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Can Damian Lillard Improve His Defensive Play This Season?

Damian Lillard says he's working on the defense. Really, he swears. Only problem is his performance Wednesday night against OKC's Russell Westbrook begged to differ.

Craig Mitchelldyer-USA TODAY Sports

Think back to the last time you set a New Year's resolution for yourself. We've all been there - we've set out to read a new book every week, or lose 15 pounds, or keep in better touch with our friends and families. When Jan. 1 rolls around, we're determined to stick with our resolutions for the long haul, seeing them through to the end. But what happens? We're only human, and inevitably we start pushing up against the limits of our willpower, and eventually our resolve crumbles. Oh well. At least we tried.

I bring this up because the opening night of the regular season is New Year's Day for NBA players. It's a chance to start fresh, reestablish yourself and set out to achieve new goals. Every player wants to start the year strong - that's why they say all the right things and psych themselves up to be their newer, better selves.

In the case of Damian Lillard, the New Year's resolution is to become a better defensive player. This is a common pattern for blossoming young stars - they arrive in the league with boatloads of athleticism and playmaking ability on the offensive side of the floor, but the task on the other end requires a lot of experience playing against NBA competition. Even with players who have the physical talent and the drive, the D usually takes a while to come around.

Give Lillard credit, though. He appears to be saying all the right things about improving his defensive play this season. According to Jason Quick of The Oregonian, he's made it a key point of emphasis. Here's Lillard:

"It's a huge deal, because it's our next step. Being a good defensive team is our next step, and I'm the point guard, and I most likely will have the biggest challenge on my hands every night. I'm not going to shy away from it."

If you're a Blazers fan, that's what you want to hear. Lillard's right - improving on D is the next step in the journey toward greatness, and the team's forward progress will inevitably halt this season if Lillard can't lead the way.

We should note that typically, point guard is the least important position on the floor defensively. Applying ball pressure at the top of the key is nice, but when a guard messes up, there's another line of defense behind him to keep opposing perimeter guys from slashing to the hoop. James Harden can get away with being terrible because he's got Dwight Howard behind him; ditto for Stephen Curry with Andrew Bogut. The numbers bear all this out - if you check out ESPN's real adjusted plus-minus stats, which adjust properly for everything from teammates to opponents, you'll find that a great defensive big man like Kevin Garnett is worth 6.60 points per game to his team, while a point guard is far less valuable. Eric Bledsoe saves the Suns 3.97 points per contest, and he's a freak. Most point guards, even very solid ones, are below 2.

Having said all of that, there's still no excuse for Lillard loafing around. Yes, he can sometimes get away with slacking off and letting Robin Lopez clean up the mess, and Lopez is very capable. But that's not the Blazer way - this is a team that thrives because of its unselfishness and balance, and having one guy work too hard to cover for another is a surefire way to mess up the perfect stasis of Portland's system. Simply put, Lillard could make life easier for his entire team just by playing harder on D.

Sadly, he's been miserable on that end so far. Here are the numbers on all of the West's top point guards last year:

Top Western Conference point guards, 2013-14, ranked defensively:
Player Minutes Per Game Defensive Real Plus/Minus
Chris Paul 35.0 1.95
Mike Conley 33.5 0.42
Russell Westbrook 30.7 0.23
Stephen Curry 36.5 -0.38
Tony Parker 29.4 -0.40
Ty Lawson 35.8 -1.08
Damian Lillard 35.8 -1.95

Worrisome - Lillard was playing the position just about as much as anyone, and defensively, the results were dreadful. There were a lot of reasons Lillard struggled last season. Part of it is he's still young and needs to learn the tendencies of his rival point guards; another part is he's still adjusting to the faster pace of the professional game after four years in college. Quite frankly, another issue is just plain effort - which is going to be a problem considering how much energy Lillard expends on the offensive end of the floor.

Again, Lillard's being a stand-up guy and making his resolutions for the new year. But those are just words, and actions have proven a lot harder. Here's Lillard defending Russell Westbrook on the very first possession of the 2014-15 regular season:

Not pretty. Serge Ibaka pops off a screen and drops it to Westbrook on the block, and Westbrook, who's a little stronger than Lillard, decides to go right at him and post him up. Rather than stand in his way like a brick wall, or establish position in front of him before taking a charge, Lillard flails a little bit and crumbles over, allowing Westbrook to zoom around him and get to the rim. Even though he misses, he's able to easy put his own rebound back, as Lillard's in no position to stop him.

Here's the very next play.

Woof. This is embarrassing. Westbrook scores this time by finding an easy route for a backdoor cut to the rim - Lillard is supposed to be guarding Westbrook, but his idea of staying in front of the OKC point guard is to be five feet to the right of the path from Russ to the basket. Credit Steven Adams for recognizing the opportunity and quickly feeding Westbrook with the right pass. Easy two points.

All right, one more example.

Here Westbrook takes the pass up top from Ibaka, and Lillard instantly scampers right up to Westbrook and gets in his face, perhaps overcompensating for his lax pressure on Westbrook the previous couple of possessions. Westbrook realizes that with Lillard right up on him, he can use his speed to catch the defender on his heels and blow past him. Westbrook goes left, drives hard and ends up with an easy basket.

At this point, Westbrook had six points on 3-of-4 shooting, having immediately put back the rebound on his sole miss. After three minutes, he was outscoring Portland's whole team. Terry Stotts naturally had to search for other options - so he limited Lillard's minutes (29 on the night, lowest in the starting five), mixed in a lot of Steve Blake and CJ McCollum and when he did play Lillard, hid him defensively on guys like Andre Roberson.

By the time crunch time rolled around against OKC on Wednesday night, Stotts had Nicolas Batum guarding Westbrook, not Lillard. Which worked fine under the circumstances, since Batum's normally charged with guarding Kevin Durant, and Durant was sitting on the bench wearing a suit. Hiding Lillard worked for one night, and the Blazers thankfully are 1-0 as a result.

This might not last, however. It's terrifying to think what might happen if the Blazers ever have to face a full-strength OKC team, should Westbrook and Durant ever choose to be healthy at the same time. Batum can't guard both guys at once. Nor can he take both Curry and Andre Iguodala, or Tony Parker and Kawhi Leonard, or Ty Lawson and Danilo Gallinari.

This is the nature of the beast. The Blazers are in the Western Conference, where hiding a poor defender is a pipe dream. Every starter on every playoff-caliber team is a skilled offensive player. Every weakness, therefore, gets exposed. If Lillard wants to lead the Blazers deep in the Western Conference, that means he's got to outplay some of these top point guards along the way, and he can't do that just by scoring. There's no point in putting up 30 if your opponent's just going to counter with 35.

Lillard has made it known that he's working on this. His teammates hear it, too. Here's LaMarcus Aldridge, again with the hat tip to Quick's Oregonian story:

"He's worked on it all preseason. He has showed people that he is definitely trying to be better defensively, and he's given better effort. I think everybody is seeing that the effort is there. It's just different when you go from being a scorer to learning how to do both. It just takes time. But he has always been an overly competitive guy who wants to do well on both ends."

Again, nice words. But we all make our New Year's resolutions sound big and bold on Jan. 1 - the real question is whether we can follow up on them after. When your friend says he's going to lose the weight but you see him devouring the junk food again the second week in January, that's no good. For the Blazers' sake, they'd better hope Lillard is a man of his word.