Let me start with what may well be the understatement of the century - people in Portland tend to get a little bit defensive about their Trail Blazers. Whether it's the lack of national TV exposure the team gets, the paucity of All-Star votes their leading men receive every winter or any other metric you want to name, Rip City residents tend be more than a little agitated whenever they sense the slightest affront to their team or its players.
This is entirely understandable and justifiable. Firstly, because the Blazers are big fish in a little pond - Portland's a relatively small market, and unless you're really into soccer, the NBA is all we have here. When the Blazers are Your Team with a capital Y and capital T, you're bound to get a little bit fanatical about them. And secondly, what's wrong with being fanatical anyway? That's why they call it fandom. Getting worked up and yelling about your squad and the respect they deserve is half the fun of it, if not more.
Whether it's at a local brewpub, around the office water cooler or in their Twitter mentions, Blazer fans have always loved to stick up for their guys. You all know the arguments - "LaMarcus Aldridge is the best power forward in the league!" "Nicolas Batum is the best wing defender!" "Wesley Matthews is the most underrated 3-point shooter!" Even if you didn't entirely believe these statements in your heart of hearts, you've probably vociferously argued for at least one of them at some point. You know it's true. Own it.
Now that all of the above guys are gone, however, it's tough. When it comes time to defend the current Blazers against the cream of the NBA's crop, we don't have much to say. Even the fiercest Meyers Leonard advocate isn't out here arguing that the dude's better than Anthony Davis.
In short, Damian Lillard is now all we have.
Which is fine, because Lillard happens to play the most fun position to debate in the modern NBA. Point guard is loaded with talent in 2015, and so many of the top guys in the league are so compelling to watch. Who doesn't want to see Stephen Curry rain down 3-pointers on opposing defenses? Or Chris Paul pick opponents apart with pass after brilliant pass? Or Russell Westbrook take on teams all by himself, fearlessly playing one-on-five?
Everyone loves talking point guards, and in Portland, the agenda is pretty obvious - we want to see our guy Dame get the respect he's due. Only problems are, well, first that he's up against insanely tough competition, and second that he's a young player with obvious flaws that national pundits are quick to pick apart.
Jared Dubin of the Cauldron ranked Lillard seventh among the NBA's best pointmen back in December, noting that it was no knock, and he was only that low "because of the preposterous play of the guys ahead of him." Joe Boozell of NBA.com ranked Lillard sixth in January, noting he's talented offensively but blaming his D - "his tendency to die against screens may trouble the Blazers against the elite point guards in the West." More recently, Michael Pina at Sports on Earth came out this week and slotted Lillard eighth, noting that he "can't defend and had a sneaky-disappointing outside shot last year." Also, a couple weeks back, two out of three NBA experts at CBS said Lillard wasn't as good as Mike Conley. James Herbert wrote that "he has not shown a consistent ability to disrupt opposing point guards while playing heavy minutes and running the team." (You guys had a field day in the comments section with that last one.)
All of this is the bad news. But here's the good: Lillard is the youngest of all the guys we're talking about, and he's got plenty more room to improve. He's got the physical gifts in spades, and now all he needs is to put it together mentally. The guy can handle, he can pass, he can shoot and he can drive. Defensively, he still looks a little bit lost at times, but he's got the athletic attributes to get better.
So what, specifically, is holding Lillard back? What is stopping the Blazers' young point guard from vaulting out of that 6-8 range among the league's best point guards and competing with the real elites?
Let's break it down skill by skill.
(Disclaimer #1: If you proceed past this point, please be prepared to see many videos of Damian Lillard making mistakes. This is not intended as an accusation that Lillard makes mistakes all the time. The vast majority of possessions in a basketball game, Lillard plays beautifully - but an article all about Lillard playing beautifully wouldn't be very interesting, would it? Today, we're going to examine his errors and search for ways to offer constructive criticism. Thanks for your understanding.)
(Disclaimer #2: All "play type" stats in the charts below are courtesy of Synergy Sports. Thanks to them, and a fist bump also to Nylon Calculus stat guru Seth Partnow, who was cool enough to scrape the numbers into a handy spreadsheet that I could more easily fiddle with. Anyway, let's get started.)
What separates Lillard from the game's best playmakers?
The pick-and-roll is the bread and butter of today's NBA. The majority of possessions in the halfcourt begin in more or less the same way - the point guard handles the ball at the top of the key, the bigs set screens to get him open, then they either roll to the hoop or, as is becoming increasingly common, pop out to threaten an outside jump shot. The league's best point guards, therefore, are the ones who consistently make good decisions in the pick-and-roll. They know when to dish to a teammate and when to call their own number and drive.
