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Damian Lillard and the Three-Point Shot

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Does Lillard’s relatively pedestrian pace from the arc hurt his offense, or could it be secretly helping?

NBA: Portland Trail Blazers at Miami Heat Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

Had enough Jusuf Nurkić talk for a while? You’re in luck as Damian Lillard takes center stage again in this edition of the Blazer’s Edge Mailbag. Remember if you have a question about the Portland Trail Blazers, send it to blazersub@gmail.com and we’ll try to answer!

Hey Dave. I was wondering about your opinion on Damian Lillard's 3 point shot. He seems to have the talent to put himself into the Stephen Curry 40% 3-point shooting range, But it seems to me that he is converting only at a barely league average rate. The ease in which he seems to take long shots, early in the clock and from far away from the 3 point line troubles me. Is poor shot selection holding Damian Lillard back from playing his best basketball? Will he ever have a 40% season?

Tavis

Ha! I planned to use this question well before Lillard put up 49 against the Miami Heat last night. Now it’ll get some special shading.

It’s not really fair to compare Lillard to Stephen Curry. It’s not just a matter of talent, but skill, role, and utilization. Nobody can be Steph Curry but Curry himself. Only three players in the history of the league out-rank him in three-point percentage: Steve Kerr, Hubert Davis, and Drazen Petrovic. The top two were three-point specialists. Sadly, Drazen only got to play four seasons before his untimely death. Curry has already registered twice that many. The only other player to approach Curry in long-range accuracy, longevity, and MVP-level star power was Steve Nash. In other words, people don’t just decide to become Steph Curry level players in any aspect of the game, let along his strong suit. Some players just have to be marveled at, not emulated. When it comes to three-point shooting, Curry is one of those players.

Curry is shooting 39.6% from three-point range this year. He holds a career average of 43.6%. Those numbers dwarf Lillard’s totals of 35.7% and 36.8%. There’s no comparison. But Curry also takes an astonishing 54.2% of his attempts beyond the arc. Lillard’s career high in that category is 42.5% and this year’s rate is 37.3%...his career low. He’s never been as three-point based as Curry and he’s trending away from that dependency, not towards.

It’s more fair to ask whether Lillard’s lower percentage and rate for three-pointers are affecting his offense negatively and/or his team’s. Take a look at this chart tracking the change in Lillard’s shot selection and percentages this year versus last, data courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com.

Three-pointers make up less of Lillard’s offense this year than last. He’s hitting a lower percentage of them as well. This is not something you’d generally like to see. Obviously this means he’s attempting a higher percentage of shots from two-point range. But look at the increase in his shooting percentage inside the arc. His dramatic improvement between 0-22 feet has allowed him to produce more points per 100 field goals attempted than he did when he was shooting more and better from distance. This does not factor in the increase in fouls drawn and points produced at the free throw line. Lillard played 75 games last season and drew 162 shooting fouls. He’ll surpass that number by his 64th game this year.

Statisticians like three-pointers because on average, it’s easier to score efficiently when the reward for making a shot is 1.5 times greater. This is why Effective Field Goal Percentage and True Shooting Percentage are more respected barometers of efficiency than just plain old Field Goal Percentage. Lillard’s marks are higher in each category with his shift towards two-point offense than they were last season with a heavier three-point attack.

If you were going to quibble with Lillard’s production at all, you might point out that his efficient scoring hasn’t contributed to more points per game for the team overall, this with CJ McCollum producing more points more efficiently as well. But the Blazers swapped a higher-efficiency scorer for a lower in Gerald Henderson and Evan Turner, plus Meyers Leonard and Al-Farouq Aminu have experienced considerable drop-offs. In the most “No Duh” statement ever uttered, Portland’s offensive problems have little to do with their guards. Those players would prove unreliable now matter where or how often Damian shot.

You can’t argue with a statement like, “Damian Lillard hitting a higher percentage on threes would be helpful.” Shooting last year’s percentage of 41.4% or even his career average of 40.5% would boost his offense significantly. But in the big picture, the way he’s shooting now is producing more—and is proving smarter—than last year’s attack. If he does have a shot selection problem, it’s not hurting him much. I’m inclined to chalk it up to focusing on other things and take the double-handful of goodness along with the decline in three-point production.

Keep those questions coming to blazersub@gmail.com!

—Dave blazersub@gmail.com / @Blazersedge / @DaveDeckard