After a turbulent off-season where Damian Lillard saw everyone on his starting unit depart for other teams, the hopes of the franchise rest heavier on his shoulders than ever before. Having bypassed the dreaded sophomore slump with even better numbers than his rookie season, Lillard looked like he was well on his way to another brilliant season in 2014 when he injured a couple of fingers on his shooting hand, hampering his shooting percentages.
As he established himself as one of the league’s best point guards early in the 2014-15 season, Lillard seemed poised to challenge Steph Curry, Chris Paul, Russell Westbrook and Kyrie Irving for top dog at the deepest position in the league. With a dominant December, Lillard looked well on his way to another All-Star appearance while leading his Blazers to a stellar 26-7 record.
His best performances of the 2014-15 season unfortunately came in 2014, peaking with his 43 point performance at San Antonio where he made a myriad of clutch shots and led the Blazers to a triple overtime victory. His hand injury earlier that month seemed to come back and bite him over the course of the long season, as his production started dropping as his shooting percentages dropped. Come the new year, Lillard would see a lot of turmoil.
Already established as one of the best shooters in the league, Lillard struggled with one of his deadliest weapons–the three point shot– in 2015. As a career 38.1 percent three point shooter, Lillard ended last season shooting 34 percent while attempting a career high 572 attempts.
With a penchant for playing through injuries, some wondered whether Lillard took too much pride in playing every game in his career when he started showing obvious signs of discomfort in his shooting hand game in and game out. As nagging injuries built up, Lillard took more and more contested outside shots and saw his production dip. While he still managed to have a good season (with career highs in points and steals), he didn’t live up to the promise he showed much earlier in the season.
When everything was clicking, the Blazers looked like a true contender for the championship. Having addressed the issue of depth on the bench, the Blazers looked like a well-oiled machine; wielding two All-Stars, a cohesive starting five that could challenge any starting five for best in the league, and an intimidating home crowd, the Blazers could keep up with any team in the league. The season fell apart as the Blazers got ravaged by injuries (during the playoffs LaMarcus dealt with an injured thumb, Lillard with his injured fingers, Matthews was sidelined with an Achilles injury, Batum with a torn tendon in his shooting wrist, Lopez with a hand injury, Afflalo with a shoulder injury and Kaman with an ankle injury. Wow.) and it looks like the franchise is back on the re-building block as four of their five best players have left for different destinations.
As Blazer fans saw Lillard struggle through his hand injury, they must wonder- how is Lillard going to handle the increased pressure (both mentally and physically) that he will face next season? For starters, defenses will be now making him the priority, and he won’t have a safety net (LaMarcus) he can throw the ball into for a momentum busting bucket.
With defenses keyed on stopping his production, Lillard will find more and more routes to the basket blocked off, and will be forced into tough long range attempts more than ever. Along with that, he will be playing with a whole new starting crew that has yet to earn his trust.
The Blazers are undoubtedly going to have a rough season ahead of them, and may be looking at a ‘five to ten’ kind of plan rather than the ‘one piece away’ plan that they had so recently held.
With the added weight that Lillard will have to carry next season, his season could go one of two ways– Lillard could use the new opportunities to single-handedly carry his team to wins/competition, elevating his play to new levels and career highs in points and field goals attempted. I call this the Allen-Iverson-in-the-early-2000s route. Or, Lillard could falter with all the added responsibility and burn out by the middle of February.
Given his penchant for coming through in the clutch and overcoming pressure situations, I call Lillard the dark horse for winning a scoring title next season. I think we will see a season where you can clearly see the will of one player winning games and keeping teams in games with otherworldly performances. With the Blazers second most promising scoring being C.J. McCollum (see my predictions for breakout players here), Lillard will have the greenest of lights to shoot.
The biggest flaw in Lillard’s game was his defense, and I do not expect that to improve that significantly over next season. It is incredibly hard to carry your team on both ends of the court, and the first thing to go when fatigue sets in is defense. While Lillard has shown endurance over his career, having to defend an All Star night in and night out will take it’s toll on his stamina, and especially with the responsibility of being a primary scorer, it is just too much to ask for Lillard to step up defensively.
The Blazers will struggle in the hyper competitive West next season, but it will be a stepping stone season for Lillard; he will learn how to carry a team by himself, and will become better for it. We will see what the point guard from Oakland is made out of, and if the Portland franchise gets lucky in the next draft, the Blazers could be looking at a quick rebuild. After all, they already have the hardest thing in building a contending franchise: the franchise player. Now they just have to find the right pieces around him.