If you follow the NBA even remotely, you should know that Damian Lillard has been tearing up the league as of late. Since January 15, or exactly a month ago, Dame has averaged nearly 37 points while dishing out nine assists per contest. During a particular six-game span from January 20th to February 1st, he went nuts, averaging 49 points, seven rebounds, 10 assists, and eight threes per game.
It’s actually pretty easy to understand why Dame is so dominant: he’s an offensive threat at all levels.
The three-point shot is the deadliest weapon in his arsenal, because he’s fully equipped his long-range gun to work in every possible way. Logo Lillard is known for being able to pull-up from absolutely everywhere, but he can function off-the-ball as well, with 27% of his three-pointers still assisted.
Dame’s reputation as a gunner may be the league’s closest facsimile to Steph Curry, and just like Steph, Dame’s able to use this to open up the floor for himself. He forces defenses to play him tightly, or big men to hedge on PnR action, and his explosive first step allows him to get to the rim at will.
Look at how high Avery Bradley plays on Dame on this play.
This is actually beneficial for Dame, as while literally everyone in a black uniform comes up to set screens, their defenders follow to try to anticipate Dame’s three ball. This leaves a lot of space for Dame to operate. Another Pick-and-Roll with Whiteside leaves a hedging McGee in no man’s land. Lillard has the ability to go up for a shot at the rim, where he shoots 62%, draw a foul for free-throw, where he shoots 89%, or dish out an assist to a rolling big.
In other words, if you don’t have a defender with enough lateral quickness and strength to chase Dame through all the screens (see: Jrue Holiday), Lillard’s about to drop a 40 or 50-piece on you.
However, as Dame hobbles into the All-Star break, so do his Portland Trail Blazers, losers of three of their last four games to fall four games back of the Memphis Grizzlies in the race for the eighth seed in the Western Conference. The Blazers’ struggles are by no means Dame’s fault, with long term injuries to Nurk & Zach Collins, as well as poor replacements at the wing for Mo Harkless and Al-Farouq Aminu significantly hampering the roster around Dame.
The high-profile desperation move of the Blazers in signing Carmelo Anthony (who has been decent) has shadowed smaller desperation moves such as acquiring Trevor Ariza, and relying on guys like Hassan Whiteside (who has also been decent), Gary Trent Jr., Anfernee Simmons and Mario Hezonja* to play minutes.
With about a third of the season remaining, the Blazers, who made the Western Conference Finals last season, are tipping dangerously close to missing the playoffs for the first time since Dame was a rookie. Basketball Reference gives them just a 23.4% chance at making the playoffs, lower than the Pelicans (25.3%) who are a game back of the Blazers and a full five games back of Memphis.
This is the perfect situation for Lillard to solidify himself as a bonafide superstar in this league. That superstar category belongs to guys who elevate their team to a winning platform regardless of situation, an upper echelon that features guys like LeBron James and Kawhi Leonard. With the Blazers on the ropes, this is Dame’s chance to catapult himself into that tier.
As of now, Lillard is a beloved, loyal alphadog. He’s a perennial All-Star, and a well-respected player and leader across the league. He’s a five-time All-Star, four-time All-NBA player, and once even snuck into the first-team when Steph missed significant time. He’s also a clutch killer, and already an icon for his series enders in a pair of Playoff runs.
But he’s still not in the league’s Tier 1.
He’s only made it past the second round once, and has been swept out of the playoffs for two years running. The top tier still feels like a full rung above his status as of the moment.
With the way the Blazers are currently constructed, if Dame somehow continued his massive tear, catapulted his Blazers to the eighth seed and pushed the Lakers to six or seven games in the first round, who will deny Dame of superstar status?
I certainly won’t.
It’s a long way up to a measly eight-seed, but the next two months could do wonders in defining the legacy of one Damian Lillard.
*I actually highly regard the above mentioned players. That entire paragraph was really meant to stress on Mario Hezonja, and him being a rotation player in Portland. He is, uhm, not good.