Scaletta’s Summer Top 100 is a ranking of returning NBA players. For a full explanation of our methodology, read our intro.
About this time last summer, most of the world was feeling sorry for Damian Lillard after literally his entire starting cast ran away for other teams. And the team which had just pressed into the playoffs seemed doomed to miss it the next year. Jokes like this were awash on Twitter:
— Aron Yohannes (@AronYohannes) July 4, 2015
There was one person who wasn’t ready to concede the season: Damian Lillard. He exercised leadership on and off the court to elevate a new supporting cast into the playoffs. He finished eighth in the MVP voting, and that might have been shorting him. If you take records out of the picture, he might have had more actual value to his team than anyone.
I’d like to think that there’s a way for Lillard to break into the top five, but when he’s in the same conference as Chris Paul, Russell Westbrook and the two-time reigning MVP Stephen Curry, that’s a tough task. But the truth is, he might actually belong in it if he improves a couple of areas.
Last year, he joined Stephen Curry and James Harden as the only three players to ever score 1,800 points to go with 500 assists and 200 threes.
However, his true shooting percentage, while solid, is not in that 60.0 neighborhood like Harden’s and Curry’s. And his defense (which we’ll cover in a bit) is just bad.
Lillard is the undisputed leader on his team, and it’s really not just one of those “he’s the best player on the team, so let’s assume he’s the leader” type of things either. He really is a leader. Kevin Arnowitz of ESPN wrote about that and tells the story of how Lillard took an unheralded rookie, Luis Montero. under his wing and tried to help him improve his wardrobe:
Lillard drives to Montero’s apartment, and they head to the facility. While Montero works out on the floor for a couple of hours, Lillard lifts in the weight room. Lillard has been concerned about Montero’s wardrobe, so after they finish up, they hop over to Saks Fifth Avenue. “He hadn’t been suited up,” Lillard says. “‘You get you a black one. You get you a blue one. You get you a gray one. You can wear the suit. You can wear a nice button-up shirt with the sport coat and some jeans and nice shoes.’ I was just breaking it down for him.”
By the time Lillard drops Montero back home, it’s dark — but Montero is now suited up.
“We had spent the whole day together,” Lillard says. “I had picked him up at like 9 o’clock. And by the time we got home, it was 5 o’clock.”
When told that it’s fairly unusual for a player of Lillard’s stature to pay that kind of attention to a rookie 14th man — that it’s probably even more unusual for a 14th man to feel as if he has the privilege of interrupting the team’s franchise player on a blackout day, much less ask for taxi service — Lillard shrugs.
“I don’t know what other people do,” he says.
And that’s why Lillard’s floor won’t go down. Who he is to the team goes way beyond his numbers.
Lillard is best described as a poor man’s Stephen Curry because of his ability to hit threes off the bounce. Zach Lowe of ESPN makes the same comparison saying, “Lillard is Earth’s closest thing to Stephen Curry — a lead ball handler who makes a ton of 3s off the dribble after slithering around picks.”
The only one who hit more unassisted threes than Dame was Curry. And he made a huge impact for the Blazers on offense. According to NBA.com, their offensive rating was 108.1 with him and 101.8 without him. His ability to shoot off the bounce from deep creates a lot of opportunities for his teammates. They shot 51.7 percent from two off his passes and 40 percent from three.
He makes players better and makes them want to be better. What else could you ask for?
Welp. It’s a funny thing I should ask. There is one thing you could ask for — a little bit of defense. How bad is his defense? Well, if you factor in his -3.16 defensive real plus-minus with the minutes he played, you can get an estimate of how many points his defense “cost” his team over what a replacement-level player would provide.
Here are the players who gave up the most “extra” points:
So what would be an improvement? Not being technically the worst defender in the league.