The one fact that everyone forgets in the Damian Lillard vs. Stephen Curry debate

Damian Lillard, Stephen Curry (Photo by Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images)
Damian Lillard, Stephen Curry (Photo by Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images) /

The “best point guard in the NBA” debate typically runs through Stephen Curry. But here’s an often-forgotten fact that could give Damian Lillard the edge over the past few years.

While it isn’t quite on the same level as that of creating TikTok videos or #StartBenchCut debates, but over the course of the quarantine, giving Damian Lillard his recognition has sort of become the “in” thing to do.

Perhaps the lack of live basketball has given observers a chance to pore over film and study some of the nuances of the game that highlights don’t always capture. Or maybe it’s the influx of big names that have ranked Lillard among the five best just this week — think Pat Connaughton and Bronny James — but the idea of Lillard being a top five player in the NBA suddenly doesn’t feel so incredulous.

The pitchforks went up immediately, especially in the Bay Area. And make no mistake about it: even the best of analysts would be hard-pressed to find five players superior to Stephen Curry at full health. But when fans declare that the Golden State star is better than Lillard — and they finish the cake with the “and it’s not even close” icing — I wonder when they could be talking about.

Because it’s certainly not this season. And that provokes a different idea:

Is availability not the best ability?

Take the raging debate between Michael Jordan and LeBron James for example. Jordan’s pedestal gets raised a notch higher with one (of many) reasons in mind: during the Bulls’ second three-peat, a 32-year old Jordan played the full 82-game slate in each of those three seasons. When we talk Kareem Abdul-Jabber, we admire the fact that he played in 95.1 percent of a possible 1,640 games.

So, why does the load management argument not run its course in the Lillard vs. Curry argument? Shouldn’t we elevate players who are there for their team in 80 games out of 82, as opposed to 60? This is no slight to Curry, but consider how the tale of the tape looks from 2017-18 to 2019-20.

Damian Lillard: 19 games missed since 2017-18 (211 GP)
Stephen Curry: 104 games missed since 2017-18 (125 GP)

Any court Stephen Curry steps on, he’s likely to be the most talented player on it. The problem is, that hasn’t been all that likely. Over the last three seasons, the Warriors star has only been available for 54.6 percent of his team’s regular season games, compared to Lillard’s 91.7.

If this were school, the truancy officer would be called, and Curry, legendary as he is, would be shipped off to a detention center. And as you might anticipate, it shows up in the raw totals, too. Over the three-year run, here’s how the numbers shape up:

Damian Lillard:
— 5,706 points (27.0 PPG)
— 1,485 assists (7.0 APG)
— 946 rebounds (4.5 RPG)
— 57.8 win percentage (122-89)
— 59.9 TS%
— 17.6 VORP (No. 5 in the NBA)

Stephen Curry:
— 3,227 points (26.6 PPG)
— 671 assists (5.6 APG)
— 630 rebounds (5.2 RPG)
— 75.2 win percentage (94-31)
— 65.1 TS%
— 9.3 VORP (No. 21 in the NBA)

If the argument is centered around who has had the better career, or whose peak is the highest, Curry’s the answer. But if we’re talking who produces the most value season-to-season, especially over the last three, it feels safe to say Lillard has outpunched his weight, and then some.

There’s also something of a convenient argument based around Curry outplaying Lillard statistically during the 2019 Western Conference Finals. And there’s truth within that. But box score watchers and Warriors fans aren’t so forthcoming about two details:

(1) The way in which Curry and Lillard were being defended respectively weren’t the same. The Blazers elected to go under pick-and-rolls on Curry — the greatest shooter ever — a strategy that wouldn’t have worked in 1999, let alone 2019.

Meanwhile, Lillard faced pick-and-roll traps and double teams. (Meyers Leonard averaged 17.7 points per game after Enes Kanter became unplayable. This year, as a starter, he’s surpassed the 17-point plateau twice in 49 games as a starter. With respect to Leonard, a solid player, does no one understand the causation here?)

All told, only one player faced more double teams than Lillard did in 2018-19. And this season, he ranks No. 3 behind Trae Young (189 doubles) and James Harden (162) with 147.

(2) Anyone who’s ever played basketball can attest to this: it’s much easier to be effective and efficient when well-rested and healthy. In that series, Lillard fought through separated rims, while the Warriors were content to put forwards on him, because they knew he was still that combustible on offense.

Per, here’s who defended Lillard most in that series: No. 1, Klay Thompson (Lillard took 22 shots on him), No. 2, Draymond Green (16), Kevon Looney (12). And so on. Their tracking data suggests that Curry only guarded Lillard for four shots.

Meanwhile, those same numbers suggest Lillard took to guarding Curry more than any Blazer, and for 16 of his shots.

Playoff-wise, it would be remiss of me to not discuss Curry’s per game Playoff resumè. Observers foolishly paint him as an underperformer, despite having the highest TS% of any of the top-10 Playoff PPG scorers. Lillard gets put in a similar boat; his Playoff TS% since 2017-18 is 54.9, which is both great for a player with his responsibilities, and just slightly above the regular season league average.

Put their numbers side-by-side, and it’s difficult to understand the “not even close” statement, especially with the luxuries Curry has by his side:

Playoffs numbers (since 2017-18):
Curry — 27.1 PPG | 5.6 APG | 6.0 RPG | .608 TS% | 37 GP
Lillard — 25.2 PPG | 6.3 APG | 4.7 RPG | .549 TS% | 20 GP

To say that Curry is better is absolutely reasonable. But as it relates to the better guard over the last few seasons, I feel as though there’s more than meets the eye. If we’re talking primes, Curry gets the nod. He’s arguably one of the three greatest PGs ever. But if I’m starting a team today, I’m probably taking Damian Lillard with little shame in my game. Compared, the two make for an entertaining “ceiling raiser” vs. “floor raiser” debate.

Next. Why the Trail Blazers needed the NBA to pause. dark

In 2020, one of them leads the league in minutes played (and No. 3 since 2017), and the other has played in 74 games over two seasons. And that’s one aspect that so often goes forgotten in the Curry vs. Lillard debate.