Just how different would the Golden State Warriors be with Damian Lillard?
Don't let the scoreline fool you, a 4-1 series win for the Golden State Warriors over the Portland Trail Blazers was anything but comfortable. Rip City pushed the defending champions all the way, but the Dubs did what they do best; they found a way to overcome adversity.
Their task was made more difficult without the injured Stephen Curry for games one to three, although, the back-to-back Most Valuable Player and the first man in NBA history to claim the award unanimously, returned in devastating style to crush the Blazers' faint hopes in game four.
Curry dropped an incredible 17 points in overtime - the highest amount in any game throughout history, whether that be regular or postseason - to hand Golden State a 3-1 advantage they were never likely to pass up. And so it proved as Klay Thompson dropped 33 points at the Oracle Arena on Wednesday night to book their place in the Western Conference semi-finals.
But the landscape of this series could have been so different was it not for vital moments in individual games. Portland showed they had what it took to compete with the best in the business in game three as they blew out the Curry-less Warriors and protected their home court.
In a season of incredible overachievement that saw them reach the playoffs despite parting ways with four of their starting five players from the 2014-15 campaign, the Blazers have been led by Oakland-born point guard Damian Lillard to a level many thought was out of their reach.
The 25-year-old had a career-best regular season and came back from the All-Star break - where he was considered the most notable snub for the weekend in Toronto - with a chip on his shoulder that personified the franchise in Oregon. Dame had already showcased his ability during regular-season games against Dub Nation, dropping 40 and 38 points in two losses and a career-best 51 as the Blazers handed the Warriors one of their nine defeats on their way to an NBA-best finish.
He continued his incredible form during the postseason and his performance during the third instalment of this series - where he dropped 40 points as the Blazers won by 12 - led to a pretty bold claim from colour commentator and former New York Knicks and Houston Rockets head coach Jeff van Gundy.
With just over two minutes remaining in the contest, Lillard pulled up from deep and nailed a three-point shot over the outstretched arm of shooting guard Thompson to put Portland up 117-102 and leave Van Gundy questioning: "If you traded Damian Lillard to the Warriors for Steph Curry, how much difference do we see?"
An interesting question. One that, on the face of things, drew some criticism on social media, but one that is certainly worth investigating. Now, there is no doubting that Curry is in a world of his own; you do not become the first unanimous MVP in history without being very special - after all, it is an accolade that has avoided the grasp of greats like Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant, Shaquille O'Neal and LeBron James.
He may not be the truest point guard in the league - that tag would belong to either Russell Westbrook or Chris Paul - but the Ohio-native is far and away the best shooter. Lillard, in theory, would be in the chasing pack at the one point - alongside the likes of Kyrie Irving, John Wall and Kyle Lowry.
"Dame is an All-Star. Even though he wasn't on the team, he's an All-Star." - LeBron James
There are many striking similarities between the two stars and their games personify what is exciting and enthralling about 21st-century basketball, but, after his 51-point outing against the Warriors in February - the first game post-All-Star - Dame was keen to avoid any comparisons with Golden State's diminutive number 30. However, the correlations were always going to be made.
They both have incredible accuracy from deep, are frustratingly tricky to guard due their handling and movement off the ball, are capable of cutting and driving to the basket and have the spacial awareness to run the floor. However, before delving into the similarities between the two, there is a huge point that needs to be addressed.
The argument from Van Gundy was not how good Lillard was in comparison to Curry, although we will get on to that later. It was how much of a difference the Blazers point guard would make to the Warriors' chances of success. Put simply, the switch of guards would do very little to change the dynamic in the Bay and a Golden State team led by D-Lil would still be considered the best in the NBA. Why? Because the Warriors are stacked.
Miami Heat's president Pat Riley has experience in assembling strong, championship-winning rosters, and he believes the Warriors in their current situation are on the verge of becoming a dynasty, not just because of their superstars, but for the guys in the background that often go unheralded.
"They are in the beginning of something that can be dynastic," Riley said. "They're in the beginning stages of it, and that's the scary part, versus somebody that catches lightning in a bottle one time. They're at the beginning because all of their key players, all of them, are young and they're talented. The ones that don't have what I call 'youth age,' like Andre Iguodala, Andrew Bogut, Shaun Livingston -- those guys bring an element to the team is incredible."
Throughout the roster they have talent. All-Stars Klay Thompson and Draymond Green are franchise players within their own rights but seem happy playing a supporting role to the shooting juggernaut that is Stephen Curry. During a year where the point guard swept every first placed vote to become MVP, Green picked up two second-place votes, an indication of the immense talent the second round draft pick possesses and his incredible importance to the organisation.
