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The Damian Lillard Conundrum

With LaMarcus Aldridge leading the exodus from Portland this summer, one lone star remains in Oregon for the upcoming season, and that’s both horrible and terrific at the same time.

Damian Lillard is already a well-established star, and enough of a household name that Adidas decided to pay him over $100 million for representing them, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t additional development to be found in the 25-year old. With Lillard entering his fourth season, this time on his own, there’ll be no shortage of shots coming his way, and it’s conceivable that Lillard will end up a top three scorer this season, assuming of course this added burden won’t affect his health, which is a genuine concern.

Becoming the top-billed star on the marquee is high on every player’s list, but in a league where injury prevention is becoming a topic of huge interest, for obvious reasons, you have to ask yourself if Portland shot itself in the foot by not hanging on to either Nicolas Batum or Wesley Matthews at least. Hell, even Arron Afflalo would’ve helped. Lillard, much like his point guard and Adidas counterpart, Derrick Rose, will now carry an unworldly load of his team’s offense, and we all know how that played out with Rose in the end.

No, Lillard isn’t pre-determined to share the same fate as Rose, but large quantities of usage isn’t healthy, nor wise. The league has changed in recent years, and the course of evolution has ironically taken the league back to what were the standards of the 1970s; heavy ball movement and distributed offenses built on the core of solid defenses, with the addition of the “modern” three-point shot. Shaving against the grain is the ideal, but what Lillard and Portland are about to embark on is using a butcher’s knife to do the job.

Lillard is an effective scorer, not a gunslinger. But by force of necessity, he’ll become one this season given Portland’s lack of scorers and shot creators. Internally, they’ll have to collectively cross their fingers that C.J. McCollum develops into a 15-17 point scorer on his own accord, so he can take over some ball-handling and shot creation duties. But that’s asking a lot for a third-year player who’s yet to crack 16 minutes a game and has injury concerns himself.

On the other hand, if Lillard makes it through this season healthy and with a fresh 28-point average, he’ll also be better off for the future. Going through a season as the lone shot-taker, and maker, to such an extent will downright force you to understand the game of basketball better in terms of scoring angles, creating better passing lanes by instructing others, as well as the mental aspects of becoming a better leader.

But the potential cost of that learning curve is huge. Justin Bieber downfall huge.

Lillard shot the ball 1,360 times last year. This number could be over 1,700 not even counting for the additional drives to the hoop where he ends up getting fouled and the shot attempt isn’t registered. Adding to that is tighter defenses that won’t have to look out for Aldridge’s wicked mid-range shooting, Matthews’s corner threes or Batum’s all-around game. Lillard will be zeroed in on in ways that’ll even make the defensive attention towards the MVP version of Rose look manageable.

Looking at Portland’s roster, I keep getting flashbacks to 2001 with Allen Iverson and the Philadelphia 76ers. A team built on defense and with one guy who was the offense. Except, of course, Portland isn’t built on defense and they’re not making the Finals, let alone the playoffs.

Playing the role of Aaron McKie, potentially, is McCollum. I’ll be kind to Noah Vonleh and compare him to Tyrone Hill, even though that comparison is wildly unfair to Hill as of now, but the kid at least has some potential. Al-Farouq Aminu is George Lynch, and Dikembe Mutombo‘s role is nowhere to be found.

“But Mort, Portland isn’t that thin. They have Mason Plumlee, one of the most overhyped big men in the league, and Meyers Leonard, who did the whole 50/40/90 thing on meaningless volume and got way too much media buzz about it, and Gerald Henderson, who’s the definition of average, and…okay, I’ll see myself out.”

Here’s what I’ll say about this Portland roster – They did fine work in signing Ed Davis for $20 million over three years. Regardless of where you are in the standings, this is a good deal. The Maurice Harkless trade was also a very solid low-gamble, high-reward haul that could end up looking good in about six months.

Of roll men who were involved in a minimum of 100 pick-and-roll possession, Davis ranked sixth in eFG% at 61.4 percent (via Synergy) with significantly worse backcourt partners than what he’ll have in Lillard, so there’s potentially one way this can lower defensive focus on the All-Star. Coincidentally, Plumlee ranked right behind Davis at 61.1 percent on more attempts, but you can’t have him play big minutes next to Davis, as both operate within the same space. The average shot distance of Davis and Plumlee last year? 2.7 and 2.6 feet, respectively.

And that’s really the crux of the issue. Portland was a terrific three-point shooting team. They had the sixth-most makes in the league on the eighth-best efficiency, and all that went away this summer. The only guy who can really spread the court is Lillard himself, who can’t really utilize his own spacing to create driving lanes. He’ll have to rely on the unproven McCollum, the below-average Henderson and maybe even old man Mike Miller for spacing, which is a sentence you never wish to hear.

So what to do if you’re Portland? Do you plan for this accordingly by lowering Lillard’s minutes and communicating with him that they’re not going to risk injuries with him on a bottom-feeder team, or do you move forward with the thinking that this obstacle will make him better in the long run, knowing full well there’s risk of substantial nature involved?

In the case of Lillard, there are several arguments to either side. The first of which speaks for continued high use, and points to his availability over his first three years, where he’s yet to miss a game. He simply hasn’t shown a tendency to get injured, partly due to the fact that over 41 percent of his total shot attempts have been threes, but the point remains solid. Unlike the former comparison to Rose, Lillard doesn’t need to attack the rim continuously, as he can create shots for himself from the outside. 96 of Lillard’s 196 makes from deep last year were unassisted, suggesting he’s fully capable of relying on his jumper more – a necessity to avoid injuries on a shallow roster.

On the other hand, one could make the argument that Lillard dancing around the three-point line won’t be that difficult to guard over the stretch of 48 minutes, given the lack of alternatives. It still projects as low injury odds, but the trade-off is likely a fair dip in efficiency, and in that case, going to Lillard for production will seem pointless as that should play into the hand of opponents.

It’s an exceedingly difficult position to be in if you’re Portland, or Lillard, simply because there’s no right answer. Only wrong ones. Force him to the hoop and his injury odds skyrockets late in games. Keep him on the perimeter and he’ll essentially be assisting opposing game plans.

The goal here should be trying to emulate what he’s been doing these last three seasons, but with a completely different, and much worse, supporting cast. That means missing out on a plethora of assists he’d usually get from finding Wes in the corner or Aldridge at the elbow, and settling for a version of himself that isn’t as dynamic as he’d allow himself to be with help around him. This won’t suit him, not by a long shot, but in a league where one twisted knee can change the course of a franchise, and Portland knows all about that, there needs to be a level of protection surrounding the approach of how they wish to play him. Going the route of mimicking how he’s been used previously might actually be the best possible solution, even if it seems uninspiring.

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