Lillard's decisions on that front are pretty solid, but there's room for growth. He's still no Chris Paul:
This play is a brilliant example of what makes CP3 such a lethal weapon. Watch what happens here - it appears to be an extremely simple PNR between Paul and DeAndre Jordan, with DAJ screening the Pelicans' Gal Mekel and rolling to the basket with plenty of space to create in the paint. You're expecting a quick pass to DAJ for a dunk. Except instead, Paul waits for DAJ to lure Anthony Davis away from the basket into a double-team, and that leaves Blake Griffin open to sneak to the hoop! Paul effectively uses Jordan as misdirection, finds Griffin at the rim with perfect timing and creates an easy two points.
Lillard isn't making plays like that just yet.
Dame led the entire NBA in pick-and-rolls last season, running 767 of them in 2,925 minutes of play. Often, though, he didn't seem to have a good feel for how to use picks optimally. The clip you see above is a good example - Robin Lopez tries multiple times to set a pick for Lillard against Dallas' Raymond Felton, trying to carve out some space for him to drive around him first left, and then right. Both times, he's tentative and looks unsure of what to do - dump it into the paint for Lopez? Hit a floater at the elbow? He eventually panics and misses Steve Blake with a pass that flies out of bounds.
Goof-ups like this don't happen all the time with Lillard, but they're frequent enough that they drag the Blazers' offense down at times. Maybe with a couple more years of NBA reps, he develops the Paul-like instinct needed to make intelligent snap decisions.
What separates Lillard from the game's best isolation players?
Sometimes, when nothing else is working, you've got to take matters into your own hands and score for yourself. A lot of the best point guards are not only skilled playmakers, but they're just as confident in isolation - just get out of the way, because the man with the ball's gonna go one on one. ISO ball is frowned upon in many hoops circles, but you'll note that the best ISO point guards score even more effectively than the best pick-and-rollers.
Doing so requires finding open space on the floor and attacking it. Watch Kyrie Irving here, against the vaunted Spurs' defense:
One thing the Spurs do really well is control floor spacing - they seldom give anyone room to get off an open shot. But on this possession, Kyrie senses an opportunity - both Tim Duncan and Matt Bonner are playing pretty far up as he brings the ball up the floor, so there's an opening on the right side of the floor. All he needs to do is blow by Tony Parker - who's 32 and has bad ankles - and he can easily drive baseline for a layup. He does just that, and Duncan is too far out of position to do anything about it. Easy two points.
Now watch Lillard in a similar spot:
As Lillard brings the ball up the floor, he's in a situation a lot like Kyrie's - the Bucks' defense isn't yet in position to defend against a baseline drive, so Lillard attacks the left side of the floor. Except he hesitates for a split-second just as he's crossing the 3-point line, and that gives Milwaukee's John Henson a little extra time to double back and collapse into the left corner, where he and Khris Middleton team up to trap Lillard. You can tell Lillard is blindly attacking without any real Plan B - without an open look, what can he do? He can't find a teammate to kick out to. He can hardly even see the rim. He's confused and surrounded. The Bucks are incredibly long and active and love forcing steals, so naturally they do their Bucksy thing here and force one.
Lesson learned: Going ISO can be effective, but you've got to have a defined plan in advance. Attacking the defense willy-nilly - especially one like Milwaukee's - won't fly.
What separates Lillard from the game's best shooters?
Typically, the point guard is the man bringing the ball up the floor and coordinating the offense from there, but some teams are so versatile that that's not always the case. If you've got a skilled ball-handler and playmaker at the wing position, you can shift your PG off the ball and use him as a spot-up shooter. In today's modern, shapeshifting, positionless NBA, it's always nice to have guys who can play multiple roles. Fun things happen when your point guard is also a shooting guard.
Here's a great example, with Stephen Curry moving off the ball and letting Andre Iguodala run the offense for Golden State:
Curry's not exactly standing in the corner spectating on this play, but he lets his teammates do the lion's share of the ball-handling and playmaking - first Iguodala, then David Lee. What makes this play so lethal is that Lee's drive to the basket forces the opposing Mavericks to make a really difficult decision. Do they collapse on Lee, looking to disrupt a potential shot attempt in the paint, or do they stay spaced out to protect against a Curry jump shot? The combination of the two weapons is just too much for the Mavs to handle, and Curry ends up with a wide-open 3 as a result.
Man. Curry's the best point guard in the world right now, but he could probably be the best two-guard too, if he wanted. Brutal.
Now here's Dame:
This play is an example of the Blazers using Lillard off the ball for a bit - Dorell Wright brings the ball up here, then drives and kicks for Wesley Matthews, who then drives and kicks for Lillard. All that movement has left the visiting Raptors in scramble mode, and Lillard appears for a moment to have a wide-open look at a 3. Except instead of taking it and draining it right away, he hesitates, and that one-second pause is all Toronto's Jonas Valanciunas needs to set his feet and get in perfect position to contest the shot. Sure enough, Lillard misses.
The best shooters in the game - i.e., Curry - know what they're going to do and do it without hesitation. They can see the floor instinctively, quickly size up their options and know, beyond the shadow of a doubt, that the jumper is their best bet. Dame's not there yet. He's still finding his way.
What separates Lillard from the game's best transition players?
