Over the course of his last three outings, Damian Lillard has racked up 95 points, including back-to-back 36 point performances (2 points shy of his career high). He shot a very respectable 44.1 percent from the field on 30-68 attempts, bursting out of his shooting slump in convincing fashion. That “slump,” however, begs the question: which level of Lillard will be closer to his norm?
The answer could make or break the future of the Trail Blazers franchise. Damian Lillard is first and foremost his own player, but each extreme of his developing spectrum can be closely represented by one of two active point guards: Brandon Jennings of the Detroit Pistons or Stephen Curry of the Golden State Warriors. He must lean toward the latter for Portland to find sustainable success.
Lillard has drawn comparisons to Curry from day one. A high-scoring, sharpshooting point guard with excellent court vision and ice in his veins. On nights like last night and the night before it, I couldn’t agree more with that assessment. He has proven capable of putting up eye-popping numbers that will likely make him this year’s all-star snub, as Curry was before him, but I find one thing very concerning:
Player A: 16.1 FGA, 6.6 FGM, 40.7 FG%
Player B: 15.7 FGA, 6.2 FGM, 39.4 FG%
Player C: 18.0 FGA, 8.4 FGM, 46.5 FG%
*FGA = Field Goals Attempted per game, FGM = Field Goals Made per game, FG% = Field Goal Percentage per game
Which two of those three are most comparable? If Player C factors into your answer in the slightest, you may need to brush up on your arithmetic (but who doesn’t?). Players A & B are Damian Lillard and Brandon Jennings respectively, with nearly identical levels of overall shooting efficiency. The third is Stephen Curry.
I’ve no intention of Grinching on Lillard’s recent explosion, but this had me puzzling and puzzling ‘til my puzzler was sore. What if Lillard will never consistently score? Sure, these 30+ point performances are jaw dropping, but their occasional arrival are equally balanced with the odd 1-15 shooting nights that have thus far kept him from breaking the Brandon Jennings mold.
Much of this comes down to decision making. The rookie we all praised for his veteran poise has taken a sophomore step back in an attempt to make a monster leap forward. With his charging bull tactic, Lillard has gotten to the free throw line about once more per night this year, but at the cost of several more crazed heaves when the whistle remains silent. As a result, his efficiency waxes and wanes with consistent inconsistency.
The path of the righteous guard is beset on all sides by the inequities of the whistle and the tyranny of opposing centers, but at least Lillard thrives from the arc. For all his shortcomings in the lane this season, he has been a phenomenal 3-point shooter. This redeeming quality raises him from the depths of the Jennings Swamp to the foot of Curry Mountain (creating our dichotomy in the first place).
Damian Lillard has shot a blistering 42.8 percent from three. That’s nearly three percent higher than the 39.0 percent even he’s shot on 2-point field goals. His 3-point percentage is good for 22nd best in the league, behind Joe Johnson of the Brooklyn Nets and is growing to define him as a player. If he can bring his interior scoring up to this level, he will be one of the best offensive point guards in the NBA.
As of right now, he’s less than elite (but not by much). He occupies the same tier as Kyrie Irving and John Wall, knocking feverishly at the gates of Chris Paul and Tony Parker from the outside. In order for Lillard to extend his success as a player and the Portland Trail Blazers to extend their success as a franchise, he must set greatness as a benchmark, not an outlier. The potential is there, but will his bad habits lower his ceiling?