There’s a whole lot going on with Damian Lillard right now. He has elevated his offensive game to another level, and he’s going about it in an old-fashioned way. While Lillard has made his name in the NBA as a 3-point marksman - a man with “in the gym range” - he’s also added the uncanny ability to not only get to the rim, but finish through contact while generating more trips to the free throw line. Throw in his newly found midrange game and you’ve got the recipe for one of the most explosive scorers in the league.
Through the first seven games of the season, no one in the NBA is driving to the rim more often than Lillard - clocking in at over 13 drives per game. He’s taking it to the rack often, scoring more and getting more free throws off it than anyone else! No one - not James Harden, Lebron James, Russell Westbrook, John Wall, or DeMar DeRozan - are attacking the rim as often as Lillard, who’s finishing a staggering 60.4 percent of his drives.
Last year, Lillard scored roughly 0.8 points per drive. That’s in the upper tier of the league, and in fact he was second overall in points per game coming off drives with 7.8. He’s elevated that to 12.7 points per game and roughly a point per drive. These are astronomical numbers that help put into context not only how good Lillard has been, but how brutally efficient he’s become when attacking the paint.
The standard adage from many seems to be that “he’ll regress to the mean,” but what if he doesn’t? What if Lillard has fully embraced the analytics revolution? He already had the long-distance game in his bag, and we’ve seen flashes of brilliance around the rim in the past - so what if Lillard has completed his interior arsenal and now poses an all-around threat that defenses must scramble to contain?
Prior to this year, Lillard had never secured more than 29 percent of his total field goals within two feet of the hoop for a full season. Through seven 2016-17 contests, he’s nearly at 37 percent. Early and small sample size aside, that’s a drastic change in how he’s been attacking opponents.
Lillard’s overall field goal attempts are a career-high 20.1 per game, up a tick from 19.7 last season, but his 3-point attempts are down and his 2-point attempts are up. The early returns fight conventional wisdom that an increase in attempts leads to a decrease in efficiency, however Lillard is defying convention and he’s hitting a career-best 56 percent from 2-point range and 40 percent from behind the arc.
For a visual aid, let’s take a look at how his shot distribution has played out this year against last year:
Attacking the rim and finishing well both certainly bring an immediate reward on the scoreboard, but they also have the added benefit of increased opportunities to generate free throws. For Lillard, he’s been good but not great at getting to the line through the first four years of his career, with a free throw rate (FTr= FTa/FGa) of .300. This isn’t exactly the Mendoza line for players who average 20 points per game or more, but it’s the baseline threshold for players who get to the line effectively.
Lillard is currently sporting a .489 free throw rate, which puts him in elite-level company, particularly for someone who isn’t having the “hack-a” strategy used against him. Early season results have Lillard ranked at No. 5 in the league with 9.9 free throw attempts per game while shooting 89.9 percent from the stripe. Lillard is on the early season edge of the 50/40/90 Club, and while it’s not realistic to expect that to hold for the duration of the season, having Lillard establish himself early with officials as someone who gets to the line regularly can do nothing but help him.
While he isn’t leading the midrange revival, Lillard has certainly added another somewhat-unexpected dimension to his multi-pronged attack. In just over three attempts per game, he’s knocking down a shade under 50 percent of his looks between the paint and the 3-point line, which serve as the counter-punch to his constant jabs at the rim and his uppercut-like bombs from the logos painted on the floor 30 feet from the rim.
When you take it all in and look at what Lillard is doing all over the floor, it really becomes quite staggering. His shooting splits are as follows:
At the rim: 70 percent
Outside the paint midrange: ~50 percent
3-point line: 40 percent
Free throw line: 90 percent
The only areas of weakness are the in-between game, the non-restricted area paint and the short midrange region of 10-to-14 feet.
Surely some of this will fall away and Lillard will return from orbit to atmospheric levels, but there’s also reason to suspect that this may be more than just a hot start. Typically, players who get to the rim and finish and generate free throws are able to sustain scoring output easier than those who rely heavily on jumpers.
While a shooting stroke may come and go at times throughout the season, the ability to put the ball on the floor and get to the rim is something that has a higher level of control. As we saw against the Memphis Grizzlies - where Lillard had a sub-par shooting night, going 3-for-11 from the field - he still managed to generate 19 points on the evening by taking and making 11 free throws.
In the past, this may have been a night where Lillard would attempt a few more shots, for better or worse, in an attempt to fight through a poor shooting slump. Instead, he turns an off-night into an efficient one by getting to the line early and often; that can be the difference between winning and losing games over the course of a season.
With his early explosion, it’s no longer a matter of if Lillard is capable of reaching the next rung on the superstar ladder but whether or not this level of play is sustainable. This could be a monumental season for fans, and has the potential to be one of the single greatest statistical years in Trail Blazers history. It could just as easily be one that is simply the hottest start by an individual in franchise history.
The best part about either scenario? We all get to sit back and watch it unfold.