Sports fans, including NBA fans, are some of the most defensive people you’ll ever meet.
If you go into Cleveland and hate on LeBron James (when he’s not flown off to Miami for four years, that is), you’d better be ready for an angry mob to run at you with pitchforks.
If you head into Oklahoma City and say anything bad about Russell Westbrook, you’ll hear shouts of “at least he isn’t a traitor!”… and then be run at with pitchforks.
If you enter Portland, or speak to a fan of his, and utter anything but praise for Damian Lillard, it’s a level of basketball blasphemy that will be met with fury. A wall of nothing but positivity, admiration and shock in the utterance of your statement.
Ironically, in comparison to Lillard’s game, many fans seem to be incredibly defensive if you say anything that doesn’t sing his praise.
I love Damian Lillard. I don’t write this from a position to overly criticize or throw hate at a player for the sake of being different. Lillard is a great player. He not only displayed his impressive scoring ability on a new level last season, but showed his fiery leadership to ensure that his Trail Blazers weren’t wasting away at the depths of the Western Conference.
That innate sense of leadership, desire to take over and spark energy from his teammates is something that rightfully demands respect. The fact he dropped career-highs in points (25.1) and assists (6.8) per game, despite averaging the exact same number of minutes (35.7) as the previous season demands respect, too.
However, there’s an issue with Lillard. Not completely on the player himself, but in the support that comes his way. The blindly positive adulation. The beloved support no matter what he does wrong.
Or, quite frankly, a level of conscious ignorance. He’s been swept up in an almost overwhelming underdog narrative.
Entering the league scoring 19 points per game to go along with 6.5 assists as the 2012-13 Rookie of the Year, Lillard didn’t wait around to make an impact. He’s proceeded to rise ever since, though not in the eyes of everyone. He made the All-Star team in 2013-14 and 2014-15, yet in the last two seasons, with Lillard at his best, he’s not been treated fairly.
In 2015, he only made the team to replace an injured Blake Griffin.
In 2016, he didn’t make the cut again. This despite dropping 25 points night in and night out and ultimately leading the Blazers to 44 wins when they were meant to struggle to hit 25. It still wasn’t enough.
The snubbed underdog mentality was enforced yet again, adding more fuel to the fire lit by Dame protectors around their beloved point guard.
How could Damian Lillard, the undeniably clutch man who buried that breathtaking buzzer-beating three (when down by two) to win a playoff series against Houston in 2014, not make the All-Star team?
Kobe Bryant’s farewell tour was one factor in ensuring that Lillard, who could have made the cut if not for playing at such a remarkably talented position, missed out.
His talent is obvious. The clutch moments have been thrilling. But it’s been somewhat exaggerated by this underrated and doubted narrative to the point that any flaws in Lillard’s game or track record apparently don’t even matter. That’s the issue to consider here.
Before moving on to the real head-scratching area of denial, there’s Lillard’s defense.
While some plays may see him muster a similar level of energy that he uses to attack on offense, there are far too many plays where he’s a liability. Lacking proper defensive stance to keep up with opponents on drives to the rim, casually approaching a shooter rather than aggressively closing out, simply losing focus (or interest) and being late to switch, leaving players with open looks in the process; these are all some of the obvious issues with Lillard’s defense.
Yes, he has moments where he applies good pressure, but there are too many lowlights and painful lapses for Lillard to be considered a positive or reliable defender. Dan Marang of Blazer’s Edge looked at some of Lillard’s good and bad moments, compiling a set of examples to illustrate just how poor he can be:
We can’t sum up a player’s defensive ability with one or two advanced statistics. It’s the area of analytics that clearly trails behind how we can break down a player’s offensive game. That being said, certain numbers can at least help indicate a player’s impact.
On one hand, Lillard ranked fifth in the NBA among point guards in Offensive Real Plus-Minus last season at 4.47. That’s great. On the other hand, out of the 81 point guards ranked by ESPN, he sits at 79th in Defensive Real Plus-Minus. Which is, well, really not so great. It’s awful.
The Blazers also allowed 4.5 more points per 100 possessions last season when Lillard was on the floor. On top of that, players shot 3.6 percent above their average from three-point range when guarded by Lillard, and shot a generous 7.9 percent above their average within six feet against him.
Essentially, while these numbers don’t tell us everything, combining them with some of the blatant evidence in his actual play emphasizes the discrepancy in Lillard’s strengths, with offensive leadership coming in way ahead of his negative defensive impact.
Defense isn’t necessarily the primary issue in the protection of Lillard, though. It’s his playoff shooting.
The shot against Houston, some of the buzzer-beaters over the course of his career, the increased scoring. There’s a lot going Lillard’s way when looking back to give the impression of being clutch. How could “Big Game Dame” not be clutch? It’s a narrative that makes some sense. That is, until you look at his shooting numbers.
On the night of his famous shot against Houston on May 2, 2014, Lillard was brilliant. He scored 25 points in that game to end the series, shooting 57.1 percent overall and 6-of-10 from three. Spurred on by some other solid shooting performances, 2013-14 became his best playoff year, resulting in 43.9 percent shooting for the entire postseason.
What about the following season in 2014-15, though? He shot just 40.6 from the field and 16.1 percent from three in a five-game first-round series against Memphis.
In 2015-16 over two series against the Clippers and Warriors, Lillard’s numbers fell again. He stayed hot from three, making 3.8 a night at a 39.3 percent rate, but that was it. He shot 36.8 percent overall through the playoffs this year.
Yes, he dropped 40 points on 50 percent shooting in Game 3 against the Warriors to give his Blazers a 120-108 win. After that, he rounded out a year of playoff shooting that can only be described as cold with a 36-point game on 9-of-30 shooting and a 28-point game on 7-of-24 shooting. There’s quantity without efficiency.
Altogether, Lillard has currently wound up with a career playoff field goal percentage of 40.
What he can do as a top scorer has been over-defended to the extent that he’s been defined by many as unequivocally “clutch.” It’s a term that’s often thrown around and done so rather casually at times, and deciding which players have that illusive “clutch gene” has always been a little subjective.
There’s a double standard that can appear when passionate narratives are driven around the NBA. If Russell Westbrook, Chris Paul or Stephen Curry, for instance, have a poor shooting night in the playoffs, we’ll hear all about it. They’re “trash” in an instant or take too many bad shots.
There’s no way we’ll stop hearing hate of Paul’s shortcomings in the postseason and how he’s always failed to pass the second round, despite him averaging 21 points, 9.4 assists, 4.7 rebounds and 2.3 steals per game in eight years making the playoffs, adding 48.3 percent shooting, a 25.5 PER and a 58.4 true shooting percentage to that brilliant stat line.
From the way many tirelessly argue in Lillard’s favor, you’d never guess that his playoff marks in true shooting percentage, PER and field goal percentage are all lower than his regular-season marks. It’s the opposite to others such as Paul, in terms of both the narrative and what’s actually true about their performance on the biggest stage in the playoffs.
The “Lillard is underrated” narrative may be true at times, but it can’t be pushed to the extent that we ignore his weaknesses and struggles while hounding other point guards for theirs.
I’m not saying don’t love Damian Lillard, or that he can never be defended. He’s a great player on the rise who’s been the leading force in carrying the Blazers above and beyond their expectations.
What I’m saying is don’t love him blindly.
The defensive issues and not-so-magical playoff shooting can’t be devoutly ignored all the time.
All statistics courtesy of Basketball Reference and NBA.com, unless noted otherwise.