guard. ESPN recently wrote a blurb in their fantasy basketball blog that asked which current NBA player had as many as five games with at least 20 points and nine assists this season.
The piece listed all the players that it wasn’t: Deron Williams, Chris Paul, Rajon Rando, Jrue Holiday, and then landed on the player it was: Damian Lillard.
Historical and current player comparisons are commonplace in the NBA, as they are in all professional sports. In fact, it’s such a standard in professional basketball analysis to compare new players to old players, that some sites that prognosticate how good or how bad a player is going to be prior to their entering the league create lists of specific players based on in-depth statistical calculations. It’s a big step up from saying a guy is good because he plays like this other guy everybody knows to saying this guy’s career will be as good as this other guy’s career because statistically they are very similar.
Seeing a stream of articles that list Damian Lillard in the same sentence as some of the best ever to play and the best currently playing should feel like validation for Blazer fans. But I it runs a little deeper than that, or at least I think it should.
Most people know center as the cursed position in Blazer lore. The three-headed monster of Bill Walton (cut down too early), Sam Bowie (not Michael Jordan), and Greg Oden (too many things to mention them all) is married to this franchise almost as much as anything positive the team has ever done.
Though that makes for a pretty sensational narrative that serves to contextualize the Blazers within the NBA as a whole, Portlanders and clued-in fans living outside the city should know a little better than that. Sure the center position has been high profile awful longer than some of us have been alive, but it’s the point guard position that has plagued this team on a much more regular basis.
To find a time when Portland’s point guard position had a solid, everyday starter, we have to go back to the 2003-04 season. Damon Stoudamire started 82 games that season, his seventh and second to last season in Portland, for the 41-41 Blazers who would miss the post season for the first time since 1983.
A season later, Damon was still on the roster, and still made plenty of starts (70), but at the age of 31, he was quickly being supplanted by a 19 year-old by the name of Sebastian Telfair. In 26 starts as a rookie, Telfair averaged only seven points per game, shooting a pretty miserable 25% from three and a little less miserable 39% from the field. Bassy’s numbers were far from good, with a 27-win team wasn’t about to spend big money to hold onto an aging point guard, regardless of where he went to high school.
Damon was gone after 04-05, and Portland’s point guard tailspin began. The 21-win Blazers of 05-06 got starts from Steve Blake (57), Sebastian Telfair (30), and Jarrett Jack (four).
Telfair was history after his second season, with Jack taking over the role of everyday starter for the 06-07 and 07-08 campaigns. Jack was a solid starter (averaging 12 points, five assists, and three rebounds with the 32-50 06-07 Blazers, and 10 points, four assists, and three rebounds for the 41-41 07-08 Blazers), but he was prone to turnovers, two and a half a game in 06-07 and two a game in 07-08.
The addition of guys named Brandon Roy and LaMarcus Aldridge and significant improvements in wins between 05 and 08 indicated that Portland was heading in a positive direction. It also suggested the Blazers might need a veteran point guard who could thrive in a role that consisted mainly of bringing the ball up the court, dishing off to Roy or Aldridge, and then standing in the corner to shoot an open three when and if they became available. Not always a three-point threat, especially not a great standing three-point shooter, Jarrett Jack made way for a second coming of Steve Blake.
Blake was a perfect fit for the 08-09 Blazers. Brandon handled the ball most of the time, all the time in late-game situations, and Blake knocked down threes when they were needed. Ball handling and decision making weren’t Blake’s best attributes, though, so it made sense that a still developing team, one that hoped to make the leap from a decent first round showing to Conference Finals participants, needed a guy who better fit the dictionary description of point guard. And that’s when things started to run off the rails a bit for Portland.
Andre Miller was a great free agent pick-up, but his clashes with Nate McMillan, and the latter’s insistence on starting Steve Blake and then starting Blake and Miller at the same time, essentially nullified what Andre could bring to the 09-10 Blazers at the start of his first season. Losing Blake and Travis Outlaw for Marcus Camby solidified Miller’s status as the man at point, and the second half of Dre’s first season in Portland was pretty spectacular.
The 10-11 season was Andre’s best. The point guard position was his from day one (the only game he didn’t start that season was the one he missed to serve a suspension), his assist numbers were up, his scoring numbers were down but his shooting percentage was up, and he showed improvement in steals, rebounds, and minutes played per game.
Dre’s numbers notwithstanding, Blazer brass made a choice to ship him back to Denver in the offseason in a deal that brought Raymond Felton to Portland. There’s no reason to delve too deep into the Felton era. It’s significant insofar as the Blazers had run through five starting point guards between 05-06 and 11-12 and finally managed to hit rock bottom.
And so we find ourselves in the second week of December in 2012 looking at a rookie starting point guard who has draw historical comparisons to Oscar Robertson and current-day player comparisons to everybody from Derrick Rose to Chauncey Billups to Steve Nash.
The hyperbolic accolades are nice. Damian Lillard is a special player, and special players rarely go unnoticed by the national media. But after so many attempts and failures to find a starting point guard with staying power (not to mention all the back-up ones who have come and gone including Taurean Green, Sergio Rodriquez, Jerryd Bayless, Armon Johnson, and Patty Mills, and the numerous All-Star level point guards Portland could have drafted and didn’t) the fact that the Blazers have found their man should be enough to make any of this season’s struggles worth it.