Short Notes and Nonsense #2 — Damian Lillard, the NBA’s new leading scorer?

photo: Triangle Offense

Bold Statement/Prediction: A case for Damian Lillard leading the NBA in scoring. Because, why not?

First, if you’re not into basketball, or the NBA, or NBA basketball — move on. Secondly, I don’t have an super-stat boy breakdown — my points will lean on the eye-ball test.

The electric Portland Trailblazer point guard — a likely perennial All-Star and 15th-ranked player in the NBA according to ESPN — has been an immediate star since entering the league as a #6 overall pick, out of Weber State. One of the top scoring points in the league, Lillard was a good (but not ideal) compliment to former cornerstone pivot LaMarcus Aldridge, who made the predicted jump to the San Antonio Spurs this offseason — which will be soul crushing for the en vogue small ball lineups. (More on this during the season.)

However, three other starters from last year’s team have signed with other teams (the still-injured Wesley Matthews and center Robin Lopez, to the Mavericks and Knicks respectively) or been traded (French swingman Nic Batum to Charlotte). It was a long and athletic team, capable of stretching defenses by making threes in bunches.

Their issues were efficiency, chemistry, defense — mostly a lackluster and undisciplined distraction for the offensive-minded team. They showed poor fundamentals in pick and rolls, ISOs, defending the baseline, and allowed one of the worst percentages of mid-range jumpers. (Lillard, for his part, regressed in 14–15, hurting the team with lackadaisical, Hardenesque effort.)

Lillard is a shoot-first combo guard that never meshed well with Aldridge’s 3P game (pick-and-pop and post-up). Batum was prone to disappearing if he wasn’t always involved. If nothing was going, the only options were to run an Aldridge post-up or Lillard in isolation — the offense didn’t create easy buckets.

But I’m supposed to be making a case for Lillard in 2015–16. So I say all that to say this…

Let’s dig deeper into this year’s team: Lillard and the Lillettes. On paper, it will be a much younger, more athletic hodge-podge of talent, with no immediate identity and unusual fits. Lillard and smallish shooting guard C.J. McCollum, finally a starter in his third year out of Lehigh, will be asked to provide a bulk of the scoring. Aside from veteran (and oft-injured) Chris Kaman, there isn’t much in the way of post scoring, as young seven-footer Meyers Leonard insists he’s better shooting his threes.

At a career 20.4 ppg with 43% FG and 38% 3pt FG percentages, Lillard helps his efficiency tremendously with his 86% at the line. If his preseason, especially the last game (39 points on 14–30 shooting, nine assists, eight turnovers against the Chris Paul-led Clippers) is any indication, then Lillard has a clear path to a scoring title, mainly because he has the Kobe-green light.

He’s a good shooter with range with a nasty handle, a fearless driver to the basket, and as clutch/competitive a player as there is in the NBA today. I think the Rockets would know something about that. In fact, there’s nothing that he can’t do offensively. His big extension will likely be worth every penny on entertainment value alone.

That said, the defense will struggle mightily this season, which will push the pace and may create a subtle track meet effect. Because of the lack of identity, trust from Lillard will be hard to come by for other players.

And offensively, there’s no Aldridge to suck up his light, which sometimes seemed to be the case, even if not intentionally. While the forward insisted he had no issue with Lillard, something was off in their dynamic. Now neither here nor there, Lillard stands alone. Hoping for an emergence of greatness, coach Terry Stotts will roll out the ball, and ask Lillard to step up as unquestioned leader and franchise player.

While James Harden, Kevin Durant, and Paul George will all get plenty of looks, I believe Lillard will lead the NBA in both field goal and free throw attempts, with likely one of the highest usage rates in league history. His efficiency be damned, I’d be surprised if he averaged less that 28 a game.

Firmly at a crossroads, Lillard’s continued ascendence depends on how he views his success in relation to his team’s. Eventually — as with all the greats in league history — he will realize that when a play is called, it will be for the team to score, and not necessarily for him to get a bucket. There is a considerable difference. One will get you All-Star berths, ESPN-worthy highlights, and marketing opportunities. The concept may not effect the former, but maximizing the talents of others through sacrifice has proved difficult for many. See: Anthony, Carmelo.