The 2018-2019 campaign is still young, but the Portland Trail Blazers certainly look legit. There are lots of reasons for this, of course. Evan Turner seems rejuvenated in a different role than he’s played in the past couple years. Nik Stauskas has provided much-needed scoring and shooting off the bench. Zach Collins has taken a massive step forward in year two, and looks every bit like a franchise cornerstone for years to come. However, one reason for their success doesn’t seem to be getting much coverage. Superstar Damian Lillard, at age 28 in his 7th year with the team, is having his best season yet. Here’s how.
The first step in Lillard’s path to success has been a lower usage rate (29.3%, his lowest in four years). This doesn’t necessarily make sense. After all, you want the ball in the hands of your best player, especially when he’s having an All-NBA season. However, by using a few less possessions and letting his teammates work, Dame has made the offense somewhat less predictable, and also lightened the load on his plate, presumably giving him a bit more energy.
That extra bit of burst could be the reason for Dame’s increased ability to get to the paint and finish once he gets there. 32.7% of his scoring this season has come from the paint, his highest rate since 2014-2015, which was his career high. He’s hitting 61.3% of his shots within 0-3 feet of the basket (again, highest since 2014), and an incredible 50% of his shots from 3-10 feet, by far a career high. While some of these numbers might regress a bit, Damian’s increased focus on getting into the paint instead of settling for jumpers (as great a shooter as he is) is important, and has been a big reason for his jump in efficiency this year.
Another sign of that attacking mindset? Lillard is getting to the free throw line at a higher rate than at any previous time in his career. He has a free throw rate of .403, which means that for every field goal he takes, he goes to the line approximately .4 times. Lillard is one of the best free-throw shooters in NBA history (career average of 88.6%), so getting to the free throw line means just about automatic points. Of course, an increase in free throws also means an increase in fouls drawn, leading to opponents getting in foul trouble and limiting their ability to play. It’s just an all-around great ability to draw fouls at a high rate, and Dame improving in that area has been another piece of his improvement in efficiency.
With lowering usage, it’s no surprise that Lillard’s turnovers have dropped numerically. However, his turnover rate has plummeted as well, dipping to just 8.5% this year. That’s yet another career best in a season that’s remarkably full of them. Keeping turnovers low is obviously good, but doing so while attacking the basket more is mighty impressive.
All of these improvements are showing up in “all-in-one” advanced statistics as well. Lillard has easy career highs in Box Plus Minus (BPM) as well as Win Shares/48 minutes, and his Net Rating of 11.4 is staggering considering how many minutes he’s played. He might have made 1st Team All-NBA last season, and placed 4th in MVP voting, but he’s actually been a substantially better player this season. That’s a testament to his work ethic and his willingness to improve this late in his career, and a sign of just how dominant he’s been this year. If his play continues at this pace, another All-NBA selection and down-ballot MVP voting seems assured.