Transition play is both relatively easy and deceptively difficult. Indeed, there's no better opportunity to score in basketball than on a quick breakaway after a turnover or long rebound. If you find some open floor to work with, or you've got an advantage in numbers, it makes intuitive sense to push the pace and look for a quick basket. But in today's league, with stellar athletes manning all five positions, clean breaks to the basket are few and far between, and scoring in transition requires a lot of creativity. When do you push the tempo and attack? When do you slow it down and call a set play?
When you're Chris Paul, you do ridiculous things like this.
This play is absurd. The Grizzlies are really quick to get back on defense after a miss from Marc Gasol, so when Paul begins taking the ball up the floor, he discovers all five Memphis defenders positioned between him and the basket. Ask just about any other point guard in the NBA, and this one's a no-brainer - slow it down and call a play. No chance of a transition bucket. But CP3 is just too damn clever for that. Instead of slowing it down, he threads the needle through the Memphis defense and whizzes a pass right over Gasol's head to a darting Griffin. The result is a dunk, and it's one that just about no other point guard alive could have foreseen.
It's crazy, but that's Chris Paul - visionary, creative, always finding new ways for his team to score.
Contrast that with Lillard, whose transition game quite frankly is not creative in the slightest.
If you watch some film of Lillard in transition - and I watched a ton if it while researching this feature - it really leaps out at you. Lillard is really, really, really reliant on the quick Pull-Up Jumper In Transition (PUJIT). The PUJIT is near-universally frowned upon with good reason - it's unimaginative, selfish and often inefficient. According to SportVU data released by the NBA, Lillard is a 34.4 percent shooter from 3 when the closest defender is within 4-6 feet of him (Dallas' J.J. Barea is 4.1 feet away on this shot). That's not terrible, except... do the math. If every transition play ended in this shot, the Blazers would average 1.032 points per possession. Pretty good, but certainly not on a par with the Stephs and Kyries and CP3s. Being an elite transition playmaker means looking for more interesting ways to score than a pull-up jumper that's only so-so accurate.
What separates Lillard from the game's best defenders?
Ah, defense. You knew we'd get to this one eventually, didn't you?
The fact is that Damian Lillard can be a good defensive point guard. Physically, there's no reason it isn't feasible. He's 6-foot-3, he's got long arms and big hands, he's quick, he's strong, he's feisty and competitive. Put all that together and yes, indeed, he's got what it takes. But here's the rub: As I explained about 1,800 words ago, the pick-and-roll is the bread and butter of today's game. To be a good offensive pointman, you've got to run the PNR effectively, and to be a good defender, well... you've got to defend it.
The best point guards in the league fight through screens constantly, night after night. Watch John Wall here:
The Bulls spend this entire play working to get Derrick Rose open for a bucket, and that means throwing the kitchen sink at Wall. First Joakim Noah aims a pick at the Wizards' point guard, then Pau Gasol, then Noah again. Rose is darting all over the floor, but Wall remains singularly focused - fight through every pick, keep chasing Rose, don't let him get open. Finally Rose breaks free a little bit after pick No. 3, Wall has the foresight to chase Rose directly into the waiting Marcin Gortat, who's able to contest Rose's floater in the lane and force a miss. That's some tenacious D.
Lillard, um, can't do this.
I wish plays like this weren't so typical, but they kinda are. Defending the pick-and-roll requires making quick, intelligent choices. How do you respond to this screen? Do you fight through it and stick with your original man? Do you switch? You've got to choose a course of action and be decisive.
Instead, look what Lillard does on this 1-4 PNR between Atlanta's Jeff Teague and Paul Millsap. It looks like Lillard is going over the screen and staying with Teague, but Teague has him burned and Lillard's defense chasing from behind doesn't really help. Meanwhile, Thomas Robinson has committed to staying back against Teague's drive, which presumably means it's Lillard's job to switch onto Millsap (who's a good outside shooter). Unfortunately Lillard is caught in between the two Hawks, awkwardly out of position to guard either one of them, and he simply looks lost and confused as Millsap strolls past him for a dunk.
The defense is, by far, the area where Lillard is in greatest need of improvement in the coming years. It's something that takes time to get right. The NBA is a pick-and-roll-heavy league like none other in the world, and it's not easy to adjust to overnight and pick up all the nuanced ways to defend it. With Lillard's development, especially defensively, patience is a virtue.
Fortunately, we have a lot of time to be patient. It's so easy to forget that Lillard has still only played three seasons in the NBA. He's easily the least experienced of all these guys in the "elite point guards" conversation. Even the guys we think of as pretty young, aren't really that. Mike Conley was drafted in 2007 - he's about to enter his ninth NBA season. Curry entered the league in 2009, Wall in 2010 and Irving in 2011. Give Lillard time, and maybe he'll reach their level.
For Portlanders who love to engage in that classic bar argument - "my guy's better than your guy!" - 2015 represents the start of a dark age. No choice but to accept that. Be patient, though. A couple of years from now, you might just have a guy really worth boasting about.