After winning 115 games over the last two NBA seasons, the Portland Trail Blazers expected this to be a totally different year for them. Last summer the Trail Blazers lost six of their top seven scorers from the previous season through trades and free agency. And in the Western Conference, that meant that the Blazers would be fighting an uphill battle. But at the NBA’s All-Star break, the Blazers surprisingly find themselves right in the middle of the playoff race in the Western Conference. At 27-27, Portland is in seventh place in the West, and a rebuilding process that appeared to be a few years in the making is nearly complete just a few months in with the center piece being All-Star point guard Damian Lillard.
Lillard has taken the unconventional path to becoming a star in the NBA as he attended Weber State University for four years where he was a two-time Big Sky Conference Player of the Year. In Lillard’s last year at Weber State, he averaged 24.5 points per game which caught the eye of NBA scouts. Lillard would become the sixth overall pick of the 2012 NBA Draft by the Trail Blazers, but he would really make a name for himself that July in the Vegas Summer League where he averaged 26.5 points, 5.3 assists, and 4 rebounds in being named Co-MVP.
As an NBA rookie, Lillard averaged 19 points and 6.5 assists as he became the first Trail Blazer since Brandon Roy in 2007 to be named as the league’s Rookie of the Year. Lillard would develop an immediate chemistry with power forward LaMarcus Aldridge as the duo became a sensational inside-out duo that would propel the Blazers in 2014 to the Western Conference Semifinals for the first time since 2000. The Trailblazers were once again a contender last season until the NBA Playoffs rolled around and they were hit by the injury bug. And after that the exodus of quality players from the Pacific Northwest began which was led by Aldridge joining the San Antonio Spurs. But whereas the Blazers would have a different look heading into the current NBA season, it has not slowed down Lillard.
With so much talent having left Portland, it is no shock that Lillard’s offensive numbers have increased this season. Lillard is currently sixth in the NBA in points (24.3), and assists (7.3). And for a 6″3″ point guard, Lillard is averaging 4.4 rebounds per game.
The landscape of the Trail Blazers has changed with them being more of a perimeter oriented team with Lillard and shooting guard C.J. McCollum leading the way. Portland does have some athletic big men in small forward Al-Farouq Aminu, power forward Meyers Leonard, along with centers Ed Davis and Mason Plumlee that all play well without the ball while crashing the boards which is tailor-made for Lillard’s style of play. Lillard is one of the fastest guards in the NBA and the ability of the Blazers to run the floor along with spacing and ball movement are why they find themselves in playoff contention.
The Trail Blazers were not expected to contend with the Oklahoma City Thunder this season for the top spot in the Northwest Division, and they are not as the Thunder have all but wrapped up the division title. But Lillard’s growth as a point guard has given Portland an identity; especially with him having already tallied 12 double-doubles this season. In each NBA season that Lillard has played, his numbers have improved and he has also become a marketing gem which is evident by his lucrative endorsement deal to be one of the poster boys for sneaker giant Adidas.
Lillard’s improvement and maturation as a player have put Blazers general manager Neil Olshey and head coach Terry Stotts in a good position as they can now think about potentially being a buyer at the NBA’s Trade Deadline this Thursday which didn’t appear to be the case back in October. And the scary thing for the rest of the NBA is that there is still room for Lillard to improve as a perimeter shooter. Lillard has proven that he can hold his own against quality NBA point guards such as Los Angeles Clippers point guard Chris Paul, Golden State Warriors point guard Steph Curry, and Oklahoma City Thunder point guard Russell Westbrook. Lillard is also adding to the legacy of NBA point guards from the Bay Area such as Gary Payton and Jason Kidd and it isn’t that far-fetched that he could one day be the league’s MVP.
This past weekend has seen Lillard rubbing elbows with the NBA’s elite players at the All-Star Game, and even though that he didn’t take the conventional road to stardom, his name is now consistently brought up in basketball circles as one of the better players in the league.