Damian Lillard has led the Trail Blazers in scoring for five of their six preseason outings, averaging 20.2 points per game, and most recently dropping 28 on the Sacramento Kings. He has done so with and without LaMarcus Aldridge, who has played limited minutes in just three of the contests due to soreness in his left knee. Lillard is rapidly becoming the leader Portland needs.
Last season, we saw consistent excellence from the unanimous Rookie of the Year, but excellence accompanied by a few glaring problems. We’ll shelve defense for now, as beating a dead horse is as tiring as the imagery is amusing (sorry PETA). Offensively, Lillard struggled with the double team, coughing up costly turnovers.
This was especially evident when Aldridge was not on the floor. It didn’t take long for teams to realize that without his all-star teammate, Lillard was susceptible to the double. Defenders strayed toward him and paired up to pick him apart, but he is adapting. Interestingly enough, not in the way I expected.
Once upon a time, I stated that, “For Portland to succeed, [Lillard] cannot be removed from the game when it counts anymore. Every team knows he can be a closer, so it’s up to him to boot up his teammates when the defense shuts him down.” I thought he could draw the double and find the open man, but I see something else in him now.
Slowly but surely, the defense cannot shut him down—regardless of the double team. He is developing the same scoring instinct that made Tracy McGrady (and presently Chris Paul) so lethal. When his mind is right, Damian Lillard can decide to score. Not every night just yet, but watch him. Where I thought he would find the open man when pressured, he responds by becoming the open man.
This has directly translated to more than 6 free throw attempts per game for Lillard in preseason, compared to last season’s 3.9. Not only that, he’s shooting an unprecedented 89.5 percent from the stripe. I cannot stress enough how pivotal this is for the Blazers. Every great team needs a player they can count on to draw fouls and capitalize in close games.
But here’s the beautiful thing about Damian Lillard’s offensive style; it’s growing, not shifting. His newly developed, aggressive play is still balanced by a fluid deep game. He never dropped the sniper rifle to pick up the shotgun, he just added it to his arsenal. Granted, he’s shot a mere 31 percent from the arc this preseason, but I can forgive him the spacing issues that accompanied his weaker performances. Healthy teammates are still important, after all.
Lillard is by no means a full package yet, given the aforementioned cadaverous equine abuse, but the instincts he has displayed in preseason are filling out the wrappings. He is now more capable of handling the double team without LaMarcus Aldridge and the team fits well on his back. I am beginning to suspect that he will continue to lead the Blazers when Aldridge returns, though they will present an impressive tandem.
The future of Portland hinges on Damian Lillard. With so many contractual uncertainties looming in 2015 (Aldridge, Matthews, and Lopez among them), his success directly affects who wants to stay in Portland and how the team recovers if they don’t. I like what I’ve seen from him since summer, and his continued growth into a dependable leader bodes well for the Blazers. He is gradually becoming option number one in the Rose City.