Damian Lillard understands the point guard culture wars. I don’t know this for a fact, I guess, but everything about Lillard’s cultivated demeanor since entering the NBA suggests he has a rare understanding of the various pressures placed on the position by fans’ expectations. He understands what fans and some media want out of their point guard’s attitude, and this savvy allows him to assume the mantle—and the laurels—of a “pure” point guard even as he grows away from the archetype.
I can’t kick this hornets’ nest without discussing the idea of a pure point guard a little bit. You know the type: selfless when it comes to taking shots but an unwavering control freak when it comes to the quality of a teams’ shots. The pure point guard “sets teammates up” before “looking for his own shot.” Often, he “lets his teammates get in a rhythm” before deciding when to “exert his will” on a game. Beg your pardon for the excessive scare quotes, but it’s sort of impossible to talk about these ideas without acknowledging that they’re largely bogus.
The Pure Point Guard is seated on Olympus next to the Post-up Big Man, the one dishing no-look grape lobs to the other in a ceaseless bacchanal of virtue. The Pure Point Guard does not play basketball; he is the manifestation of fans’ desires to see their own ideas about basketball enacted by more talented players. The Pure Point Guard, like the Coach’s Son and his cousin the Pocket Quarterback, is a way for fans to believe that the noblest route to success in the NBA, or sport in general, is an ascetic dedication to studying the game. You don’t have to be 6’5” or really fast to be a Pure Point Guard, you must simply dedicate your time on the court to the virtues of selflessness and geometry.
In Olympus’ pick-up games, the Pure Point Guard exerts his control over the games largely without getting closer to the rim than the elbow. On those occasions he drives into the lane, he stares down a shooter in the corner as he whips a pass around a defender to the Post-up Big Man, who points and nods with their shared appreciation of the Pure Point Guard’s Vision. For the Pure Point Guard is a scalpel, not a hammer, and his role is to make incisions only when they are prescribed by the needs of his Team.
Damian Lillard is not a Pure Point Guard, but it is my sense that he is widely assumed to be. Forgive me if this is a straw man, as I will forgive any who believe in Lillard’s purity; whether he is widely considered to have attained Purity or not, he is plainly cultivating it. But like anybody with a strong grasp of rhetoric, he is not cultivating it with his actions nearly as much as he is with his words.
On the court, Lillard ranks 33rd in assist percentage among guards, 15th in raw assists per game among guards, and 10th in field goal attempts per game among guards. Those scions of Purity, Rajon Rondo and Chris Paul, sit next to each other atop the guard rankings for assist and assist percentage, and at 24th and 25th in field goal attempts per game among guards. I’m not arguing that Damian Lillard is not a facilitator or a proper offensive catalyst—he is quite plainly both of those things, and excellently so—but I mean to say that whatever on-court pattern aligns with Purity, Damian does not neatly fit it.
And yet, he is constantly deluged by Purity praise, it seems. When on Twitter I discuss Damian’s Rookie of the Year candidacy, my mentions are flooded with the idea that he “makes his teammates better” in a way that others do not. This seems to me a clear result of the calm, controlled persona that Lillard is either imbued with or has constructed, and that is being sold by other players and coaches. Gregg Popovich praised Lillard’s “demeanor” and that he “plays within himself” and Terry Stotts is fond of saying Damian “reads the game.” It is hard to imagine these things being said of Russell Westbrook, who is to Pure Point Guards as Lucifer to Eve.
The reason I bring this whole thing up at all is because last night was perhaps Lillard’s least Pure outing of the season, and also perhaps his best. Averaging a shade under four shots a game at the rim, he took six last night, and converted five. Including two made free-throws he got from and-one drives, Lillard accounted for 12 points at the rim last night, and did not make a three. On one drive in the third quarter, Lillard rose in isolation and twisted around a help defender, evoking the physicality of Derrick Rose, suspended in the air and leaning away from the hoop, his torso flexing but his shoulders square.
I don’t make a Rose comparison here because the two are on similar planes, but because as Lillard gets more efficient, he begins to fall more cleanly into evolutionary class of point guards Rose seemed to usher in. The class, I mean to say, that is so often used as a contrast to the Pure Point Guard. Lillard is becoming more functionally explosive by the game, while his vision remains as direct as ever. Damian is a willing passer, and a good one, but his assists are more acts of recognition than creation. As he gets smarter about the NBA game, he seems to be getting wiser about where to deploy his jets, not where to thread the needle. It is no coincidence that last night Damian had just his third 0 turnover game to pair with his eight assists.
Now obviously, Damian is not setting up a persona as a smokescreen. There’s no intentional deception about the kind of player that he is. But I do think he has an understanding that behaving a certain way, and cultivating a certain image, will buy him more freedom on the court. And that’s a good thing. For as long as he is able to pay his tributes at the altar as Point Guard Purity, he’ll be free to grow into the most effective player he can be.
Find me on Twitter @dmnowell