Portland Trail Blazers: Damian Lillard and an Upside Down Year

— December 1st 2017

The Trail Blazers are in the midst of an unusual season, winning with defense and floundering on offense. How has Damian Lillard fared?

By Paul Headley

In many ways, 2017-18 has been Damian Lillard’s finest season to date. Though his counting stats and percentages are down,  “Big Game Dame” is 4th among point guards in ESPN’s real plus-minus, 8th in win shares per 48 minutes and 7th in Box plus-minus. Lillard’s effect on the offensive side of the floor goes beyond mere box-scores. Though the team’s offense has sputtered for several reasons, Lillard’s gravity remains as vital as ever.

The Trail Blazers currently sit at fourth place in the western conference with a record of 13-8. Lillard’s three-point shooting is off, and he’s not finishing at the basket like he was last season. A team that once lived and died on the offensive end is now grinding out wins on defense, and has held teams to under 100 points in 9 of their 21 contests. Lillard, lambasted in previous years for his turnstile defense, is having a career year on that end. Truly we’re living in the upside-down. A closer examination is warranted.

The Offense

The three ball is the source of many of the Blazers problems on offense. Lillard’s three-point shot is off (33.1 percent, down from 37 percent last season), but it seems to be a product of random chance. Dame is shooting slightly more pull-ups than last season, as well as a few more dribbles per shot, but nothing stands out compared to previous seasons. Left-wing threes continue to be his favorite (and least efficient) three-point shot, but one would imagine he’ll heat up at some point. A far more pressing point is how the team’s lack of spacing is affecting the rest of his game.

The Trail Blazers aren’t getting up enough threes, particularly from their front-court. Al-Farouq Aminu’s injury has hurt (the team had a 110.1 offensive rating with Aminu on the court before he sprained his ankle against Utah three weeks ago) but it would be folly to pin everything on his absence. It’s no coincidence that as the team has dropped league-wide in three-point attempts (28th in the association with 23.6 per game, down from 12th and 27.7 last season), so too has their offensive rating and ranking (from 11th last season to 21st this season.)

Lillard is still one of the most pick-and-roll heavy guards in the league. Though he’s devastating scoring from it (1.01 points-per-possession, 87th percentile), the team as a whole is painfully easy to defend on the roll. Nurkic has had a positive impact in many regards as a Blazer, but his inability to pop out to the three-point-line cramps things up. When Nurkic comes up to screen Lillard’s man, smart defenders just lag back in the paint. You’re not inspiring rotations or putting the defense under pressure to make a mistake. Watch Tyson Chandler stay glued to the center of the floor and force Lillard into a difficult floater:

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Nurkic isn’t finding as much success as a passer this year, but he can still make plays from the top of the key when guys cut hard. Using him at the top of the key in dribble hand-offs or slinging passes to moving guys is the best way to capitalize on his strengths:

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The Blazers lack of shooting outside of their guards is hindering half-court spacing and making finishing inside the paint a much more difficult task than in previous years. Portland was already one of the worst teams in the league at finishing in the paint (56.5 percent last season, 27th overall). This year they’ve plummeted to dead last at a pitiful 52 percent. Dame is mostly fine when he can get all the way to the rim (58.2 percent inside three feet per basketball-reference), but between 0 to 5 feet out his numbers are down, from 56.4 percent in ’16-’17 to just 53.5 percent in this current campaign.

Lillard frequently runs into a wall of arms at the paint. In this next clip, the Blazers run the Pacers through a few staggered screens to let Lillard gain momentum towards the rim. Here’s where the problems arise.  Ed Davis is no threat on the perimeter and Evan Turner gets abandoned like a rotten Christmas tree a week after New Year’s. Lillard gets a bit myopic, and CJ McCollum lies in wait in the corner, but it’s still a great example of the problems multiple non-shooters can cause:

Count the Clippers in the paint when Lillard launches this floater:

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The Blazers have ranked in the middle of the pack in pace during Lillard’s reign. Pushing the ball would help alleviate half-court problems. Not only is Lillard a threat to pull up on the break, he’s also very difficult to stop when attacking space:

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Fatigue could also be a factor in Lillard’s paint game. Lillard seems flat on some finishes, without the type of lift Blazer fans have become accustomed to. Playing hard on both ends of the floor is supremely difficult, and a renewed commitment to defense could be the reason.

Dame Defense

Bleacher Report aggregated four major defensive impact statistics to rank the five worst defenders at each position. Lillard was ranked the fifth worst point guard defender in the league last year. This is certainly not the case this season.

Lillard has been more active with his hands than in years past. Lillard’s steal percentage is currently around his career-level, but he’s getting far more “clean” steals this year (steals from hustle and timing, rather than jumping lanes and leaving his teammates exposed). Watch him move over to help on Victor Oladipo’s drive, then use his long reach to pluck the ball away from the Pacer’s guard as he attempts the kick-out.

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Lillard’s block rate has almost doubled. He isn’t dying on screens like he has in the past. Much like his basketball doppelgänger Kyrie Irving, also in the midst of a career year on defense, Lillard has always had the physical tools and IQ to be a good defender. Effort, or lack thereof, was the problem. In this next clip, watch him navigate Steven Adams’s hulking screen and block Russell Westbrook’s mid-range jumper:

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Lillard hasn’t been perfect, of course, and there’s still time for regression for both him and the team on the defensive end (the Blazers are third in defensive rating per ESPN).  Opponents are shooting just 28.6 percent on three-point-shots guarded by Lillard, a fairly unsustainable number. The Blazers’ defense has been buoyed by multiple games against bad teams and toothless offenses, but that doesn’t mean the team or Lillard haven’t turned a corner at getting stops.

The Future

The Turner contract looks just as bad in year 2. Though solid defensively, Turner completely tanks the team’s offense. The seventy-million-dollar man ranks dead last amongst shooting guards in offensive real plus-minus at minus 3.12. Pat Connaughton has been incredibly valuable at filling line-ups with shooting, and he’d seem to make much more sense than Turner as a backup going forward.

Some have speculated that CJ McCollum, Lillard’s backcourt running mate and former Most Improved Player, has usurped Dame as the Trail Blazers’ premier talent (and perhaps the player the team should choose to keep if they were to split the pair up). As great as McCollum is, it’s difficult to make that case. Lillard is a better rebounder, passer and defender at this point. McCollum has an easier time on offense because of Lillard’s presence. Lillard is as vital off the court as in is on. It’s difficult to attach value to the loyalty he inspires in teammates, or the culture he’s developed since LaMarcus Aldridge’s departure.

It’s easy to blindly yell about trading one of the pair. The question remains: who can you get in return? Balance would help, particularly if the team was able to spring for a quality stretch four. Coach Terry Stotts has clearly lost any lingering faith he had in Meyers Leonard, who might seem like an internal fix. So who else out there? Is Kevin Love really fixing your problems? Love would certainly help with spacing, but he’ll be 30 by the start of next season and is still only passable on defense (sometimes) against teams like the Rockets and Warriors. Any other theoretical fixes are unlikely to be available.

It’s a difficult predicament. The smart move would be to stay pat and wait for a star to get angsty. For now, the Lillard-McCollum-Nurkic trio is enough to keep the team competitive at least, and they should be much better once Aminu returns to the lineup. If the team can stay inside the top 10 in defense, a combination of Aminu’s shooting and Dame regaining his stroke should be enough to return the team’s offense to the top half of the league. “Lillard Time” still lies in wait.

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