With all the hype surrounding Portland's superstar point guard lately, fans in Rip City have one question: is Damian Lillard a good defender yet?
Clearly, with his sudden offensive onslaught over the last couple of months, this query is burning in the minds of NBA fans everywhere. But seriously, with Lillard's meteoric rise on the offensive end, it's time to check in and see how he's performing on the (often overshadowed) defensive side of the court.
Shown above and below, respectively, are quick snapshots of some of the highs and lows of Lillard's defensive exploits this season. When he's not engaged, it can be physically painful to watch. The list of things that are cringe-worthy and scream-inducing are almost impossible to quantify in clips like these...Particularly when you watch the second clip and see what he's actually capable of. Lillard is neither of these players on a nightly basis- that is, he's not James Harden but he's also not prime Tony Allen.
Defensively, Lillard lies somewhere between great and awful, with spikes in each direction, but he looks to be trending upwards. Especially as he grows more familiar with his teammates and they grow into their roles and the team concepts.
Team concepts were something that most Blazers fans were unsure of heading into this season, on both ends of the floor. How could the Blazers possibly execute offensively without four of their five previous starters? Coach Terry Stotts emphasized that things wouldn't necessarily change on offense even with the turnover in personnel and he echoed the same sentiments on the defensive side of the ball - with only a few caveats as they pertained to small ball. That's quite the proclamation for a team that not only lost four starters but players who were collectively and individually good defensively (Top 5-10 the last two years). The lone remaining starter, Lillard, was easily the worst among them defensively.
*** Individual Defensive Numbers are mediocre at best. Because there are so many relationships/variables going on, they don't effectively gather everything that is going on. However, they serve as at least a decent baseline- particularly combined with video evidence. ***
When we compare the last two years of Blazers teams on the defensive end, it doesn't paint the newer Blazers in a fantastic light. McCollum and Plumlee, both first-year starters, have taken some heavy, early lumps. Both have seen decreases in their PPP allowed since Jan. 15 - improvements, but still off from the men they replaced.
Al-Farouq Aminu has been a very steady and comparable replacement for Nicolas Batum on the defensive side of the floor - until the recent three-game losing streak, he was actually out performing the Frenchman in almost every category. The only other improvement on a PPP basis is Noah Vonleh. While his improvement is encouraged and should be noted, he doesn't often take the biggest threat nor the minutes that either LaMarcus Aldridge or Robin Lopez would take. So comparing them probably isn't fair.
As for Lillard, considering that the team as a whole gives up 5 percent more PPP on average than last year, his increase of 4 percent probably isn't as drastic as some of the other numbers would suggest. Per Synergy Sports Tech, the biggest increase comes out of the pick-and-roll (on a possession basis). This is not surprising, considering this accounts for nearly half of his defensive possessions, and it's an area that the Blazers' bigs play the largest part in.
Speaking of the bigs, no one had a bigger effect on the floor for Lillard than Lopez. That showed up in the numbers but also visually, both in the pick-and-roll game and at the rim. Lopez's size, length and defensive instincts deterred shots at the rim and out to roughly 12 feet. While Plumlee may be more mobile than Lopez, he lacks both the size and length to contest and affect shots consistently. This is known as the "Lopez Effect," and it shows up particularly in the pick-and-roll game. It's hard to truly quantify what Lopez meant to the Blazers last year. In an attempt to visually demonstrate the difference for the Blazers with and without Lopez, consider these two clips from the Detroit Pistons over the last two years.
The Lopez Effect
This clip shows the Blazers' defense at their most fundamental last year. Lillard drives hard off of multiple screens, staying as tight as possible to his man- denying the pull up or the uncontested step back jumper for Reggie Jackson. Lopez stays in between Drummond and Jackson, keeping a body on Drummond until he's no longer a threat to finish the lob. The lack of floor spacing due to Greg Monroe's inability to knock down the long jumper allows Lopez to drive down and alter Jackson's shot at the rim, denying the easy scoring opportunity.
Here you can see a few things going on, none of them good. First, Lillard takes a bad angle and goes incredibly wide on the screen set by Drummond. To make matters worse, he doesn't engage and hold the screener up (allowing Drummond the free release to the rim). With Lillard out of the picture, Jackson is free to do as he pleases as he turns dribbles off the pick.
Because Drummond is such a lethal lob threat, Plumlee is put in the unenviable position of pressuring Jackson and leaving the lob, rolling with Drummond, or trying to play the middle ground. He opts for the middle ground - which, in his case, is not the best place to play. Jackson reads it perfect and lets Plumlee play the middle ground, Plumlee then walks himself under the rim, retreating with Drummond. With a lack of length and size he's unable to fully contest Jackson at the hoop and the result is an easy two.
This is just one example of many this season that have led to easy scoring opportunities for Portland's opponents. However, Lillard and the Blazers - prior to the recent three-game skid - had a Top-10 defense based on a number of metrics. Lillard has been no small part of this effort.
