Damian Lillard stood at midcourt, dribbling imperturbably on the Nuggets’ logo. In front of him stood a 6’8″ power forward, defending the young star with a clear disadvantage in speed.
The clock continued to tick, with seven seconds standing between a second overtime or a second Trail Blazers victory. 45 feet, literally, between him and his destination. It wasn’t the first time he’s been the antagonist, in a hostile environment giving the opposing team nightmares.
Lillard — through 324 career games — has scored 35 or more points in 14 different instances. Only six of them have generated wins for Portland, even with him shooting 191-of-348 (54.9%) in those games.
When battling through the trenches of a difficult atmosphere, he elevates his game, finding ways to keep his team alive.
Forcing Denver to switch off a pick-and-roll, a concept superstar players look for late in games, he knew it was his stage. Blazing past Kenneth Faried into the lane, he floats the ball in the air, away from the outstretched “Manimal” arms looking to reject it. As it falls through the net, with only 0.2 seconds left, the message becomes clear.
This is his year.
Since the departure of LaMarcus Aldridge, Portland has been written off. Vegas over-unders forecasted them at 26.5 wins for 2015-16, only to be off by 18 wins as the Blazers soared past expectations.
Lillard, himself, feels as if he’s been undervalued and written off. Not making the 12-man All-Star roster for the West last year — because of the corrupt voting system that allowed for Kobe Bryant to start — Lillard has played with an Oregon-sized chip on his shoulder.
He believes it’s his time.
He literally shows you, with each game-clinching bucket and fourth quarter pursuance. The tapping of the wrist. Avowing that you need to check your watch. Or perhaps you don’t.
Because you already know what time it is.
Through four games, Lillard is averaging 34 points, 6.3 rebounds, and 4.5 assists, all while shooting 52.2 percent from the field and 43 percent from three-point range. He’s getting to the line 8.5 times per game, which is helping his true shooting percentage rise to nearly 65 percent.
And yet, nobody is really noticing.
This is who Lillard has become — another superstar in the cramped Western Conference, a home of six of the top seven NBA players in Player Efficiency Rating to begin the year. Anthony Davis, Kawhi Leonard, Russell Westbrook, Kevin Durant, DeMar DeRozan, and Damian Lillard lead the league with a PER above 30–in limited sample sizes, true–but it’s a revelation that conference disparity still exists.
Even with his late-game heroics and brilliant offensive play since his rookie season (2012-13), Lillard still hasn’t amassed the respect you would think someone of his caliber would deserve. He’s durable, playing in 97.9 percent of Portland’s regular-season games since being drafted.
He improves offensively each year, stepped up to the plate when the roster/starting five turnover was disastrous last season, takes on more responsibility every season, and adds more playmaking abilities to his style as he matures. His assist percentage has increased each year as a Blazer, topping out at 33.6 percent last season.
Yet, he falls victim to the dilemma most advanced basketball minds go through, particularly with guards that are high-usage offensive machines.
They’re ridiculed for their defensive proficiency (or lack thereof).
There’s a group of players in this league that have one-of-a-kind offensive tools, shooting expertise, or unique play-making ability, but their eminence diminished because of the other side of the court. To some degree, it makes sense — 50 percent of basketball is about playing intelligent (and tough) enough to get stops on opposing scorers.
But, there are two things that generally go overlooked when balancing the positives and negatives of superstar players.
First, it’s a little baffling how some can just place an equivalent value on everything a player does for his team — offensively and defensively.
What often gets people trapped is believing one’s scoring and shooting production isn’t more valuable (and hard to find) than the production of someone that’s a plus-defender.
A player’s defensive attention, movements, willingness, and strategies can all be the poorest of the “elite” superstars, but their offensive artistry — creating easy points at the foul line, spreading the court with vicious three-point threats, or being unguardable with quickness and power — will still be a leading factor in determining a game’s outcome.
These traits don’t all have an invariable level of significance to the game. Just because you’re below-average at a couple of things, it doesn’t cancel out everything else you do to give your team a fighting chance every night of the season.
