Damian Lillard expectations & productive aberration


In a basic sense, two major factors commonly contribute to the offensive production of a young NBA star on the rise: 1) how much time he spends on the court, and 2) natural improvement over time. Usually, players in their first few NBA seasons will see a gradual increase in playing time, which, paired with gradual improvement, results in increased production per game. However; players that have their minutes decreased year-to-year supposedly lose out on maximum production, reaching a pseudo-equilibrium as statistical evidence of personal growth is capped by the reduction in minutes.

This was almost the case for Damian Lillard in the 2013-14 season. After leading the entire league in minutes played as a rookie one season prior, Lillard’s court time diminished considerably; falling by 2.8 minutes per game (nearly four hours over the course of an 82 game season). Yet, Lillard was able to score at a higher clip, netting 1.7 more points per game (133 points over the course of an 82 game season), despite the decrease in playing time.

2013-14 ★23PORPG8235.815.95.620.7

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Generated 9/23/2014.

He was not the only player accomplish this feat in 2013-14. Among a few others, Stephen Curry of the Golden State Warriors also made a significant jump in scoring while playing fewer minutes per game than the previous season. While the two share a similar style of play as point guards that are relied on for scoring and three-point shooting, neither of their leaps in production can be solely attributed to the effects of personal growth outweighing reduced time on the court.

2013-14 ★25GSWPG7836.517.78.524.0

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Generated 9/23/2014.

Apr 13, 2014; Portland, OR, USA; Golden State Warriors forward Andre Iguodala (9) drives past Portland Trail Blazers forward Nicolas Batum (88) during the first quarter at the Moda Center. Mandatory Credit: Craig Mitchelldyer-USA TODAY Sports

Each had help running their offense from a unique facilitating forward. Lillard had Nicolas Batum, who lessened his own scoring efforts to act as a secondary distributor, and Curry had Andre Iguodala, who was acquired via sign and trade to do most of the same things. This is where we see a third major factor emerge to help erase the productive negation that decreased minutes are supposed to pose: Strength/strengths of supporting cast.

Because of this, it is not always the amount of minutes that matters most, but the type of minutes. Lillard works most effectively when he can share the offensive burden with other players. This transcends distribution and overlaps scoring as well. With LaMarcus Aldridge and Wesley Matthews taking more initiative than they did last season (translating to more field goal attempts per game from both), Lillard succumbed less to attrition and combined the decreased pressure with decreased minutes to pack a heftier punch.

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By virtue of the Trail Blazers’ makeup, Lillard experiences more individual success when the team experiences more overall success, which is not always the case (Kevin Love will be a unique statistical experiment in Cleveland this year). So the question now becomes: “What kind of production can we expect from Lillard in the upcoming 2014-15 season?”

The exchange of free agent point guards Mo Williams and Steve Blake should have little effect on Lillard’s minutes, even though Blake will not swing to shooting guard as much as Williams did (if at all) unless something goes horribly wrong. Any decrease in playing time for Lillard would be as marginal as unanticipated. At a certain point, you want your best players contributing, not resting. I think Portland has arrived at a good balance for him.

Lillard has a lot going for him this season. At 24 years old, he will continue to grow rapidly as a player, but the statistical representation will not be muted by another decrease in minutes. This expected growth will likely be amplified by improvements of returning teammates as well as overall upgrades to the roster like the Chris Kaman and the aforementioned Blake. The more help Lillard has, the easier it will be for him to make gains.

If we examine the three major (albeit not all-inclusive) factors in his offensive production that have been presented as stripped down positives and negatives, Lillard exhibits signs of an impending statistical spike in the upcoming season:

"Playing time: Static (Neutral) Personal growth: Dynamic (Positive) Supporting cast: Dynamic (Positive)"

Then again, the twists and turns of an NBA season are unpredictable, so a firm declaration of improvement would be awfully presumptuous. Yet, the foundation is there. Since Lillard is surrounded with the proper pieces at the right time in his career, he may be primed for a breakout year in 2014-15.

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