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Should Damian Lillard be an All-Star? A Look at the Numbers

Tuesday, February 09, 2016


Damian Lillard

When the NBA All-Star ballot returns were announced on January 21st, it was no surprise to Trail Blazers fans that point guard Damian Lillard was not among the five players selected by fan vote to start the All-Star game, with Golden State Warriors point guard Stephen Curry and Oklahoma City Thunder point guard Russell Westbrook proving to be fierce backcourt competition in addition to the 1.9 million votes garnered by Los Angeles Lakers guard Kobe Bryant. All told, Lillard managed to earn only a shade over 150 thousand votes (158,360 votes to be exact), certainly a disappointing return tally for the 2-time All-Star. A week later, the talent-rich Western Conference coaches further hamstrung Lillard’s efforts for national recognition, glossing over the 4th year Weber State star for seven other players. A majority of the selections were well-deserved; there’s triple double machine Draymond Green (An NBA high 10 this season as of 2/4/16), James Harden throwing up a killer 28-6-7 Pts-Rebs-Asts line, Chris Paul averaging 19 points and 10 assists while playing his usual stellar defense from the point guard position. 
But was Lillard snubbed at all? Or was this simply a case of too many talented players and not enough spots, a musical chairs game of the worst kind? Lillard’s selection, or rather lack thereof, can be tied to three other players: Kobe Bryant, DeMarcus Cousins, and LaMarcus Aldridge. Now, it’s obvious that for Kobe Bryant’s swan song he was a shoe-in to be selected to the game, this despite the rather pedestrian numbers being put up by Bryant. Kobe is averaging a 16-4-4 line, shooting 35 percent from the field, 27.3 percent from behind the arc, all while jacking up 16 shots per game as part of his insanely high (based on quality of play) 30 percent usage rate. Lillard’s numbers all compare favorably to Bryant’s, with Dame putting up a 24-4-7 and an accompanying 42-37-86 shooting line on nearly 20 field goal attempts per game, a 31 percent usage rate further indicating Lillard’s offensive value to the Trail Blazers this season. Nevertheless, with Bryant announcing his impending retirement earlier this season, a spot was ensured to him in spite of his mediocre numbers.
To gain All-Star recognition, then, Lillard was forced to look elsewhere, with his only other options to outshine being big men DeMarcus Cousins and LaMarcus Aldridge. When looking at Cousins’ numbers, his worthiness is fairly apparent. Despite playing for a 21-29 Sacramento Kings team, Cousins’ has been the focal point of Kings team averaging a robust 107 points per game, putting up some dazzling numbers and gaudy game logs over the first half of the season. With a usage rate approaching 36 percent, Cousins is attempting 21 field goals per game while putting up a 27-11-3 line to go with 1.4 steals and 1.4 blocks per game. Cousins has branched his game out further this season as well, attempting around 3 threes per game while making roughly a third of them without sacrificing his ability to draw fouls and get to the line (over 10 FT attempts per game). With three 40+ point games, including 56 against the Hornets on 1/25/2016, coupled with 4 games of 33+ points and 16+ rebounds, Cousins may very well end up on the All-NBA 1st team after the season. In spite of his team’s mediocre status, Cousins is a deserving All-Star this season.
And so, like old friends, they met again, coveting the same treasure, though this time as foes. The final All-Star reserve slot undoubtedly was an exercise in team success versus individual accolades, with San Antonio Spur LaMarcus Aldridge ultimately reigning supreme. The 45-4 Warriors had 3 players selected to the 2016 All-Star squad, and it certainly would have seemed bizarre had the 41-8 Spurs only gained one All-Star selection. But San Antonio’s motion-offense is predicated upon ball movement and finding the open man, and naturally player per game averages can sag a bit as a result. This is certainly the case with LaMarcus Aldridge, something that can clearly be demonstrated. L.A. is averaging just 30 minutes per game, lower than every season save his rookie year and down from the 35.4 minutes he averaged last year in Portland. His first 30 point game came on 2/3/16, nearly 50 games into the season, a staggering development considering Aldridge’s MVP-level play last season. In fact, in nearly every major category, with the exception of field goal percentage, Aldridge’s numbers are down from the 2014-15 season. 23-10-2 with a 47-35-84 shooting line has become 17-8-1 with a 50-0-82 shooting line. Aldridge finds himself taking only 14 shots per game this season, easily his lowest figure since his rookie year, and when you couple L.A.’s fewer shot attempts with the Spurs’ excellent spacing and ball movement leading to better looks, you get Aldridge shooting 51 percent on two point field goal attempts, his highest figure in that category since 2011-12. 
When you dive just a bit deeper and check the on floor/off floor numbers for both players, the true value of Lillard begins to shine. Both Aldridge and Lillard are small liabilities on the defensive side of the ball; opponents score nearly 4 points less per 100 possessions when Lillard and Aldridge are OFF the court, hinting at Lillard’s struggles with pick and roll defense and Aldridge’s inability to contest shots at the rim with any sort of consistency. Offensively, however, the numbers clearly favor Damian Lillard. The Trail Blazers score nearly 6 points more per 100 possessions with Lillard in the game, as you might expect with a player that has a 31 percent usage rate (why give the ball to someone on offense who can’t help your team put more points on the board?). In contrast, the struggles of Aldridge to integrate into the Spurs offense are readily apparent. While second on the team in points scored and in usage rate, Aldridge’s touches haven’t translated into better offense, as the Spurs average 3 more points per 100 possessions with Aldridge on the bench. L.A. still appears uncertain about when to pass, when to cut, and when to shoot within the offense. January was an improved month, however, as the Spurs averaged 117 points per 100 possessions with Aldridge in. Aldridge has improved his field goal shooting in every month this season, and his 36-point outbreak against Charlotte on 2/3/2016 could be a sign of things to come. Nevertheless, Lillard’s play has continued to improve throughout the season as well, as his three point percentage and offensive rating (points per 100 possessions) have continually risen even as his usage rate has steadily declined each month. 
In the end, however, the team success of the San Antonio Spurs catapulted Aldridge ahead of Lillard in the minds of the Western Conference coaches, and it’s difficult to find fault in their decision to acknowledge the incredible pre-All-Star Break the Spurs have thus far enjoyed. 41-8 is an incredible record through 49 games, clouded only by the torrid pace the Warriors have set, and a team playing that well is certainly deserving of 2 All-Stars, if not guaranteed such an outcome. All-Star rosters are constantly attempting to balance individual and team recognition, and in spite of the individual brilliance of Damian Lillard, it’s impossible to overlook the strong season put together thus far by San Antonio, and accordingly LaMarcus Aldridge got the nod over Lillard. While you can certainly make the very convincing case that Damian Lillard deserved to be an All-Star this season, San Antonio can similarly claim they deserve two All-Stars to honor their incredible season, leaving us with too many good players and not enough seats at the table. So for now, Damian Lillard has been ushered over to the kids table, hoping for a last-second injury replacement, praying his name might be called, but plotting for what happens if his name isn’t.


GoLocalPDX partner Oregon Sports News: Since 2011, Oregon Sports News has provided entertaining, hard-hitting local sports news & commentary every weekday. To read more from this author, check out Oregon Sports News by clicking here.


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