Portland Trail Blazers point guard Damian Lillard had three consecutive double-doubles for the first time in his career last week. Over those three games, Lillard averaged 11 assists per game, a considerable bump from his season average of 7.3 and career average of 6.3.
Notably, the Blazers have thrived since Lillard began passing the ball more. The team has gone 3-1 in that timespan, picked up their first road victories against winning teams this season, and beat two primary rivals for the final Western Conference playoff seeds. Portland's offense has also done well, with per game averages of 104.5 points, 10.5 3-pointers, 45.6 percent shooting, and an offensive rating of 105. All those numbers are slightly above their season averages.
Game tape reveals that Lillard's uptick in assists seems to be the result of a more passive role on offense. Lillard has been deferring to his teammates more often than earlier in the season, especially early in the games. In Monday's contest against Memphis, for example, he passed on several potential scoring opportunities in the first quarter:
On this play Lillard makes no effort to attack Gasol - a player the Blazers knew to be injured. Instead, he looks immediately to make a pass coming off the screen, despite the fact that nobody is open on the perimeter.
By contrast, later in the game Lillard began to attack the defense more aggressively, often immediately putting his head down and driving to the rack after a screen against multiple defenders:
The occasional passiveness of Lillard's offense has correlated exactly with an ankle sprain he suffered on Jan. 31 in a victory over the Minnesota Timberwolves. It seems possible that Lillard is playing through some pain or ankle swelling and has opted to be more of a playmaker in recent games so as to reduce strain on his ankle
Regardless of the explanation, Lillard's ability to function as a traditional point guard instead of a combo guard/primary scorer is a testament to his often overlooked passing ability. Lillard is not a flashy passer, like Steph Curry or even CJ McCollum, but he is serviceable and adept at making the right decisions. His reads out of pick-and-rolls are one of the main reasons the Blazers are often able to create a chain reaction of off-balance defenders as they whip the ball around the perimeter. He is also excellent at timing passes to Mason Plumlee or Meyers Leonard in a way that allows them to then hit backdoor cutters on the secondary action of pick-and-rolls. Accordingly, he is in the top 20 in the NBA in "hockey assists" per game.
Interestingly, no individual player seems to be benefiting from Lillard's additional passing. Gerald Henderson has seen a corresponding spike in points per game, but much of his effectiveness has come from his own shot creation, and he has just as many assisted baskets from McCollum as as he does Lillard. This suggests that Lillard's passing has been mostly opportunistic, hitting whichever player is left open by the defense.
Given how well the team has played over the last four games, it is tempting to ask if Lillard should consider switching his style long term even once he's recovered. Should the coaching staff be asking if a 21 point/10 assist Lillard is more valuable to the team than a 24 point/7 assist Lillard?
Despite the early positive returns, suggesting such a major change to your best player should be met with a fair bit of skepticism. Lillard's per game numbers this season are remarkably similar to Derrick Rose's MVP season averages. It may be reckless to make any permanent changes that would negatively affect that level of success.
Of note, however, is that Lillard is still finding ways to score. He had 28 points through three quarters against Memphis, for example. His points were mostly via jumpshots, but it is relevant that his offense has not entirely dried up simply because he opted to make a pass rather than attempt to score early in the shot clock. This possibly suggests that he can continue to be an elite offensive threat even if he picks his spots more carefully.
It's also unclear how defenses will adjust if this becomes a long term change for Lillard. Memphis already seemed to have scouted his play and was expecting Lillard to pass off immediately out of pick-and-rolls. But then Lillard burned them with outside shooting, anyway. Adding this new dimension to Lillard's arsenal also means that teams now have to diversify their game plan to handle Lillard and McCollum. Previously, coach Terry Stotts employed his two guards very similarly, allowing opponents to gameplan for both simultaneously. If Lillard and McCollum begin to play disparate styles it may add a new wrinkle to the offense, escalating the Blazers from "above average" to "elite."
Notably, there are multiple examples of players who have successfully run the "pass the ball to get teammates going and then start to score my own points" strategy. Chris Paul in recent years has thrived on this gameplan, deferring to Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan early in the game, but then taking over offensively in the midrange late in games after the opposing defense has been forced to respect his teammates. Before that Steve Nash and Isiah Thomas leveraged similar styles to multiple All-Star campaigns and deep playoff runs.
With all that being said, Lillard will most likely transform back into the 24.5 points/7 assists player after he gets a chance to rest over the All-Star break. But, it is intriguing to think that he is capable of playing the role of traditional point guard should the team ever need it. Lillard's ability to use a pass-heavy game to mitigate against injuries may also help him maintain his effectiveness in the twilight stages of his career. Even if he does opt to continue with his original style of play for the rest of this season, the versatility he has displayed has been a revelation and bodes well for the team's future.
Readers - do you think Lillard should continue to play more like a traditional point guard, or do you prefer his combo-guard style? Leave your answer in the comments below!
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