The Portland Trail Blazers have had a decent start to the 2017-18 NBA season, largely on the back of their prolific offense and rebounding power. Despite the team’s success, All-Star point guard Damian Lillard hasn’t yet reached last year’s scoring and shooting averages and is experiencing what some observers term a “slump”. The legitimacy of that claim is the subject of today’s Blazer’s Edge Mailbag.
(Note: This question was asked, and response written, before the Blazers faced the Toronto Raptors last night. All stats reflect that.)
I think the season start has been good but I’m worried about Dame a little. Jason Quick wrote an article today about his slump and said some people might think it’s vegan-related. Do you think that could be part of it, or if not, what is going on?
The first and best answer: we’re two weeks into the season and that’s what’s going on. Lillard goes through good times and tough times every season. Usually his downs come mid-year. Often they’re accompanied by stretches where other players prosper. This year, players are prospering around him early on. The Blazers haven’t needed him to take over. He’s feeling his way. In another two months, the opening to the year will have been forgotten. Or even if it hasn’t, “slumping” your way to 22 points, 6 assists, and 5 rebounds per game isn’t all that bad...shooting percentages aside. The only production stat really suffering is his per-minute scoring, down from 27.0 per 36 minutes to 23.4 so far this year. That scoring rate exceeds those in his first three seasons, including his All-Star appearance years. That’s not a slump.
Delving into his shooting percentages, the news isn’t all bad. His 37.4% clip from the field is ouchy. That’d qualify for a clear career low if extended over 82 games instead of JUST 6. (Seriously, 93% of the season is left to play.) But his three-point percentage is actually up from .370 to .385. Those are the most important shots he takes, the ones that shift the defense more than any other.
Inside the arc the picture is not as pretty. His two-point percentages are down across the board. The most shocking plummet comes on shots within three feet of the rim. Lillard shot 60.0% at the cup last year, just 43.3% so far this season. Those are normally high-percentage looks, layups and put-backs. The team has changed around Lillard this year, though. For much of last season, Mason Plumlee was Portland’s main inside threat. The offense consisted of clearing as much space as possible for Lillard and CJ McCollum to work, be that at the arc or the rim. All the territory belonged to them. Not only is Jusuf Nurkic on board now, the Blazers have become a monster offensive rebounding team in the first two weeks of the season. All of that amounts to big bodies in the lane, right where Lillard wants to finish. Theoretically Nurkic should be able to draw at least one defender out, but guess who else has been “slumping” to start the season? It becomes a choice between completely vacating the lane, not taking advantage of rebounding and big bodies, or sacrificing some of Lillard’s driving room. The Blazers are controlling the floor better with the bigs than with those extra Lillard points. They’re scoring 3.5 more per game as a team so far than they did last year and Lillard is drawing just as many foul shots. If this continues, it’s a sacrifice they’ll make.
Interior traffic doesn’t explain everything. Lillard’s averages between ten feet and the three-point arc are down precipitously too. But those are inherently lower-percentage looks and they account for only 21.5% of his total attempts.
In short, Molly, I wouldn’t worry about Lillard just yet. He’s finding his way with the re-made lineup. He’s making sure everyone is involved. The Blazers are riding Al-Farouq Aminu and rebounding and a bunch of other means to victory while Lillard averages 22, 5, and 6. That’s all good. The 20-ish% of actual slump will normalize at some point. Damian is a 43% career shooter; he’s not likely to stop now. I wouldn’t expect increased production from Lillard to make Portland an 82-win team. That 111 team scoring average isn’t going to get that much higher; Lillard’s production will come at marginal cost. But one way or another, Damian is going to look good. As long as the team keeps looking good around him, all’s well.
P.S. If you want to worry about the vegan diet, ask yourself how many meat-eaters have been through slumps. Correct answer: all of them.
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—Dave / @davedeckard / @blazersedge / firstname.lastname@example.org