Next to Lillard, the icon and leading example for this quandary is James Harden, a familiar foe in the West. The balancing of Harden’s strengths and weaknesses hasn’t favored him one bit to the casual viewer at home, and that’s because everyone believes he’s the worst defender in the league. It’s not true in the slightest, yet his image has taken a hit even as he illustrates some of the most efficient and ruthless offensive seasons in history.
In reality, Lillard is an even worse defender than Harden. Last year, Harden’s final tally Defensive Real Plus-Minus was -0.98 — not even one full point below an average rating — as he finished 44th of all shooting guards across the league. Harden’s Defensive Box Plus-Minus was only -0.4, not terribly low for someone with his offensive responsibilities.
Compare it to Lillard’s, which weren’t pretty ratings. Lillard’s -3.16 DRPM last year ranked him 69th of all point guards (two spots from last), and his DBPM was -2.2 (far lower than Harden’s).
Playing at the most loaded and offensively-gifted position, Lillard’s advanced metrics make him look like a team disservice. That’s undeniable once you look at Lillard’s total RPM from last year (+1.31), which only raises him to 15th of all point guards. Clearly, we know there aren’t 14 point guards on the planet better than Lillard.
The new age of looking at everything through a microscope and bashing a player for mistakes on one end the floor is great for some purposes — because it sheds light on concepts nobody paid attention to in the 80’s and 90’s — but it leads us to unfairly rating superstars that simply aren’t replaceable by the average pro.
The majority of Lillard’s issues defensively aren’t attributed to his size or defensive knowledge. He’s 6’3″ and coached by one of the brightest minds that stemmed from Rick Carlisle’s championship staff in 2011. Stotts puts his players in the best position to succeed defensively, specifically with his nifty pick-and-roll coverages.
Instead, you can point towards Lillard’s focus and attention defensively more than his skill. There are many instances where he’s just a step behind, doesn’t rotate or switch in a quick manner, or he’s just too late fighting over a screen.
The lackadaisical play is still appearing this season, whether it’s in close games or ones that already got out of hand:
In the loss to Golden State on Tuesday, Lillard scored 31 points on 19 shots but had a few of these blunders defensively.
He gets caught ball-watching, as Curry fakes a move to the right side of the court. Even with his man (Ian Clark) standing directly in front of him, Lillard still responds slowly to his man’s cut. Clark curls toward the paint and gets an easy pass from Green. Had Lillard been closer on the play — or at least attentive defensively — he would’ve made it harder for Clark to get such a quality shot off. Instead, he reacts late, then follows it up with fouling a jump-shooter, further burying the Blazers into a home deficit.
Or, in more one-on-one situations, there are many times where Lillard doesn’t attack with a proper defensive stance. Thus, his man gets into the paint and scores easily, despite a recovery and contest:
Here, you could argue Lillard does the right thing by forcing a right-handed player to the left, but the way he approaches Will Barton on the perimeter is a bit careless. It essentially becomes a race to the restricted area, and Lillard knows he’s not big enough to disrupt these type of shots.
It also puts pressure on Ed Davis to come over and help protect the paint, but he can’t with Faried boxing him out nicely. This isn’t a horrible defensive play, but it goes to show that ball-handlers are now singling out Lillard to drive on. In these situations, he’s more likely to foul you (which he did with a body bump in the play above) or give you two easy points.
Even with defensive flaws demonstrated by his -5.2 net rating after four games, Lillard still deserves praise and recognition for the other things he does for Portland.
With the amount of offensive burden that’s on his shoulders with this re-invented Blazers group, it’s not feasible that he achieves all-star status defensively. He’s in the exact same boat as Harden: Try to replace what they bring to the court offensively, and you’ll be (at least) 15-20 wins worse than what you are.
