Damian Lillard and Kyrie Irving: comparing point guards of the future

Kyrie Irving is one of the best point guards in the NBA today and has provided the Cleveland Cavaliers with a star young player after the departure of one relatively renowned superstar. Kyrie's ability to perform in the clutch has already earned recognition along with some of the best in the game (ala Kobe Bryant and Kevin Durant). And remarkably, like that former Cavs superstar, everybody knows it’s going to come down to Irving in the final minutes of the game because the second and third highest scorers on the team are the oh-so-formidable Dion Waiters and Tristan Thompson at 14.6 and 11.4 points per game.

While Irving is doing so great—and set a high standard for incoming rookie point guards—often Damian Lillard of the Portland Trailblazers is set aside as a decent up-and-coming player. Let there be no question: Irving is better than Lillard right now by a considerable margin, but a comparison of their rookie years sheds some light into a more equitable comparison. Lillard has considerably similar potential to Kyrie.

Both are the new-brand of scoring point guards who can take over a game. Need an example? In a 136-106 win on Friday, the Trailblazers beat the team with the best record in the NBA handily (San Antonio). Lillard went off for 35 points and 9 assists, going 12-20 from the field, 3-4 from three, and 8-8 from the line. That’s big time from the sure-fire 2013 NBA Rookie of the Year.

Everything about Irving’s late-game heroics has already been well-documented. An ESPN Insider article showed that the rookie Irving was hands down the best clutch player in the NBA last year. Better than those very LeBrons, Kobes, and Durants, you name it…and this year has been no different. Why is this a problem? Lillard’s recognition as a big-time player is diminished by that prowess. While Cleveland has a minimal spotlight, the remnants of LeBron’s past give Kyrie some (deserved) love. On the other hand, the lowly Trailblazers have a reputation for passing up on Michael Jordan and Kevin Durant—that’s about it.

Moreover, a direct comparison of these guys shows that, in fact, they have remarkably similar rookie years.

Kyrie Irving
Damian Lillard
Games played
eFG percentage
FT percentage

Across the board, the numbers are really comparable. Yet Lillard is not getting as much hype because of this encore of a Round 2 by Kyrie Irving. The plethora of great point guards in the NBA also has put Lillard at a slight disadvantage but I fully expect him to compete with Irving for the top point guard spot once the Chris Paul and Rajon Rondo era has ended…and maybe even before then.

Lillard has had significantly better team success than Irving which is is in large part because the Blazers also have Batum, Aldridge. By contrast, Irving’s supporting cast is not nearly as capable. However, it is important to keep in mind that the Blazers are in the Western conference and the Cavs in the East. Thus far the Blazers are 29-32 and fighting for a playoff spot against the 10th lowest SRS (essentially strength of schedule) whereas the 2011-12 Cavaliers had the second worst SRS and finished with an abysmal 21-45 record. In other words, they played terribly against terrible teams—not impressive.

Imagine these guys on the same team...
What does this mean? Simply that with more around him, Lillard has been able to compete for a playoff spot in the Western conference. With less and against worse competition, Irving has had minimal team success. Irving is in a more difficult situation and performed stunningly considering he was a teenager taking over the reins of the most famous teenage NBA superstar, LeBron James. So which factors you weigh more is personal preference but the reality is that Lillard is not significantly worse than Kyrie by any stretch of the imagination.

How about clutch stats? While Irving has an impressive edge in points per 48 minutes and eFG%, the other numbers tell a different story. When Lillard is on the floor, his team scores 15 points more during clutch time whereas the Cavs scored 11 points less when Irving was on the floor last year. Irving may be worth more as an individual but his team did better when he was on the bench during clutch time (according to these numbers). The exact opposite can be said of Lillard. This does not help Kyrie's case because (these numbers say that) his team was better off with him on the bench at the end of the fourth.

Net pts per 48 min
Pts per 48 min
D. Lillard
K. Irving
Kyrie Irving stats are 2011-12 and Damian Lillard are 2012-13 as of March 9.

The most important conclusion that we should get from this is that the two are incredibly similar in their ability. Right now—and in general—it may be hard to imagine that Lillard will become a better player than Irving but a critical look the numbers shows that Lillard is not far behind…if he is behind at all in the first place. He’s on our radar but Lillard should not be considered far off from the spotlight. Maybe it will take time for small market PG to gain recognition but at least you can now officially chalk me up as saying that Damian Lillard is the real deal.


  1. Um, why are you not using their Per/36 stats to compare their rookie seasons. Comparing their raw stats and not taking into account the total minutes played is dumb. Here are links for anyone who wants to compare.



    As you can see, Irvings rookie stats are much better than Lillard's when you adjust for minutes.

  2. Sure per 36 numbers help but I completely disagree that Irving's stats are much better. For one, three of the stats that I used don't change if you use their per 36 stats. Second, Irving missed a lot of PT during his rookie year which helps his per 36 numbers. Also, the link that you provided is referenced in the article itself.

    Also, I'm not sure if you noticed but in comparing their clutch stats in their rookies, I used per 48 stats and percentages only.

  3. Regardless, why would you chart a table of their rookie stats without including minutes? Seems like a blatant cherry pick to me.

    Also, his stats adjusted for minutes are significantly better; he scores at a more efficient rate and has a significantly higher rebound and assist %.

  4. I have made many player comparisons here on Bases and Baskets - most have not included minutes per game. Feel free to look through older comparisons if you need verification. I am consistent in my analysis.

    My point with him playing less games is that his impressive performance was magnified because he didn't play as much. I don't see any support for your claim that players develop dramatically over the course of their first season. The way I look at it, the longer you have to play, the more teams will figure out what you're all about. Want proof? The sophomore slump has that name for a reason. The more tape you have on a player, the easier it is to gameplan for him.

  5. if kyrie is on the bench at the end of the 4th, it's because the cavs are losing by A LOT. if lillard is on the bench, it's because the blazers are winning by a lot. +/- is a super-overrated stat. give me something i can use, like situational PERs

  6. Hands down Kyrie is the better person. But all Kyrie needs to do is find a better team and have a sick big 3 on that team. In my eyes that big 3 would be Him, Carmelo, and maybe Blake Griffin!

  7. Right now, Kyrie's definitely better but in the future you might end up changing your mind. As for your suggestion for a Big 3 with Kyrie, I really think that he and Melo would not mesh together because both are scorers. And Blake is pretty happy with CP3 from the looks of things. Kyrie, Durant, and Varejao would be a great combo.

  8. I have read most of your comparisons and I can tell only one thing - they all include a strong bias towards the player that you favour more and as a result, these comparisons suck!

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