Even now, at age 24, Damian Lillard is a really good basketball player. Mighty good. He was a Rookie of the Year in his first season, an All-Star in his second and competed this summer for a spot on an eventually gold medal-winning USA Basketball team. For a kid who seemingly just graduated yesterday from Weber State, he's quickly compiled quite the resume.
Unfortunately for Lillard, though, the pressure just keeps mounting. Given the Blazers' position right now in a stacked Western Conference, and Lillard's newfound status as the great Portlandian hope, just being good isn't enough. The Blazers are trying to break into an incredibly competitive class of West elites, and Lillard needs to lead the way. This is no job for an All-Star - it requires an all-out monster. As much as Lillard has improved in just two years, he still needs to do more.
Whether Lillard is the best player on the 2014-15 Blazers is debatable but ultimately irrelevant. With LaMarcus Aldridge in year nine of his NBA career and Nicolas Batum in year seven, you know what you're getting - neither of those guys has evolved much in recent years. Lillard is your upside guy. He's the one player who can lift Portland over the top.
So where does he still have room to improve? The obvious answer is defensively, where Lillard's been a subpar player throughout his first two years in the league, routinely missing rotations and finding himself a step or two behind the beat. If Lillard were a bit better about his positioning, movement and overall awareness on that end, it would make a big difference. But the Blazers' defensive shortcomings have already been discussed extensively this week on this very site, and there's no need to dwell further. Let's instead come at this from a different angle - even on the offensive end, Lillard still isn't perfect.
That's a bold statement, given the facts - the Blazers were second in the entire NBA in offensive efficiency last season, averaging 115.5 points per 100 possessions, and Lillard was the biggest reason why. His work as floor general set the pace offensively, and his creative attacking and shot-making abilities gave the Blazers an element of unpredictability that's tough to quantify. And yet, still, I sometimes look at Lillard through the lens of how he compares to the other elite point guards out West, and I worry a little bit.
Just before last week's untimely death of mySynergy Sports (if you'll wait a moment, I'm going to pour out a pint of Rogue Dead Guy Ale in mourning now), I managed to log on and snag a few stats on the West's five All-Star point guards last season. Overall, Lillard compared quite favorably - his efficiency numbers were good in transition, good in isolation situations and really quite ridonkulous as a spot-up shooter. He was great. Here's the one area that could use a little work:
Western Conference All-Star point guards as the ball-handler in the pick and roll:
|Player||Attempts||Points per 100 shots|
Admittedly, I'm nitpicking here. Lillard is a fantastic offensive player. His tremendous all-around improvement is a big part of why the Blazers went from 33 wins to 54 in just one season. Lillard's ability to score from all over the floor makes an amazing difference.
On the other hand, the pick and roll is the bread and butter of NBA offense, and it's the one area where Lillard is... good but not great. He has way more attempts than his West counterparts, and his results are only mediocre.
I think this is to be expected. The pick-and-roll game is the last step in Lillard's development offensively - he's a great player in his own right, and there are few guys I'd rather have in a game of one-on-one. But executing effectively in a five-on-five game requires a level of court vision you can only develop through live NBA game experience. The speed, intelligence and adaptability of the nine players around you are difficult to model or predict. To put it simply, Lillard's going to have to take some lumps. He'll need to learn to succeed by failing.
After watching a ton of tape from Lillard's pick-and-roll play last season, plus that of the other four guys above, I can definitively say this: Lillard is the most creative of the five. You give him a pick, create a little bit of space for him to operate, and there's absolutely no telling what he'll do with it. He can cut three steps left and fire; he can launch himself to the basket; he can drill a J right in your face without even blinking. Other successful point guards tend to execute fairly rigid sets and trust the results will follow; Lillard creates his own actions. He is, if you'll excuse the absolutely horrendous pun, a trail blazer.
This can be a good or a bad thing, depending how you look at it. On one hand, Lillard sometimes makes shots that are ridiculous and unguardable and make for easy highlight reel fodder. Then again, his creativity sometimes gets excessive, and it makes you wonder how good the Blazers could be if Lillard played a little bit more like Chris Paul.
All right, enough of me yapping, let's get to an example.
What you see in this clip is fairly basic Clippers offensive set - it's a pick and roll between Paul and DeAndre Jordan, with DAJ's massive body disrupting Russell Westbrook at the top of the key and creating space for CP3 to carve his way into the paint, either to create a shot for himself or dump it off to Jordan for a dunk. At least that's the original plan, but clearly it breaks down.
Oops. Now look - Jordan's pick started way high up top, and he's kinda slow rolling to the basket, and Paul's right behind him. The spacing is terrible, and Paul realizes that Steven Adams and Nick Collison, two rather large men that have protected a rim or two in their day, are waiting to swat any attempt that comes near them. So Paul quickly taps into his greatest asset - his creativity. He looks quickly to his left, sees Blake Griffin open for a jumper and seizes the opportunity. Blake's shot is money.
This entire sequence happens in nine seconds, and Paul makes it look easy when in reality, it's far from it. Getting this assist required brilliant court vision, an understanding of where all nine guys are and where they're moving, an unselfish nature to sacrifice his own chance at two points, and of course flawless coordination to deliver the right pass at the right moment.
On that note, let's watch Damian Lillard execute a very similar play.
After a quick exchange with Nic Batum, this one is the same deal - Robin Lopez ambles up top and cuts off Brandon Jennings, Lillard darts into the paint, and just like Paul before him, he finds himself in traffic. And not just any traffic - we're talking about freakin' Andre Drummond and Greg Monroe, two guys only slightly less horrifying than the masked dude from "Scream." Lillard makes a questionable decision and shoots anyway. The result isn't pretty. Except here's the thing:
Lillard had the exact same chance that Paul did to pass out of this mess and find the open man. You can clearly see Wesley Matthews cutting around the perimeter to get open for a 3, only a couple steps removed from where we saw Griffin before. Almost unquestionably, a Wes attempt here is a better shot. I mean, do the math - if Lillard in the pick and roll is worth 0.89 points per attempt, and Wes is 39 percent from deep on the season, and the shot is worth three points instead of two... yeah. It's not even close.
Whether Lillard didn't see Matthews and thought driving the lane himself was the best bet, or he saw him but selfishly kept the ball for himself, I couldn't tell you. So I can't analyze too deeply what flaw we're talking about here - whether it's a psychological thing about Lillard hogging the ball, or a court vision thing about him missing the (relatively) open man. Or maybe he just didn't think quickly enough to evaluate his options well. It's not like he's multiplying three by 0.39 in his head before he considers passing.
The point is this. Again, yes, I'm nitpicking, as this is just one out of 834 shot attempts Lillard took in this situation last season. He's still one of the best dual-threat point guards in the NBA, and there were many, many successfully executed plays mixed in with occasional misses like this one. But tiny mistakes like this add up. Lillard still has a ways to go if he wants to be the next Chris Paul, and the journey from All-Star to superstar might be a deceptively long one. It may require years of study and repetition and more study before he can truly own a game the way a CP3 does.
But this is what it's all about. A basketball season is a marathon, and every possession is but a step. The Blazers had some 7,800 of those steps last year. But if Lillard is able to make every single play, every single decision as efficient as possible, he has a chance of becoming a truly great player, one who can lead a championship run.
Greatness isn't just about the SportsCenter highlights. Above all, it's a matter of process. We're about to see the next 82 games in Lillard's journey - brace yourself.