Not a single reporter or expert predicted the Portland Trail Blazers to be sitting in the third seed in the Western Conference. No one saw this coming at all. A lot of their success has to do with the play of one of the best backcourts in the league today.
Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum have led this group all the way. They’ve steadily climbed the ladder of making their presence felt in the NBA. Kevin Durant recently named McCollum the most difficult underrated player to guard in the league. Lillard is no stranger to the underrated, slept-on, and overlooked talk. It seems that that narrative has hovered over him during his five-year career. While validation was on his mind in past years, he expressed how he looked at this season differently (via SLAM).
“It’s funny, because coming into this season, I kind of just relaxed,” Lillard tells me following a mid-March practice. “I was like man, I’m not going to kill myself over people not recognizing what I’m doing. I don’t need validation. I just let it go.”
Whether it was All-Star snubs, best point guard rankings, or constant comparisons to other elite point guards in the league, Lillard has always been slighted in some way shape or form. While he has talked about it and has not strayed away from it, he has not let it affect his game. The Portland point guard has been consistently great this year more than ever. I’ve always felt that he deserved to be in the conversation but he’s proving himself even more to his doubters.
Lillard is 5th in scoring averaging 26.8 points per game. If you’ve watched his game then you know there’s nothing that he can’t do. He can shoot the deep three, has the handles to get wherever he wants on the floor but he also has a sneaky athleticism and craftiness that allows him to get to the rim and finish. He’s top 10 in points on drives to the basket as well as pull up jumpers so that goes to show that there’s not a shot that doesn’t look good for Lillard.
The high volume of great guards in the NBA over the past couple of years has a lot to do with why Lillard has been left out of the conversation. Guys like Russell Westbrook, Kyrie Irving, Chris Paul and Stephen Curry have been heralded the best at the point guard position over the past few years. One of the knocks against him has been that he hasn’t won yet. While that may be true, something must be said for how he’s led the Trail Blazers to the playoffs every year except his rookie year which is quite remarkable. Especially when you consider how loaded the Western Conference has been over the years.
Even this season, it’s quite astonishing what they’ve achieved. The defense of Portland has been top notch as they’re ranked 9th in defensive rating. Combine that with the elite scoring of Lillard and you can see why the Trail Blazers are where they are. This season is nothing new for Lillard as he’s been producing like he always has. But maybe with a little bit more eyes on him than in years past, he can finally get the credit that he deserves.