A Potential Breakout for Lillard?


Mar 24, 2013; Oklahoma City, OK, USA; Portland Trailblazers guard Damian Lillard (0) handles the ball against Oklahoma City Thunder guard Russell Westbrook (0) during the first half at Chesapeake Energy Arena. Mandatory Credit: Mark D. Smith-USA TODAY Sports

A few weeks ago, David brought up an interesting topic. He had been talking with a mutual friend of ours, who raised the possibility of Damian Lillard becoming a “20 and eight man” next year (having averages of at least 20 points and eight assists per game). While that would be a substantial jump from his splits of 19/6.5 last year, these are the doldrums of the offseason when we get to talk ourselves into, as C-3PO so famously coined it, delusions of grandeur.

Now, that I am actually staring at his numbers from last year, though, this pipe dream seems more and more attainable. One more point? Totally doable. The required increase of one and a half assists, however, will be far trickier. That is a huge increase – Lillard would have to increase his assist production by nearly 25%. Twenty-five percent increases do not come easily in any professional sport, so Lillard has his work cut out for him there.

His first major hurdle towards reaching these numbers would be first and foremost playing time. Lillard played too much last year – the fans know it, the coaches know it, and he knows it. Barring a catastrophe, Lillards minutes will be reduced next season, and perhaps (hopefully?) fairly substantially. Even dropping his minutes down to only 35 a game (which is what I am advocating) is a nearly 10% reduction in minutes. You can easily see the toll this would have on his raw numbers, a factor that will definitely come into play.

The second major obstacle would be that defenses now know to focus on Lillard even more. It’s something that every good player must deal with – eventually they can no longer fly under the radar (not that Lillard was able to do that for very long). Regardless, opposing coaches now have a season’s worth of tape on Lillard to pick apart, which will only make things harder for him. This is what separates the truly elite from the rest – opposing teams and players bring their A-game every single night, yet they are still able to deliver. Lillard will have to be able to make this adjustment.

With that being said, I think Lillard has a legitimate shot at reaching the 20/8 plateau, which is a tantalizing thought. The decrease in minutes will definitely be the largest blow towards being able to do it, but his increase in experience must also be accounted for. There is a massive jump between a player’s first and second year, and my hope is that this change is especially pronounced for Lillard since he is a guard. When the game slows down for him like it does for more experienced players, he should be able to see more openings and passing lanes, which would lead to a direct increase in his assist totals.

All of this begs the question, then, as to why this matters. In fact, reaching the 20/8 milestone over an entire season is actually incredibly difficult – surprisingly so. A few months ago, I ran a comparison between Lillard’s rookie season and the rookie seasons of Derrick Rose, Russell Westbrook, Tony Parker, Chris Paul and Deron Williams. I once again analyzed these five, and found some astonishing results.

Those five players have logged a total of 37 seasons in the NBA. In only five of those seasons did a player reach the 20/8 benchmark. Parker and Rose have never done it. Westbrook has done it once, and Paul and Williams have each done it twice. That’s it. In fact, Tony Parker and Derrick Rose have never even averaged eight assists during the course of a season. This is why I talked about the jump from 6.5 to eight assists being huge – it’s empirically a hard benchmark to reach.

Interestingly enough, all five of them have hit 20 points a game in multiple seasons, which seems to indicate that Lillard should be able to reach that point sooner rather than later. No matter how you look at it, being able to be a “20 and eight man” is quite an accomplishment. Without meaning to project expectations onto him, Lillard’s chances are good enough that I am quite excited.

I love stats, but they certainly aren’t the end all, be all. If the Blazers are winning without Lillard needing to reach these numbers, then great. I’ll be ecstatic. If he could pull off the feat in his second season, though, I think it would be a clear indication that we are about to watch a truly special career start to blossom.

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