To many, Damian Lillard’s inclusion in the list of 2018 NBA All-Star reserves was the most controversial, and the most tenuous. When Oklahoma City Thunder forward Paul George was deemed to have been snubbed, it is Lillard that it was thought pushed him out.
Maybe, in purely relative terms, it was. Maybe, as a total body of work, Lillard’s season is no significantly better than that of George, Lou Williams et al, nor any better than the last two of his own, neither of which were deemed worthy of being All-Star calibre. This is Lillard's third All-Star game appearance overall, but his first for three years, and one that at first glance (25.8 points and 6.5 assists per game this year versus 27,0 points and 5.8 assists per game last season) is no better than the ones before it.
But you need not have to look very far into Lillard, his game and his production in order to see a legitimate All-Star calibre player. And if we look a little closer, we will see what tipped the balance.
Since Lillard’s last All-Star appearance, not much has changed for his team, and certainly not for the better.
We have looked before with regards to Kemba Walker's All-Star snub then subsequent selection at whether team record subconsciously biases voters and factors into their decisions. Perhaps that has also applied here - with his Portland Trail Blazers having 51 wins the last time Lillard made the All-Star team, yet slipping down to 44 and 41 in the two years hence that he was passed over, Lillard may have been the victim of this perception bias since that time. And maybe the very slight uptick to a 31-26 record this year is the main factor here.
What has changed in recent times, it seems, is Lillard’s comfort level in Portland. It was reportedly recently that Lillard requested a meeting with team owner, Paul Allen. And although Lillard did not come with the trade demand that Allen feared he would – indeed, Lillard instead reaffirmed his commitment to the team, at least conditionally – Lillard did essentially issue trade demands of others, in the sense that he needed an understanding from Allen that the team had a plan to win a championship, and that they would commit to seeing it through.
This is fair enough. Having been loyal to Portland his entire NBA career despite never having decided to play there (such is the heavy-handed nature of the NBA Draft), and seeing stars and superstars team up on rival teams around him while his team manages only an egregious overspend they are still trying to fix, it is understandable if Lillard is getting itchy.
But for his position to be truly valid, Lillard needs to be doing as much as he can to win a championship as well. And therein, we find the reason for his return to All-Star status.
Offensively, Lillard is a fury. His ability to score off the dribble and in the half-court is almost unrivalled. An excellent shooter off the dribble and above the break, mostly from three-point range but also from the mid-range on the rare occasions he chooses to go that route, Lillard uses the threat of the jumper and his ability to create space for it to set up the drive to the rim, which he is plenty willing to do. His scoring efficiency at the rim is somewhat average, but the degree of difficulty involved is a factor, and on the right nights, Lillard can get buckets on anyone at any time.
The perfect yardstick for Lillard’s play exists right next to him. Starting shooting guard C.J. McCollum is almost the same calibre of scorer that Lillard is – averaging 21.6 points per game of his own, and every bit as good at creating a foot of space with the handle, McCollum pairs with Dame to make a fearsome scoring duo. And yet Lillard is clearly better than he. Every night, with McCollum as a standard-setter, Lillard's brilliance shines through.
The drawback with Lillard has mainly been on the defensive end. For all that he could and would score, Lillard would give quite a lot of it back on the other end with limited ball pressure, not getting his hands up and contesting, and neither recovering not rotating enough. It needed to change to achieve his potential.
And it is changing.
This year, the more leaderly Damian Lillard is playing smarter and more aggressively on defence. He is applying more pressure, working to recover, and making more rotations from better positions than he ever would previously.
This does not mean Lillard is suddenly a plus-defender. But he is at least approaching average. And average, with this level of scoring ability, will do.
Flanking these incremental defensive improvement is a career-best in true shooting percentage. Shooting slightly better from all areas and shooting slightly more from the more valuable areas (at the rim, from the foul line, behind the other line), Lillard is shooting a career-best efficiency from the floor without losing site of who he is. He is also better riffing off of the presence of Jusuf Nurkic inside, and will benefit even further when Nurkic can properly handle a trap.
At his core, Lillard remains the same player that he ever was. He is a gunner, a scorer, a scoring playmaker who does not so much set the table as he does remove much of the need for one. He has improved his own game, addressed his weaknesses, and respectfully asked his team to do the same.
So, that is why Damian Lillard get the nod as a 2018 NBA All-Star.