Damian Lillard’s Trail Blazers career has reached an inflection point where his legacy is solidifying. We feel it, fans feel it, the record books are feeling it and Dame is sensing it. On Monday night, Lillard eclipsed Clyde Drexler to become the franchise’s all-time leading scorer. Lillard’s career has been an exhilarating ride, but his opportunity to remain significant beyond this generation is slipping away. For years in the mid-2010s, a contingent of NBA insiders or fans tried to argue Lillard was on Steph Curry’s plane of existence as a shooter.
Over time the contrarians have faded away. A few doofuses exist, but recognizing Curry as the Patron Saint of Shotmakers has become basketball orthodoxy. However, Lillard has clearly felt overshadowed by Curry’s accomplishments. Two years ago, he remarked on Curry struggling without his All-Star castmates and ultimately had to eat his words.
His most recent blasphemy might be worse. In his postgame remarks on Monday, Lillard explained where he believes he should rank among the preeminent shooters in league history.
“I always see stuff on social media where they talk about the greatest shooters of all time and they always act like it’s just crazy for people to mention me,” Lillard said. “I think for how many threes I’ve made, for how consistent I make them, the level of difficulty that I shoot threes with over years and years and years, I just think it’s kind of crazy people don’t mention me in those discussions.”
Lillard continued with his explanation, but it didn’t get better.
“Obviously I think Steph is the greatest ever, but I think after him, I don’t see why I’m not clear-cut in that discussion, not just by makes, but how I shoot it, how I make tough ones all the time, how easy I shoot the ball,” Lillard added. “I’m looking forward to keep climbing that list so once I get up there in that top two, top three, I’m curious to see what people will say about me as a shooter at that point.”
When Lillard thrusts himself into the top two or three all-time he’s probably referring to the career 3-pointers made list, but booiiiiiiii… Sometimes that supreme confidence that enables him to take 30-footers with no regard, goes a little too far. Lillard is great, but he wouldn’t even reach the NBA Shooter’s Mt. Rushmore.
Even if you stick to the modern-day NBA, Kevin Durant is the purest elite shooting alternative to Curry. His career three-point shooting percentage of 38 percent matches Lillard’s except he’s also one of the preeminent midrange shooters of the modern era and he gets it done in the postseason too. Durant’s lanky arms stretch longer than most peninsulas, making his shot impossible to block when he rises and extends. There’s a reason his form is the standard by which Victor Wambanyama’s perimeter shooting upside is measured.
Durant gets overlooked because he’s bigger, not as shifty and he prefers to take the occasional midrange jumper than launch drone missiles from the logo. Due to his immense size and length, Durant isn’t as limited on drives to the basket, therefore his scoring profile isn’t as reliant on the arc. But when he does, he’s a force to be reckoned with.
To Lillard’s credit, he has established himself as one of the two most prolific shooters beyond 30 feet in NBA history. That’s partially because until recently, taking “bad shots” from that distance was frowned upon. Between 2015-16 and 2021, Lillard’s efficiency was more comparable to Trae Young’s volume shooting than Curry’s wet work. The disparity between Lillard and Curry from 30 feet or more is so wide that during that span, Curry was more accurate on deep threes than Lillard from 24 feet out.
Lillard is a pioneer of the intercontinental 3-pointer, but placing him as Curry’s salutatorian is an Everest-level climb. Lillard’s belief in himself is both overconfidence and a classic example of recency bias run amok. Right now, he’s approximately 1,000 behind Ray Allen and trails Reggie Miller by 1,300 triples. Larry Bird wasn’t fortunate enough to participate in the 3-point era, yet his shooting prowess is almost mythical.
Miller and Allen were imitable shooters from the 3-point arc’s Mesozoic era. Allen in particular was a master of long-distance strikes. His form was frozen in amber for nearly two decades. His consistency was unmatched and in Allen’s prime, he was an elite three-level scorer who could finish above the rim.
But all of this is moot without Lillard acknowledging the only other player whose individual accomplishments match Curry’s and had the cultural chokehold on the greatest shooter alive belt until Curry’s ascension. Larry Bird was an absolute sniper, MVP, and three-time champion whose arsenal included long-range leaners, fadeaways, and the occasional game of crunchtime HORSE.
Six times, Bird shot over 40 percent from distance, but rarely took more than one triple a night during his nascent years in the league which coincided with the advent of the 3-point line and established a monopoly over the first trio of 3-point contests until he retired from the event.
In an era where distance shooting was an afterthought, Bird was still able to join the exclusive
50-40-90 club twice while Lillard has only finished one season with a 3-point shooting percentage over .400. Bird deserves some respect on his name. But so do Kyrie Irving, who has stormed the 50-40-90 club, and Irving’s former coach, Steve Nash, who joined the club four times.
Lillard is an exceptional long-distance assassin, but putting him up for consideration as the best shooter of all time not named Wardell is a high bar. That’s a bustling list leaving Lillard lost in the crowd.
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