Damian Lillard, after once being an unknown point guard within months of the NBA Draft, is now the favorite to win the Rookie of the Year award after being selected sixth overall by the Portland Trailblazers. Lillard is averaging 18.5 points and 6.4 assists per game, stroking the ball with a 42% clip from the field and a 35% clip from downtown. His athleticism is exceptional, speeding down court with the same velocity as names like Kyrie Irving and John Wall, and leaping like Derrick Rose and Russell Westbrook. He is ferocious when attacking the basket and lethal from range. His ball-handling is extremely impressive for a first-year player, and his future is looking very bright.
However I have quite a few problems with how Lillard has been used in just his rookie season by head coach of the Blazers, Terry Stotts. In the past 10 contests Lillard’s production has taken a steep drop to pedestrian levels, with his FG% dipping under 40%, and his 3PT% at a quizzical 30%. Over 10 games it would be a bit foolish to just toss this out of the window as your run-in-the-mill string of bad games. It’s more of a slump, and with Lillard being a rookie it can be classified as the “rookie wall”, a theoretical bump most rookies hit as they adjust to the length of the NBA season.
The thing is, the best rookies in basketball never really hit a “rookie wall”, and with the poise Lillard has shown this season it’s mesmerizing that he’s seemingly barricaded by one. A player as gifted athletically as Lillard shouldn’t be tired out just because of the enormity of the NBA schedule. He certainly hasn’t forgotten how to score, so what’s the problem?
The problem is the strain put on Lillard by Stotts. Lillard plays 38.5 minutes per game and has played 20 games of 40+ minutes. His USG% is the second-highest on the team at 24.1%, a shy 2.2% lower than his two-time All-Star teammate LaMarcus Aldridge
. I pulled up a list of every rookie who played 38.5+ minutes and had a usage percentage of 24+, and the list was a shallow one. Since the 1947 season, Lillard’s ridiculous usage in basketball games has only been eclipsed by LeBron James
, Tim Duncan
, Allen Iverson
and Bernard King
. When we only include the primary ball-handlers for their respective squads, the list is narrowed to Lillard, James, and Iverson.
Next I look at how much Stotts is leaning on Dame Lillard in the clutch. This season, with the game within 5 points either way and two minutes to play in the fourth quarter or overtime periods, Lillard has put up 40 shots. Aldridge, who may I remind you is undoubtedly the better player and a two-time All-Star, has attempted 27. Nicolas Batum
, a French wingman with loads of talent, has shot the ball 24 times.
Terry Stotts placing this amount of pressure on a rookie is egregious, especially considering how lost of a season this is for the team. The Blazers are in the Western Conference, where the fifth-seed team would be the second-seed in the East. They need to advance past the star-filled glamour posse that is the Los Angeles Lakers in order to make the playoffs, and per-Hollinger’s Playoffs Odds on ESPN.com, their chances of making it is 3.4%. BUT LET’S PLAY OUR ELECTRIFYING, FUTURE-STAR UNTIL HE COLLAPSES IN HIS FIRST YEAR IN THE LEAGUE BECAUSE WE NEED TO WIN GAMES!
There is no saying that these huge-minute numbers will hurt Lillard as he progresses through what’s sure to be a great NBA career. However, there’s no need to take the risk of hitting him with a gruesome amount of wear and tear, especially with Lillard already bound to be injury-prone with his tough forays into the paint on a nightly basis. The Portland Trailblazers have finally caught a big break by drafting this talent, there’s no justifiable reason to endanger his NBA career, even if it means giving Ronnie Price
or Nolan Smith
a couple more minutes a game.