Wanting to know more about “the best thing to happen to the Blazers since Brandon Roy” (David’s words, but I’m sure a common sentiment among fans), I took a closer look at Damian Lillard’s season, just to gauge how excited I should be for the future.
Before my in-depth analysis, I would have categorized myself as cautiously optimistic, because I was afraid that we were all falling a bit into the subpar team + lots of minutes = gaudy numbers trap. It may not be a popular opinion, but I think it is definitely worth investigating (and also while Anthony Davis had a stronger Rookie of the Year case than many people realized).
After thinking about the best way to do this, I settled on what made the most sense to me: comparing Lillard’s season to the rookie seasons of currently top-notch point guards. I think it is only fair to compare a player to what players are actually capable of, not some benchmarks that we have in our heads. E.g., I don’t think it’s fair to say “a point guard should shoot X% from the field and get X assists per game” if that is not reasonable to expect from him at the stage he is at in his career. Thus, we’ll compare to other actual point guards.
I chose to compare Lillard’s first season with those of Chris Paul, Deron Williams, Derrick Rose, Russell Westbrook and Tony Parker. We could endlessly debate who should be on this comparison list, but I think we can all agree that this amalgam represents a pretty accurate slice of the league’s top point guards.
I was VERY pleasantly surprised at how well Lillard compared with this group of point guards.
To start with, we will look at traditional statistics, but normalized to per 36 minutes. This removes the inherent advantage that a player who plays more minutes (say…. Lillard) has in terms of accruing larger totals. The table is courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com.
Peruse that table for a few minutes. I want to point out just how often he was in the upper half of almost all of the positive categories: field goals made, field goal percentage, three pointers made, three point percentage, free throws made, free throws earned, free throw percentage, assists, blocks and points. Again, these are not some run of the mill, average point guards. The players Lillard is being compared to are the best in the world at their position.
Of special note is Lillard’s three point prowess – despite shooting more than two more threes per 36 minutes than his next closest compatriot, he still nailed them with the second best accuracy. It’s one thing to drill threes at a high rate when you can consistently pick and choose the perfect spots. Lillard’s 5.7 attempts from three per 36 minutes show that is not definitely not the case – he shot threes under any sort of situation, not just the ideal ones.
In fact, the only potential knocks on Lillard’s game appear to be in rebounds (last), steals (tied for last) and turnovers (second worst). Steals can easily be dismissed – I think they are overrated, and oftentimes indicative of a player who takes gambles on defense. I would take a point guard who is always in the right defensive position over a point guard who gets a lot of steals every time. Additionally, Lillard is going to work with The Glove (Gary Payton- Oregon State represent!) this summer to improve his on ball defense. Color me unconcerned.
With respect to rebounds, this could be due to a lot of things. Not being traditional rebounders (read: small), guards are often subject to the whims of their coaches. For example, when a defensive rebound is up for grabs, they could be coached to leak out for the fast break, and when an offensive rebound is in the air, they could be coached to immediately sag back to set the defense. In a vacuum, yes, I think that rebounding as a skill is extremely important, but not at the expense of strategy. Whatever the case, he was still barely behind Williams and Parker.
Turnovers are always a concern. They carry even a little more weight with Lillard because he had a full four years in college to develop, but he still came into the league coughing up the rock nearly three times per 36 minutes. While Blazers fans can breathe a collective sigh of relief that this number is at least significantly lower than Westbrook’s during his first season, it’s definitely a trend that should be addressed. Turnovers are the silent killer of teams, so cutting them out as much as possible is always crucial.
The story was much the same with “advanced” statistics – he was second highest in both PER and wins produced per 48 minutes, trailing only Paul in both categories. In fact, Basketball-Reference estimated that he produced over double the amount of wins per 48 minutes than Westbrook did during his first season. His offensive rating (estimated points per individual possession) was 1.08, again only trailing Paul, and tied for second with Rose. Unsurprisingly, his defensive rating (1.12 points allowed per possession) was second worst, but as I mentioned, working with Gary Payton can hopefully improve that.
When it’s all said and done, Lillard blew past my expectations. I actually became a little giddy when I was playing with these tables, as no matter what angle I looked at him from, he held up to all of these other elite point guards. And not just held up well – he was near the top. If his defense can tighten up even just a little bit, I think we have something special on our hands. I’ll be honest when I say I am more prone to criticize players than praise them. I had really, really expected Lillard’s production to be due in large part to his Herculean minutes.
As you can see, this could not be farther from the truth. Even adjusted for minutes played, Lillard was right there with Chris Paul, Derrick Rose, Russell Westbrook, Deron Williams and Tony Parker during their rookie campaigns. Obviously, this says nothing about future seasons, but from his interviews, Lillard has seemed very serious about working hard and continuing to improve. I love it.
During his Rookie of the Year press conference, Lillard said “I want to win a championship, be an All-Star, be an MVP in this league. People might say I’m crazy again, but I think I can do it.” Given his favorable comparison to his elder peers, every one of these goals is within precedent. He certainly can do it, and as an extremely excited Blazer fan, I hope he does.