You learn to deal with any deficiencies when Lillard helps your team survive in overtime with drives like these, which generate due to the overflowing of confidence pumping through his veins:
Terry Stotts’ offense is always hovering around the top five of the league. Over the last four seasons, the Trail Blazers have averaged 108.6 points per 100 possessions, a mark that’s incredibly hard to produce over a four-year span with roster changes, injuries, and different competition factoring in. For perspective, 108.6 would’ve ranked seventh.
Coaches can only do so much, though. This is a player’s league, where you need dynamic scorers in order to have a reliable offense. No longer can you really depend on prestigious coaches to take league-average talent and lift them to 50 wins.
Portland has the backcourt to get them into the top tier of the West, but they play a different way than most of the league. As much as we criticize isolation scoring, that’s where a lot of their efficient offense comes from. It’s just part of having Lillard and C.J. McCollum as a backcourt tandem, and the benefits greatly outweigh the headaches when they break down defenders.
Although the Blazers only run isolation sets 7.9 percent of the time (league average usage), they score a surprising 1.23 points per possession on those attempts.
It puts them in the 93rd percentile, behind only the Warriors and Lakers to begin the season. It’s certainly a small sample size, but they did rank 9th in isolation efficiency last year — with over 700 attempts.
Lillard is even better, and McCollum gets to experience his second year as the starting two-guard. The second year of a tag-team offensive powerhouse is always better than the debut, which was last year’s shocking 44-win Blazers.
Where Stotts’ offense becomes magical is through all of the pick-and-roll dynamics. It may seem like a simple basketball theme and offensive strategy, but the way Portland orchestrates penetration (and shooting!) through screen-rolls is truly elite. It’s what keeps them in the same realm as the Warriors, Cavaliers, Spurs, and Clippers when you think of volatile scoring.
Through four games, Portland is using 27.8 percent of their possessions out of pick-and-roll with the ball-handlers controlling most of the clock. That’s over 90 possessions thus far. It’s also up from their 20 percent usage last season, although we’re prone to see this regress as the year continues.
As their pick-and-roll dosage leads the league, they are also sixth in points-per-possession off these sets, scoring 0.91. That’s some of the best offense you can ask for early on: High volume, but paired with high efficiency.
A lot of it has to do with Lillard and McCollum’s three-point intake and effectiveness. Threes are worth more than two (which gives you a higher point-per-possession mark), and Portland’s duo is 19-of-42 from long-distance to start the year (45.2 percent).
Stotts is a master at getting his offense to work early in the shot clock, and he finds ways to get his best outside shooters a decent look, off multiple screens and constant action:
Here, the Blazers coordinate all kinds of movement with a gorgeous weave at the top of the key. Turner initiates it by having Maurice Harkless come to the ball, who then dribble-pitches (in motion) to a running Allen Crabbe.
It’s then up to Lillard to dart from the left wing at just the right time so that he can catch another dribble-handoff from Crabbe. In the midst of all of this, Mason Plumlee has to circle the paint to come set a screen on Lillard’s chaser (Austin Rivers). It has to be a hard and legal screen to where Lillard has time to square his feet. This works perfectly for Stotts, because one defensive mistake or sluggish movement, and Portland gets a clean three-pointer.
Portland is also enjoying a more polished and experienced Mason Plumlee, the full-time starting center who is a valuable screen-setting big and efficient around the rim. He’s also perfect for what Lillard and McCollum need. For instance, when he’s working two-man action with his point guard, Lillard’s speed and hesitation allow him to slip into the lane, knowing Plumlee will find him for the easy bucket:
The Blazers find themselves 2-2, but with losses to two teams they’re desperate to be on whose level they aspire to be. The Warriors pounced on them by 23, while the Clippers carved up their bottom-five defense late in the fourth quarter.
However, the pathway to and ambitious 50 wins for this team revolves around their offensive consistency. They have the backcourt personnel to maintain it. Led by the one introduced every game as “The letter O” because of his life journey through Oakland, Ogden, and now Oregon.
This could be Lillard’s best chance to earn new letters. But the MVP is more difficult to capture now than ever before. Both he and the Blazers will have to build his case.