Statistics is an imperfect field -- everything is practically meaningless without context. Telling someone "CJ McCollum dribbled the ball four million times last week" is a fun fact (if true) but provides no useful contextual data. How did that improve his dribbling skill? How was that compared to last week, or the week before? Should we be worried about elbow or wrist strain from that many dribbles? How does that compare with similar players in the league?
For instance, Portland Trail Blazers star point guard Damian Lillard averages more points in the regular season against the San Antonio Spurs (28.6 per game in 11 matchups) than any other NBA team. No team holds him in check more than the Boston Celtics (14.2 per game in 6 games). For these statistics to matter, context is needed.
When you look at Lillard's usage percentage in the two matchups, his usage (the percentage of plays the player was directly involved with in the offense) is higher against San Antonio. Lillard also plays an average of four minutes more per game against San Antonio. All of this combines to tell us that despite the original statistics implying that Boston is a lockdown defense against Lillard or the Spurs are a sieve against him, it simply means Lillard was actively engaged more against a Western Conference opponent where the games are more important.
All of the above looks good, but most fans could have already told you that. Of course Lillard was going to be more involved in the offense against a dangerous Spurs team than a Celtics team that has struggled during his three years in the league. All the statistics did was confirm that idea in a roundabout way.
With the 2015-16 NBA season rapidly approaching, here are three stats to take away from Lillard's improving career, and the context to apply to them for the upcoming season.
1) Lillard's Defensive Rebound Percentage Climbed to 11.9 percent last season, easily the highest of his career.
Defensive rebound percentage is a measure of how many potential rebounds a player got while on the defensive end of the floor. Lillard averaged 8 percent in year one, 9.2 percent in year two. The meaning of the massive jump is clear. Lillard attacked the defensive glass at a much stronger level than in his first two years in the league. Sure enough, last year was the first year that Lillard was in the top ten in the NBA in rebounding among point guards. The real takeaway comes from that last season, when Lillard attempted the most shots in his career, yet his overall shooting percentage was down. While Lillard was taking more shots and missing, he was also fighting to get rebounds back on the other end.
What it means for next season is that while Lillard is the focal point of the new offense, and therefore should be expected to take the most shots, he will also be a rebounding force on the defensive, helping to secure more possessions for the Blazers.
2) Lillard nearly doubled his defensive win shares, going from 1.8 in 2013 to 3.3 in 2014.
Win shares are an approximation of how many wins a player contributes, with defensive win shares meaning how many the player added via his defense. Lillard's 3.3 defensive win shares were the third best in the NBA among point guards, with only Stephen Curry and John Wall scoring higher. The jump in his defensive metrics last season comes from a combination of his increased presence on the defensive glass, and an increased steal percentage. Lillard went up to 1.2 steals per game last season, the highest of his career, but even better, did it while not increasing the average amount of fouls he committed per game. In fact, his personal fouls dropped from 2.4 to 2.0 per game.
What this means for the upcoming season is that Lillard is taking his greatest weakness, defense, and slowly but surely improving at it. He has long been attacked for his below-average output on that end of the floor, but it became average last season, and should only get better as he is counted on for more of a defensive presence next season.
3) Lillard attempted a three-point shot on just 42.1 percent of his shots, ranking 138th in the league
Lillard's three-point percentage plummeted last season from 39.4 percent to 34.3 percent. In perspective, he dropped from the 32nd best shooting percentage in the league to 24th... among point guards (108th overall). The damage is not as great as that would indicate however. 58 percent of Lillard's shots came from inside the arc, and he hit 64 percent of them from within three feet of the basket. While that is a strong number for a center or a power forward, hitting that many as a guard shows an incredible cutting skill. For a comparison, Russell Westbrook takes 70 percent of his shots from within the arc, and he shot just 58 percent from within three feet. Chris Paul also averages 64 percent from within three feet of the hoop, but Paul only shoots from that range 9 percent of the time, while Lillard does so on 28.5 percent of his overall attempts. Lillard also shot impressively well from between 10 and 16 feet from the hoop, hitting 44.4 percent of his shots.
This all shows that Lillard is no longer just a bombs away three point shooter, but instead a dangerous and varied scorer, able to fire from three or cut to the heart of the lane and get to the rim. This ability to switch between modes will only help a Blazers team that will try and find its identity with a re-made roster.