Can Gary Payton Help Damian Lillard's Defense?

Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

Can Gary Payton help Damian Lillard's defense? Should the Blazers just stand pat this summer? Read on for answers!

Dear Dave,

Chris Haynes at CSNNW recently reported that Damian Lillard is back in Oakland, working out with Gary Payton II. The Glove is supposed to join them when the NBA season ends (tonight?). A legendary defensive point guard thinks he can help Damian become a lock-down defender.

How realistic is this? How long would such a transformation take place? And how would it affect the Blazers' first-unit defense, if Damian learns to a) get around screens, b) cut off penetration, and c) become an on-ball pest?

eric

I'm not a huge believer in the "star association" thing. No matter how proficient you are, you can't siphon off ability to give to the next generation nor can they absorb it by osmosis.

I suspect this kind of training works best with big men. Pete Newell ran a legendary Big Man Camp for decades, giving the giants of the league pointers in how to use their bodies to best advantage. Hakeem Olajuwon or Patrick Ewing might take another big under their wing that way. Another 7-footer might be only guy who truly understands what size means and how to use it.

Outside of that, stars and experts can give pointers. But absent some great untapped well of potential--like being bigger than everybody else but not knowing how to leverage the advantage--those pointers aren't going to transform an awful defender into an all-league guy. Experience and effort can turn almost anybody into a passable defender, but you're not going to stick Damian Lillard with Gary Payton for a few hours and come out with Glove, Part 2.

This kind of event goes into the same hype bin as, "Some Blazers are staying in town over the summer practicing at the team facility" or "Six guys showed up early to training camp to run the floor together." Really? You mean professional athletes actually work on their game even when they're not in-season...even in the summer? You're telling me guys who are going to be running up and down a court somewhere no matter what decided it was more convenient and productive to do it with some fellows they'll actually take the court alongside? And a young guy asked an older person for...advice? Why, I am shocked. Just floored!

There's nothing wrong with Lillard getting some tips from one of the best of all time. Even if he only picks up a trick or two he's that much farther ahead. Two seasons isn't enough to reveal his entire repertoire. His defense is a work in progress. This counts as progress. He should go for it and learn everything he can.

How long will Lillard's defense take to evolve? As long as he wants it to take...positive or negative. If he doesn't care about it much it'll never get there. If he does prioritize defense he never has to stop learning. He can keep right on improving until he chooses not to. (That still doesn't mean his ceiling is infinite, or even as high as Payton's though.) Nobody reaches their theoretical maximum in any endeavor. Most folks hit a point after which further improvement is so incremental that it's not worth the effort. Lillard's not even close to that point yet. He could make significant leaps over the next 3-4 years before we glimpse an apex...whatever that apex may be. Or he could decide that being a one-way player is enough, in which case we've already seen what he has to offer. Either way, we won't know until he gets closer to his prime.

Of the three categories you mentioned, dealing with screens is the most important to the Blazers right now. They have to take pressure off of Robin Lopez on perimeter screen situations. Lillard anticipating better and getting around them quicker would help.

Hey Dave,

Portland, as you said in a previous mailbag answer has five starters all of whom are precious to the rotation. In fact more precious to Portland than to other teams because of how Stotts runs his offense. I agree Matthews is the player who would least hurt our lineup but he's also our best defender (in my opinion) a place Portland is weak.

I propose that Portland do almost nothing during the offseason. Why? Because they will be 1 year older and 1 year more experienced. I think Barton will crack the rotation, Robinson will become a valuable back up too with some hard summer work.

As fans, it's hard to stay put during an offseason, but I think Portland will improve simply by having an extra year under their belts. If any trades need to occur why not make small ones using McCollum, Leonard, Wright and possibly Freeland. Find some defensive players for the bench and higher an assistant coach who is more defensive minded.

Boom! Portland improves and cracks the top 4 in the west next year, and maybe with some luck can make a deeper playoff run.

What do you think?

-Gabe

Yup. The "Stick With It" crowd needs some air time. Half of Portland's roster is woefully inexperienced. Giving them more time to develop is a legitimate option. All the flashy trades involve starters but bench-bolstering deals are the most likely to materialize, if any do at all.

A couple of rough edges stick out in your question:

1. The players you mention as "minor" trades are the very young guys the team would be hoping to develop. You favor Robinson and Barton and regard the other guys as semi-expendable. Others might assess McCollum and Freeland as key pieces. This highlights one of the problems. The Blazers not only have to find the right deals, they have to pick out the prize pupils on their own roster. Arguments can be made for or against any of the reserves on this team. The only near-certainty is that riding with all of them--making absolutely no changes--will leave the bench fairly weak again. Some of those guys will pan out, but all of them? That's a longshot.

2. Luck is no good when planning on a deep playoff run. Even if by some miracle it gets to you a certain stage, you're just going to get clobbered once you arrive.

The claim we made at the end of the post-season run still applies: despite their success this year the Blazers are far closer to being a first-round-and-done team than a conference finalist, let alone an NBA finalist, let alone NBA champions. No matter how much organic improvement you expect from the young guys, envisioning them propelling the team to the third round is a tough sell. This provides an argument for stiffer moves than normal for a team having made a leap like the Blazers have.

You guys have been busy with Mailbag questions over the weekend! I'm going to catch up as we go along but there's always room for more at the e-mail address just below. Send 'em in and mark 'em with "Mailbag" to get noticed quickest!

--Dave blazersub@gmail.com / @DaveDeckard

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