Portland Trail Blazers point guard Damian Lillard has showcased his star power ever since he won the NBA Rookie of the Year award for the 2012-13 NBA season. Since bursting onto the scene, Lillard’s game has only continued to improve.
This past season marked the fourth straight campaign in which Lillard averaged at least 25 points, five assists and four rebounds per game while shooting above 36 percent from beyond the arc. During the 2018-19 regular season, Lillard averaged career highs in assists (6.9) and Effective Filed Goal Percentage (.522) while being named to his fourth All-Star team.
Lillard continued his high level of play in the playoffs, where he averaged 26.9 points, 6.6 assists and 4.8 rebounds while leading the Trail Blazers to the Western Conference Finals and hitting one of the most iconic shots in NBA history against the Oklahoma City Thunder.
Having a knack for playoff heroics is nothing new to Lillard, who in 2014 also drilled a game-winning triple in Game 6 of a first-round series against the Houston Rockets to give the Trail Blazers their first series win in 14 years.
Yet in spite of all the indelible moments that he has provided and his seven-year run of excellence since coming into the league, Lillard feels underrated with respect to the discussion of the elite point guards in the NBA.
Though it could be argued that Lillard has failed to lead the Trail Blazers to the NBA Finals, this argument is tainted by the lack of a deep supporting cast–aside from C.J. McCollum–during his time in Portland paired with the most recent Golden State Warriors dynasty.
The Trail Blazers made it known just how highly they think of their franchise point guard, signing Lillard to a massive four-year, $196 million supermax contract at the end of June.
However, this begs the question: where does Damian Lillard rank among active NBA point guards?
In terms of advanced analytics, it is hard to argue that Lillard is not one of the top three point guards in basketball. Lillard ranked fourth in terms of net rating for point guards, and third with respect to Player Impact Etimate (PIE). Lillard also passes the test in terms of plus-minus, ranking third among all point guards.
Whether you account for assist-to-turnover ratio or Effective Field Goal percentage, Lillard is always among the leaders at the point guard position. He is one of the more complete point guards in the game, and the numbers back it up.
The most definitive part of Lillard’s game is his scoring ability. Stephen Curry is the only point guard that has averaged more points than Lillard since the start of 2015, but even Steph does not quite have the offensive talents that Lillard has in his repertoire.
For starters, Lillard is as explosive and athletic as any elite point guard in the league outside of Russell Westbrook. He routinely sneaks up on taller defenders and has the ability to challenge them at the rim while also finishing through contact.
To compliment his slashing ability, Lillard excels in creating his own shot, especially in the pick-and-roll. Although he is not as prolific of a three-point shooter as Curry, Lillard has just as much range and a quick release that can make it difficult for any defender to contest… sorry Paul George.
Similarly, Lillard’s one-dribble pop step back jumper is as lethal a move as any possessed by the likes of Curry, Kyrie Irving or Kemba Walker:
Whether he is slicing and dicing his way to the rim or bombing from beyond the arc, Lillard can score from just about anywhere on the floor.
The one area where Lillard seems to falter relative to his peers in terms of advanced analytics is his defensive rating. Even Curry–who has repeatedly been called out for being a subpar on-ball defender–posted a higher defensive rating than Lillard this past season.
However, the numbers may not do Lillard much justice in this case. Consider that in the first round of the Western Conference playoffs, Lillard held Russell Westbrook to 36 percent shooting from the field while also averaging 2.4 steals per game.
Of course, this brings about the question of effort. The Thunder series was clearly emotionally-charged, and Lillard was out to prove a point against Westbrook. On the other hand, Curry torched Lillard and the Blazers in a lopsided WCF (though Portland’s atrocious defense in the pick-and-roll was as much a team failure as anything else).
Lillard has shown that he can be a good defender when he competes at a high level. Whether or not he can show more determination on a consistent basis remains to be seen.
In totality, there is no question that Lillard is in the top tier of point guards in the NBA. He is an elite scorer and playmaker, and his overall skill set matches up well with any other player at his position.
Kyrie Irving may be a better ball handler than Lillard, but do his intangibles stack up? What about Russell Westbrook, who is as physically gifted and explosive as any in the league.
When figuring in the totality of the numbers and his pedigree as a leader, it is hard to argue against Lillard being one of the three best point guards in the league, if not in the to two.
Curry is the presumptive best point guard in the NBA, and Irving and Westbrook are the only guys that can really make a credible argument as to their standing above Lillard.
Regardless, NBA fans are taking notice that Dame has game.