From Jan. 15 to March 1, Lillard's pick-and-roll defense rated better than at any time last year. As good as he's been offensively, and he's been truly magnificent, when he plays solid on the defensive end the Blazers are a different team. Lillard showing he has the capacity to play defense on the perimeter without the help of either Lopez or Aldridge behind him has been one of the largest revelations of the season.
Beyond that, when he does get caught, he's doing a few things to help his teammates out.
Here, Lillard gets caught on the pick from DeAndre Jordan - inevitably it happens. However, he continues to fight over the top and chase Chris Paul, but he also makes sure to grab and hold Jordan - slowing him and keeping him from rolling to the rim unimpeded. This frees up Mason Plumlee to step up and contest Paul on the jumper or contest him at the rim without worry of the lob.
This is a shot the Blazers are willing to give up - the contested two. It's made possible by Lillard adapting to the pick and making the right read. Knowing the personnel grouping - Paul and Jordan - and what they want to do, Lillard buys Plumlee time to make a solid decision and contest Paul's jumper. This is a tenet of good defense. While not flashy, this is one of 25 plays a night that could decide the game, but often go unnoticed.
Lillard, Sans Lopez
How can Lillard compensate without calling on the Blazers' bigs to bail him out when he gets beat? Lillard has a penchant for getting caught on picks regularly. Caught is probably generous. He's been known to turn himself into human fly paper, sticking to screeners in instances where he has almost no business getting caught. Sometimes he doesn't anticipate the pick. Others he reads it but takes a bad angle and ends up catching a hip or shoulder along the way. Those are all small mistakes, but they add up over the course of a game. That said, he has gotten much better in that aspect over the last few months, getting over picks at a higher rate this year than last.
Over, Under, and Into the Pick
One thing that appears to be emphasized this season by the Blazers' coaching staff is Lillard going over the pick.
Lillard's going over picks substantially more (11 percent more often in fact) this year than last year. Why? There could be a couple reasons. Last year, everyone but Lopez was capable of operating on a string from the 3-point line to the paint - this allowed the Blazers to keep the ball on one side of the court, minimizing scrambles and eliminating 3-point shot opportunities. This was based on trust and understanding. These players had played with each other for years and had an understanding with one another. They could anticipate things simply because they had played together so much.
So, in order to compensate for that lack of anticipation and familiarity, the Blazers appear to have simplified their coverages. Having Lillard chase opposing guards over the screen more frequently/consistently allows his teammates to anticipate and react accordingly. It's much harder for a young, near 7-footer to make decisions and reactions in space when his teammate has been obliterated by a screen.
According to the data, Lillard has been caught up in screens less, fought over the top more, and gone under the pick less, which is all good in the aggregate. But there are a few things to consider: he can go over screens inefficiently - rounding the corners as we saw earlier - and he occasionally doesn't contest shots once he does get over the screen. Lillard also doesn't always force the dribbler into help.
Night and Day - The Spot Up and Isolation
While Lillard has seemingly improved in the pick-and-roll - especially considering the added responsibility and their being less of a safety net behind him - there are areas of his defense that are still glaringly susceptible to lapses.
A steal a game is a nice solid number. Two steals per game is elite level pilfering, which only nine NBA players currently manage. With that type of aggressive and opportunistic defense, mistakes are bound to happen - but you're playing the numbers, hoping that the risk pays off in the long run.
Lillard seemingly takes a lot of the same risks without the reward. Often he'll get caught ball-watching while it swings around the perimeter, seemingly ready to pounce on a bad pass or a loose dribble - only to end up completely out of the play in the end.
When Lillard commits to the defensive end he's a very solid contributor. He comes down to help on ball-side drives, he plays the passing lanes, and he's phenomenal in isolation.
At this point in his career, the question is no longer, "Can Lillard play defense?" He's shown that he's capable. The above video shows him locking in and playing top-flight defense on a host of different players - from Derrick Rose to Kevin Durant, Lillard displays his versatility.
Strong enough to absorb the contact, he can body up against bigger players, and even push a player off his spot. Lillard is adept at forcing faster players where he wants them to go in isolation - often making them take a contested fadeaway or stepback jumper. It can be hard to contrast that level of defense and dedication to some of the mental lapses that seem to perk up from time to time. For someone who prides himself in being the underdog and a tireless worker, it can produce somewhat of a negative reaction with Blazers fans when he bounces between such extreme sides of the spectrum.
Where fans can take solace is here - Lillard is no longer learning the ropes night-in and night-out. He's instead picking up on the minutiae and honing a craft. This is a sign of growth. It's no longer trying to learn the X's and O's - instead it's about execution and dedication of effort.
Damian Lillard is a legitimate 2016 NBA MVP candidate. He's improving in nearly every aspect of his game. Night after night he has fans around the world wondering what he may do next. Where he has been questioned, he has answered.
Until now, the questions have been focused on his impact on the offensive side of the ball. Can he lead a team in scoring? Can he carry the burden? Can he shoot more efficiently? Can he get to the line more? At some point though the question has to be asked: Is Damian Lillard a good defender?
Much like this year though, they'll be asking too late.