When the NBA season tips off in 2021, it will be welcoming back a number of superstars. Where will Portland Trail Blazers star Damian Lillard rank in that bunch?
One of the few, hidden benefits of having yet another NBA offseason is that it has allowed us to learn more about players beyond on-court success. We’ve learned about which players are the hardest to guard, and how past legends view today’s NBA, among much else.
One common phrase that I’ve noticed in anything that involves point guards — film studies, podcasts, whatever — is that they begin in one of two ways: “Damian Lillard or Stephen Curry,” or “Stephen Curry or Damian Lillard.”
The rest of the world appears ready to put the two on the same pedestal, especially given the Warriors’ star’s recent struggle with injuries. We’ve discussed it before; since 2017-18, injuries have only allowed Curry to play in 125 of a possible 219 games (57.0 percent), a development that has allowed one All-NBA First Team selection and two All-NBA Second Team nods over that time span.
Curry’s a safe guarantee to comeback with a vengeance in 2021. But taking him out of the equation, we have a more pressing, fresh question:
Damian Lillard has been viewed as a player on the fringe of the top-5, but confidently a top-10 player in the Association. But in a fully-healthy NBA, how many spots does he slide down, if any at all?
Now, it deserves to be mentioned right away: the likelihood of every marquee player having sustained, consistent health over an 82-game season is highly unlikely.
The recent shedding of back-to-backs and beginning the season earlier has helped; in 2016-17, the NBA had its healthiest season in terms of games lost since 2005-06. But that hasn’t been sustainable over the last few years.
In fact, the Portland Trail Blazers weren’t able to build on their build of clean health this past season. In 2018-19, they ranked No. 1 in games lost due to injury (62), and No. 3 in salary lost due to those injuries ($9.9 million), according to Jeff Stotts. As we know, that wasn’t sustainable. As Drake once said, like a bad ankle, boy, these things can turn in an instant … Or something like that.
Next season, the NBA hopes to re-welcome superstar talent like Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving, Stephen Curry, and Klay Thompson back into the fold. Do any of those players threaten Lillard’s standing as a top-10 player in the NBA? Here’s how Damian Lillard ranked on a few verifiable lists of 2020 players.
FiveThirtyEight’s Player Rankings according to RAPTOR (advanced metric):
— James Harden (1), LeBron James (2), Anthony Davis (3), Kawhi Leonard (4), Giannis Antetokounmpo (5), Jayson Tatum (6), Damian Lillard (7), Nikola Jokic (8), Jimmy Butler (9), Rudy Gobert (10)
Thinking Basketball (Ben Taylor’s) Player Rankings:— LeBron James (1), Anthony Davis (2), Giannis Antetokounmpo (3), Kawhi Leonard (4), James Harden (5), Luka Doncic (6), Nikola Jokic (7), Joel Embiid (8), Damian Lillard (9), Jimmy Butler (10)
In terms of metrics, Lillard ranked No. 2 in win shares, No. 1 in offensive box plus-minus, No. 8 in box plus-minus as a whole, and No. 4 in value over replacement level.
Depending on where you stand on the idea of Kevin Durant returning to his previous form with 849 NBA games and 36,903 minutes worth of mileage on him at age 32 will determine where you think he will rank.
Most seem to be in agreement that Durant will remain a top-10 player, or something even better. Many also believe that Curry will be due for a resurgent 2021 season.
This, in essence means that Lillard will be battling against the following guards for a spot on an All-NBA team: James Harden, Luka Doncic, Stephen Curry, Kyrie Irving, Russell Westbrook, Chris Paul, and whatever other guards (Trae Young, Ja Morant) make the improvements next season. It also means that remaining a consensus top-10 point guard in the NBA will be even more difficult.
One could try to argue that this is arbitrary and doesn’t necessarily matter. But Lillard’s body of work — the performance after All-Star snubs, and his All-NBA First Team declaration in 2018 — would suggest otherwise.
The official season doesn’t tip until February, providing us with tons of time to speculate and debate until we actually see it. In the meantime, what do you think? Where does Lillard rank in today’s NBA? And in adding more superstars to the fold, does he slide down, or hang steady?