While Thompson and Curry are often lighting it up from deep night after night, the Michigan State product has time and again dragged the franchise out of a tough spot with his style of brash, bold smash-mouth basketball when the Splash Brothers are struggling to find their stroke from behind the arc. He can do it all; scoring, passing, rebounding, blocking, stealing, he is an all around machine that came second in the triple double charts to Westbrook. He brings the added element of intensity that the Warriors need. Sometimes it is easy to get lackadaisical, but Green's passion and commitment drives them forward.
Sometimes he oversteps the mark - as seen in his half-time outburst during a win over the Oklahoma City Thunder where he unleashed a profanity-laden outburst with the organisation trailing by 11 - however, it worked in their favour as they bounced back to win it in overtime.
"They are in the beginning of something that can be dynastic. They're in the beginning stages of it, and that's the scary part" - Pat Riley on the Warriors
Kobe Bryant is a player that knows all about winning titles. He is a huge believer of keeping teammates on their toes and believes tension and conflict in the locker room play an important role in achieving success. He is under no illusions that Draymond has to be that guy for the Warriors.
In a previous interview, following his last game against Golden State, he said: "He's the one that has to keep his finger on the nerve with this team, because it can get lax, it can get comfortable, and I think he's the one that's going to have to create that conflict, that tension in the locker room, because if they don't have that, then in the playoffs, then they are going to be in trouble. He's got to give them that conflict."
Two-time All-Star Thompson speaks for himself, but the shooting guard has upped his game considerably in the absence of Curry during the playoffs. Coupled with the supporting cast of Harrison Barnes - who could easily be a franchise star if he decided to leave the Bay - Andre Iguodala - who was a perennial starter during his time with Philadelphia 76ers and an All-Star in 2012 while with the Denver Nuggets - and Andrew Bogut, Shaun Livingston and Festus Ezeli, the Dubs have quality on their bench that most franchises would only dream of having in their starting five.
With Lillard in place of Curry, there is no doubting the Warriors would still be a force to be reckoned with. Their form in the playoffs - where they went 6-2 without the guard during series' with the Houston Rockets and Portland Trail Blazers - was a testament to that. Livingston, far from a premium level player at the point, was able to thrive at the one spot and has produced career-high playoff scoring numbers as his minutes have increased. He dropped 11.1 points per game and was able to play to his strengths and allow the other big names on the roster to take centre stage.
The question here is, what difference would Lillard make to their chances of success? The Oakland-based franchise would certainly be competing at the highest level with him at the point. The 2013 Rookie of the Year has just completed his fourth season in the NBA and is already in the elite list of guards within the association. He averaged 25.1 points with an effective field goal percentage of 49.7 percent - shot 37.5 percent from three point land from his average of 8.2 attempts per game and was shooting 89.2 percent from the charity stripe. All of this while averaging a career-high in the assists category as he provided 6.8 dimes per outing.
Lillard has been keen to avoid the comparisons with Curry, but when you occupy the same position as the league's best player for the past two seasons, the judgements are inevitable. Following his incredible outing in February, Steve Kerr compared his performance to that of Curry, to which Dame responded: “I respect Steph Curry. Because what he’s doing is amazing. But I’m my own man.
"So don’t come to me and say I’m impersonating him. You telling me I’m impersonating somebody by doing well at my job is disrespectful. I’m not impersonating anyone, you know what I mean? I’m my own person.”
Kerr responded by heaping more praise on the guard: “After the game that night, he had hit like five shots from about 40 feet it felt like, and he was pulling up so deep behind the line, so I was being complimentary. When Steph makes 40-footers and somebody else makes it, it just reminded me of Steph, so I didn’t mean anything by it. He’s a great player.”
A great player pretty much sums it up. His All-Star snub only proved to fuel the fire and, if he continues his incredible form, he will surely be suiting up with the best in the business for the 2017 instalment of the showpiece event. Reacting to disappointment is part and parcel of professional sport and he reacted better than most to missing out.
Head coach Terry Stotts said on the snub: “It wasn’t so much about not making the All-Star team, as I think Damian was invested in the team’s success – and what he could do to elevate the team. Everybody here in Portland felt he was slighted by not making the All-Star team, but he handled it better than the people around him.”
What has impressed above anything else this season is his leadership. Having lost Nicolas Batum, LaMarcus Aldridge, Robin Lopez and Wesley Matthews, Lillard took on the mantle of leader without a second's thought and has carried the team on his back throughout the campaign. Much like Curry at the Warriors, he lets his play on the court do the talking and keeps a relatively low profile away from the hardwood.
Blazers assistant coach David Vanterpool shed some light on what made him such a good leader for the organisation: “Fundamentally, he’s an inclusive person. He brought these guys together in San Diego, and his thought was this: ‘This is my family now. And I’m going to take care of these guys. I’m going to include them.’ He never leads by making anyone feel inferior – he leads with inclusion.”
