Shabazz Napier: Rejuvenating His Career While Out-Playing Damian Lillard

Shabazz Napier should not be the best player on the Portland Trail Blazers, but so far he has been. The former NCAA Basketball Champion is a diamond in the rough for an underachieving start for Rip City.

An obvious statement and not up for debate is C.J. McCollum and Damian Lillard give the Trail Blazers the absolute best chance to win night-in, night-out. What the 1-2 tandem can achieve knows no boundaries when the machine is firing on all cylinders, there's just one problem––that has not been the case, much of this season for 1/2 of the duo. An up-and-down start to an early season is not much to fret about,when it comes to the streaky Lillard, but Head Coach Terry Stotts has a problem on his hands that nobody seems to be talking about. Shabazz Napier is the star of this winter blockbuster and he's not getting enough camera time. 'He's ready for his close-up, Mr. Stotts.'

Napier, a four-year veteran is playing just under 20 minutes a night (18.5), but leads the way in advanced analytics in contrast with Lillard through 27 and 31 games, respectively. According to Synergy Sports overall offensive breakdowns, Napier receives an excellent rating on plays in transition, pick-and-roll, spot-ups and handoffs. In those same categories, Napier's counterpart Lillard has basically been a shell of his former self in years' past.

Lillard matches Napier in the P&R(excellent), but in transition and handoffs he is merely average or at best, good, and with spot-ups receives a poor rating via Synergy Sports. The regression and up-and-down nature of Lillard's game some might argue goes hand-in-hand with the effort you see on the defensive end from Lillard, sporadic and lacking intensity. With one of his poorest seasons at this point, the resurgence of Napier may have the potential to alleviate the stress Lillard faces as the face of the franchise. At more than 35 minutes a game(37.1), Lillard's offensive struggles could be attributed to over-usage in minutes and giving Napier the deserved time on the hardwood will benefit all parties.

"Shabazz Season" is upon us and the play of the former NCAA Champion cannot go unnoticed. Posting career-highs in Portland, Napier has posted an adjusted field goal percentage in the following categories: Spot-up (80.9), transition (70.5), handoffs (59.1) and off-screen (55.6). "Dame Dolla" in the same categories can't come close to the resurgence fans have seen from Napier . . . Lillard through 31 games has an aFG percentage off spot-up (37.1), transition (53.3), handoffs (40.6) and off-screen (47.5). To say Lillard is having a tough time is an understatement and combined with his known deficiencies on defense, the experiment may be coming to a bitter end in 2017-18.

Shabazz Napier is a really good basketball player, and the Trail Blazers will actively be present in a conundrum before this is all over. How long is too long to wait and see when it comes to Damian Lillard?

While most criticism will be taken as hyperbole statements negatively chastizing his career, that is not the case. As of today, the Trail Blazers have three great guards and one that could be great if given the ample time to make the leap. The latter is Napier, while the former is McCollum and Lillard. If Portland chose to move Lillard within the next two seasons, particularly this season, they could get some needed draft picks or a stretch-four/five to compete in the Western Conference gauntlet. Choosing to move Lillard and package in a useless Evan Turner, who still sometimes play defense, is striking while the iron is hot. A bold move that a franchise on broken record may need to make sooner rather than later. There is also the option to keep both guards, but sometimes you just need a fresh, clean break. Something which could be a blessing in disguise for a loyal front office and a loyal Lillard. 

Damian Lillard has provided fans with memorable plays in critical performances time-after-time always leaving it all on the floor. Noone can ever forget the watch celebrations and "you know what time it is." This 2017 season thus far is something to forget and with Lillard posting career-lows in field goal percentage (41.8), three-point percentage (34.8) and effective field goal percentage (49.1) with a high in turnovers at (3.1). Something is up in Lillard's game, but in his absence, Napier continues to shine. Damian Lillard may have hit a rough patch, but if it gets worse as the trade deadline nears, it's time Portland makes way for a new seed in Napier.

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