Damian Lillard has the opportunity to become a superstar


While the end of the season didn’t go exactly how anyone in the Portland Trail Blazers organization would like, we still need to remember Damian Lillard is well ahead of schedule in his development as a point guard.

Since he was drafted out of Weber State in 2012, Lillard has been an All-Star in two out of his first three seasons in the league. Lillard has also averaged 20.2 points and 6.1 assists per game in his professional career.

Yet, in what’s become more and more common with a really good young player on the verge of becoming great, people have begun to take their shots to bring him down.

Lillard has never been revered for his defense. In his first two years in the league, he was awful at times. His third season wasn’t much better from a statistical perspective, but it’s getting there. This season, Lillard posted a defensive rating of 105, which is down from 110 last season and 112 his rookie season.

That’s not good, but as we know, defense is more about team than individual skill. Plus, point guard is the deepest position in the league, and the Trail Blazers backup point guard is Steve Blake! It’s not like Shaun Livingston is hanging out on the Blazer bench.

Somehow, the narrative on Lillard has shifted. It used to be about how promising his future was as a point guard. Now, he’s regularly destroyed because Stephen Curry, Chris Paul, and Deron Williams got the better of him in April.

For as promising as Lillard’s career has been so far, I think the public has placed heavy expectation on Lillard because of one play. Lillard has always been good with the game on the line, but his cold-blooded, series-winning three against the Houston Rockets in the 2014 Playoffs started his legacy.

In one year, Lillard has gone from hero to scapegoat, basically, because of his poor defense, at least in the eyes of some onlookers. In reality, though, Lillard isn’t as bad of a defender as his numbers indicate. He’s also probably not as clutch as people thought he was after that shot against the Rockets.

But that’s the NBA playoffs, a place to reverse narratives and start new ones. Lillard has a chance to reverse those narratives starting in the upcoming NBA Playoffs and prove that he has what it takes to be a superstar, just like others before him.

In Game 5 of the 2007 Eastern Conference Finals against the Detroit Pistons, LeBron James told the world who was going to be the league’s best player with his Jordan-esque 48 points, including the final 25 points of the game for the Cleveland Cavaliers. After that game, it was only a matter of time before James got his rings. We all know how long it took, but James was always going to be great and he caught the world’s attention with that performance.

In Michael Jordan‘s third year in the league (like Lillard is now), Jordan scored 63 points against the Boston Celtics in Game 2 of the first round. Jordan was already a star before this game, but he went toe-to-toe with Larry Legend and the Celtics in their prime. The Bulls lost that series, but Jordan continued his legacy as a guy to watch when the lights were brightest.

In Game 5 of the 1994 Eastern Conference Finals against the New York Knicks, Reggie Miller capped off his 39-point performance with 25 fourth quarter point and eight points in the last 8.9 seconds for the Indiana Pacers.

Miller was a bona fide scorer and already established star at the time, but Miller has always been remembered for this game and this sequence of events. That’s what the NBA playoffs can do for a player.

Realistically, Lillard is not on the same level of Jordan, James, or even Miller at this point of his career; however, he’s still only in his third season.

Even so, this postseason run might be Lillard’s best chance to show everyone what he can do to carry a team, especially with all of Portland’s injuries.

This season, Lillard has been the only Portland Trail Blazers starter to remain relatively healthy for the entire season. To his credit, Lillard hasn’t even missed a game in his NBA career.

If all of the Blazers had that kind of luck, Portland might be one of the favorites to win the West.

Instead, Wesley Matthews is out with a torn Achilles. LaMarcus Aldridge has been playing with torn ligaments in his thumb and other nagging injuries. Robin Lopez missed six weeks with a broken hand and hasn’t been quite the same since. Nicolas Batum has struggled with a variety of injuries all season long, including a recent knee injury. Now, Arron Afflalo has strained his shoulder and is in jeopardy of missing some playoff games. And, just for kicks, C.J. McCollum and Chris Kaman, along with Batum, were injured in the Blazers’ second-to-last game of the season.

Even with all the injuries, the Blazers’ season isn’t over yet.

Lillard still has something to say, and more importantly, he’s going to have the opportunity to press the reset button on people’s expectations by playing hard defense and carrying Portland on his back to a first round win over the Memphis Grizzlies.

It’s not going to be easy, especially because Lillard has been having to do so much more on the offensive end of the floor, but if Lillard can go “Full Westbrook” on the Blazers’ first round opponent, I like his chances to convince his critics that he still has the ability to become a superstar. It’s not going to happen overnight, but the progress has been good so far.

Lillard still needs time to truly develop into the player he is going to be, but his chance to take the next step to superstardom starts right now.

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