Top five arguments have permeated the skin of basketball for decades. Players from era to era have been picked apart, scrutinised and held in high regard all over a battle to name players who have transcended their peers.
Now, more than ever, the point guard spot is proving the hardest group of players to name in a top five.
The millennial years have seen a distinct shift from post play and dominant big men to the now prevalent small ball style of play, letting short guys with killer crossovers and extended range take the game by storm.
Simply put, we’re in the deepest reaches of an era where it’s the point guards who are seen as the dominant forces who decide games, playoff series and championships.
But one guy isn’t quite getting the props he deserves, and believe it or not – he’s not even making it into many people’s top five lists. That guy is Damian Lillard.
Putting in Work…
Let’s take a look at the hand Lillard’s been dealt this season coming off a Trail Blazers playoff run that saw them win only one game last season.
During 2014-15, besides the Weber State alum, there was a starting five that consisted of Nicolas Batum, Wesley Matthews, LaMarcus Aldridge and Chris Kaman.
That’s a reasonably stacked five, with Lillard providing scoring alongside Aldridge and Matthews, whilst Batum did the dirty work next to a rejuvenated Chris Kaman. In fact, you could argue that the Oregon team should’ve gone further than the first round.
Now, Lillard and Kaman are the only two players that remain on the roster from those five, with the latter averaging fewer points, minutes and rebounds than he did all the way back in his rookie season.
The word around the league was that Portland was going to be bad, but not quite bad enough for a lottery draft pick – arguably the worst place to be in a league structure that favours tanking teams and title winners.
However, Lillard hasn’t only ensured that the Rose Garden faithful have something to cheer about each game, he’s also given the Trail Blazers a realistic shot for a decent playoff seed.
Averaging 25.8 points per game, he’s fifth in scoring across the entire league, behind only Stephen Curry, James Harden, Kevin Durant and DeMarcus Cousins.
He’s scored 30 points or more in 17 games, and topped 50 in two outings this season (one of those against the Golden State Warriors). Meanwhile, he’s shooting 38% from three point range, 89% from the charity stripe all whilst averaging just under seven assists per contest.
Put it this way, Lillard is proving a better scorer than Russell Westbrook, Chris Paul, Kyle Lowry and John Wall, all of whom are often placed ahead of him when it comes to rating NBA point guards – and he is doing it without the likes of LaMarcus Aldridge or the endless range of Wesley Matthews to lean on.
The Belief is there
Portland hasn’t been known as the luckiest franchise in the NBA, and for good reason.
They passed on Michael Jordan for an injury riddled Sam Bowie. Greg Oden was then selected ahead of former MVP Kevin Durant, only for his knees to prove too fragile. Even Brandon Roy, a player with immense talent, crumpled in a heap thanks to yet more knee issues. But so far, luck has been on Lillard’s side.
He’s missed just seven games in Portland, be it in the regular season or the playoffs – something unheard of for fans who have become accustomed to seeing stars riding the bench in suits with a glum look upon their faces for lengthy periods of time.
But the man himself also holds a belief within him that would light a fire under the belly of even the coolest and most controlled Portland fan.
“I started believing in our team before the season. On Media Day, I said we could make the playoffs, and people looked at me like I was crazy". Lillard is quoted, per the David Aldridge Morning Tip.
“I believed if we had our growing pains early we could compete and we’ve done that”.
Few NBA players come out and make outlandish statements like this, and the one’s that do often end up making themselves look foolish in the process. But Lillard’s genuine belief in his team is clear to see, and has been proven correct.
That belief has been instilled in his teammates as well, and is showing Lillard in a light that isn’t too dissimilar to that of reigning MVP, Steph Curry. However, The Trail Blazers point guard has shot down prospective comparison between the two with distinctive brashness.
“What he [Steph Curry] is 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”. Lillard said, via OregonLive.
It’s an understandable comparison, but one which Lillard obviously isn’t happy with, and rightly so.
It shows that whilst people respect his performances, they still see him as a pretend All-Star, twice snubbed ahead of the NBA’s showpiece event each February.
Whilst the past two years he’s been overlooked, if Damian Lillard continues to silently tear up the Western Conference, he’ll be a certainty to pull an All-Star jersey on at some point. Maybe then we'll see him making his way onto some top five countdowns.