Trail Blazers

How Damian Lillard can prove he's the best player from 2012 NBA Draft

Trail Blazers

 

In eight seasons as a Portland Trail Blazer, Damian Lillard appears to be on pace to be the best player in franchise history.

Now heading into the 2020 NBA Playoffs, Lillard has a chance to be considered the best player in his 2012 NBA Draft class. 

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Despite winning rookie of the year in 2012-13, Lillard has never been seen as his draft class' best player due to former-first overall pick Anthony Davis, a superstar in his own right.

Heading into the draft, Davis was viewed as a generational prospect while Lillard was a two-star prospect player from Weber State. 

Now eight seasons later, Lillard and Davis will meet in the first round of the postseason as arguably the best players at their positions in the NBA. 

If you look at the careers of both players, Davis has had more individual success; but that hasn't translated to team success. In New Orleans, Davis made the postseason twice winning a total of five playoff games before demanding a trade to play second fiddle in Los Angeles to LeBron James.  

Meanwhile, Lillard was drafted to a franchise that hadn't been out of the first round in 13 years. It took only two seasons for him to hit a buzzer-beating series-clinching shot to send Portland to the second round. 

In total, Lillard has led Portland to the postseason for seven consecutive seasons, won four playoff series, three of which as the team's best player, and led his team to a Western Conference Finals appearance. 

 

Now, the only time Davis has won a playoff series, it was in a sweep against Lillard and the Trail Blazers in 2018. Those four games were arguably the most embarrassing moments of Lillard's career. 

While Davis averaged 33.0 points, 11.8 rebounds, and 2.8 blocks per game, Lillard struggled to average 18.5 points and 4.8 assists on 35.2% shooting. The Pelicans blitzed Lillard and McCollum on the pick-and-roll with Jrue Holiday and Anthony Davis which neutralized the Trail Blazers' dynamic backcourt. 

Many felt the sweep would end the Lillard-McCollum era in Portland but instead, Lillard refused to let anyone inside the team point fingers and was ready to roll with his team in 2019.

The result? A Western Conference Finals appearance despite a season-ending injury to Jusuf Nurkic. At the same time, Anthony Davis was publicly demanding a trade to tank his trade value and force his way out of New Orleans. 

Davis' attempt with Klutch Sports worked and now he's in Los Angeles wearing the purple and gold as the number one seed in the Western Conference. For the Lakers who mortgaged their future to acquire Davis, it is title-or-bust this season and all subsequent seasons with James in a Lakers jersey.

Meanwhile, Lillard had to have one of the greatest offensive seasons in NBA history to will an injury-riddled Blazers team to the playoffs as the eighth seed, but now Portland isn't playing like an eight seed. After going 7-2 in the bubble, many around the league view Portland as a 4th or 5th seed caliber team with a healthy Nurkic in the fold. 

Despite Davis and LeBron both being widely viewed as top-five NBA players, it is Damian Lillard that has been playing the best basketball inside the bubble, winning MVP of the seeding games after averaging 37.6 points and 9.6 assists in the eight seeding games, all against opponents that qualified for the postseason. 

Additionally, Lakers guard Avery Bradley has opted out of the bubble, who would have served as the primary defender on Lillard. Now, Los Angeles will have to rely on Alex Caruso or Danny Green and will likely look to blitz Dame on the pick-and-roll to force anyone else to beat them.

"He’s balling right now. He’s hot," said Davis of Lillard who dropped 48 in a win over the Lakers in January. "He’s doing whatever he’s doing, whatever he can do to make his team win."

But Dame has spent two full seasons adjusting to defeat the blitz since the sweep to the Pelicans. In the eight seeding games, Lillard was blitzed 57 times. The next highest was Caris Lavert with 27. That defense is what Dame sees every night now. 

If Damian Lillard can continue his stellar play against the league's third-ranked defense and can get Portland to become only the fifth eighth-seed to win a first-round playoff series, then it'll finally be time to start viewing Dame as the best player in his draft class. 

 

It won't be easy, but who wants to be in the business of doubting Damian Lillard? Not me.