Portland veteran Gerald Henderson added: "He has a way about him. The guys want to follow him. They want to play with him, be with him. They've got his back because he's got your back, too. He's a special guy in that sense."
Right now, Curry is in a world of his own. Nobody is doing what he can do right, but Lillard is a close second. A ball-dominant point guard who possesses a devasting step back, mesmerising handles, the ability to slither away from the screen and create the open space. Compare the first four years of their careers and the similarities only continue to grow.
Steph's opening years in the NBA were disrupted by injury while Dame has managed to avoid any serious problems, but on the basis of per-game statistics, there is very little to separate the two point guards. Both players averaged over 35 minutes, six assists and 19 points per night. The Warriors man scored 21.4 points a game, provided 6.3 assists and shot at an effective field goal percentage of 50.3 during his first four campaigns as the Pacific Division organisation reached the playoffs in 2012 and 2013.
As for Lillard, entering the league as a 22-year-old, he dropped 19.2 points, 6.1 assists and shot at an effective field goal rate of 54.8 percent through his first four seasons in the league. During that time, the Blazers have reached the playoffs each year since Dame's rookie campaign. The Dubs advanced their game to another level, and that coincided with the improvement to MVP level of Curry. The Portland star is approaching his peak years and has the capability to reach the same dizzy heights.
I’m not impersonating anyone, you know what I mean? I’m my own person.” - Damian Lillard
The Blazers are in a strong position with C.J. McCollum's Most Improved Player campaign, and the emergence of Al-Farouq Aminu and Mason Plumlee in the frontcourt should see another playoff run next season for the organisation with Lillard making further steps to assert himself as one of the best in the business.
Curry's career trajectory is not normal. He was never expected to be MVP, let alone the first unanimous winner in history, but he did it through hard work, determination and an incredible will to be the best; qualities he shares with Portland's main man. Lillard is not one to get caught up in the media spotlight, he is focused on one thing and one thing only; being the best. After four years, it is now up to the Weber State product to make the step from incredible to unbelievable. He has the ability to make an off-balance, 40-yard game-winning three, but he is yet to show it as consistently as Curry. At his age, time is definitely on his side.
Curry is the difference between the Warriors being champions and contenders. He is the deciding factor between Golden State eclipsing the 1995-96 Chicago Bulls or falling short and fading into history. Finishing the season with a record of 73-9 will never be forgotten but there will always be an asterisk over their achievement if they fail to top it off with the Larry O'Brien trophy. The two-time All-Star is redefining what we consider to be normal in the NBA.
As Dallas Mavericks head coach Rick Carlisle said: "What he's doing right now, he's changing the way our game is going to be played in the future. It's really historic. No one has ever played this way off the dribble. It's breathtaking to watch. It's something that we really have never seen before in this league."
He certainly has changed the dynamic of the league, but that is not to say they could not achieve this unparalleled success with Lillard in his place. The Portland star has been the catalyst behind a pre-season lottery pick favourite advancing to the postseason and pushing the Warriors in one of the closest five-game series you are ever likely to see.
It is easy to see the influence and importance they both hold on their respective franchises, but in the grand scheme of things, Dame's achievements in dragging his teammates through are arguably more impressive, however, he has not generated the media appreciation that Steph enjoys on a nightly basis. As LeBron James said: "Dame is an All-Star. Even though he wasn't on the team, he's an All-Star."
Right now, there is no debate needed - Stephen Curry is the better of the two players and the Warriors are in a position to achieve unrivalled success thanks to the performances of their main man. You don't finish a season as the leader in steals and points per game while smashing a number of three-point records along the way without being the best. However, Lillard is not far behind, and his achievements this season led to an eighth-placed finish in the MVP running.
"He has a way about him. The guys want to follow him. They want to play with him, be with him." - Gerald Henderson on Damian Lillard
While Golden State will be pleased they have Curry at their disposal and he is not lining up on the other side of the court, Jeff van Gundy may just have been right. There would be little to no difference in the strength of the Warriors if Lillard were to assume the role at the point. A lot of that is down to the strength of the roster in Oakland, with a lot of credit going to their front office for piecing together one of the truly dominant teams in history, but Lillard's incredible ability and future potential can not be overlooked. At the age of 25, he is only going to get better and the rest of the league should definitely be worried.
Steph and his teammates overcame the Blazers in the semi-finals and are on track to record back-to-back titles, but the future looks bright for Portland and, one day, people may be talking about Lillard in the same otherworldly conversation that Steph currently demands. He is not Stephen Curry, he is Damian Lillard, and that is the next best thing.