Seven games into the 2021-22 season, the Portland Trail Blazers have looked like chameleons in how many different phases they’ve shown. At times, they’ve looked ready to bring a championship parade past the Willamette River, as evidenced in their 29-point shellacking of the defending Western Conference Champion Phoenix Suns. At others — such as Monday’s loss to the Embiid-less, Simmons-less, Harris-less 76ers — the 2022 NBA Draft has looked like more of a focus. Such are the ebbs and flows of an 82-game season.
In the midst of this, Damian Lillard finds himself in the midst of one of the more unproductive streaks of his career, shooting just 34.9 percent (on 18.6 attempts) from the field, and just 15-of-65 from 3-point range (23.1 percent). Given his overall body of work and reputation, that feels far from a harbinger of things to come. But, there are some trends and patterns that, at the very least, make it a conversation.
Yesterday, Jason Quick of The Athletic addressed many of the theories attributed to Lillard’s slow start, from fatigue to lingering injuries. Ever the competitor, Lillard avoided putting confirmation to such excuses. And while his word — and a writer with a close eye on the team — hold more weight than speculation, those ideas held credence for a reason.
Perhaps there’s a pattern within that: in most of the situations in which Lillard hasn’t played to his Hall of Fame standards, there’s been an injury or hindrance that we only found out about later. He struggled on occasion during Olympic play, something that could later be attributed to his abdomen injury. When his play slipped from Most Valuable Player-caliber to merely “strong” at the end of 2020-21, we later learned that he had dealt with injuries to his ankle, ribs, and knees from screen clashes. For what it’s worth, Josh Lloyd of Basketball Monster even suggested he should’ve gone the surgery route, but that’s just playing devil’s advocate.
In short, just because Lillard, honorably, won’t own up to any excuse doesn’t mean it isn’t within reason.
Theoretically, it’d be understandable. Consider this half-year schedule: in June, the Blazers’ Playoff run ended. In July, Team USA opened training camp, won a gold medal on Aug. 10. There are theories to be entertained about the physical sacrifice that comes with the Olympics, too. Portland opened training camp in September, and in October, the regular season began. There have been rest periods there, but for a player like Lillard — No. 1 in minutes (24,778) and No. 2 in games played since 2012-13, with his workload to boot — fatigue’s at least a consideration. To take it one step further …
Surely, you’ve seen those “One Year Ago Today” posts from the NBA, in which they’re showing highlights from two seasons ago. Consider this: the 2019-20 NBA Finals ended last October. In the last 13 months, we’ve watched live games from the 2019-20, 2020-21, and now 2021-22 seasons.
What does film suggest?
The idea that the six-time All-Star had been playing through something to begin 2021-22 had become so prevalent, this had become a convenient go-to whenever Lillard’s shots came up short, hitting front iron. After looking back on all 129 of his shot attempts, that feels like confirmation bias. He’s not hitting short on an abnormal amount of shots, and, save for a pair of air balls against the Clippers, his lift appears normal. What isn’t normal is Lillard’s free throw rate, down to .209 from .363 from a year ago.
As we’ve seen with James Harden and Trae Young, the league’s defensive-focused rule changes have made drawing fouls much tougher. There’s a growing frustration on that end, and it’s both palpable and understandable. Lillard has had a handful of plays — such as here, here, and here — that probably would’ve been a foul in a past season or should’ve been called. He’s seemed to note this, and he’s relying on that midrange a bit more than usual.
It was particularly evident against Philadelphia. On multiple occasions, he ran a pick-and-roll, took his defender out of the play, and had a chance to attack a drop coverage with blow-by speed. Thus far, there’s been much more dragging the pick-and-roll out, and using the midrange shot as more of a secondary option, as opposed to a No. 3 or No. 4. Hit or miss, it’s a shot that Furkan Korkmaz or Tyrese Maxey will live with. Also of note is that his numbers in the restricted area are down. (See an example here).
Outside of that, it does appear that teams are taking a page from Denver’s book one postseason ago, putting a rangy, athletic forward on Lillard more often, as the Nuggets did with Aaron Gordon. This year, the likes of Miles Bridges, Terance Mann, and Nicolas Batum have had success defending him.
What it means long term:
Likely, not much. If history tells us anything, it’s that these slumps stretch to an eight-game run, and then Lillard’s Super Saiyan form returns thereafter. Take this for example:
Lillard's worst FG% stretches in his career came during two periods:— Kevin Pelton (@kpelton) November 2, 2021
- An 8-game stretch in late January 2015 where he shot 31% from the field and 23% from 3
- An 8-game stretch in March and April 2016 where he shot 32% from the field (but 33% from 3) https://t.co/8edf4hF0bu
After the eight-game slump in 2015:
— 21.7 PPG | on 48-29-86 in next ten games.
After the eight-game slump in 2016:
— 26.0 PPG on 49-39-100 in last two games to clinch Playoff berth.
Perhaps the only thing that’s worrisome is how Lillard plans to re-up his free throw rate with teams putting defenders on him that have ideal mixes of athleticism and size. Sometimes as an offensive star, simply seeing the ball go through the net is enough of a mental advantage, and free throws fulfill that to a tee.
To my eye, his rhythm dribbles and subtle movements haven’t appeared as fast, but it could very well be a case of confirmation bias from his misses as well. Still, even if that isn’t the case, and a slight regression is within the horizon, that doesn’t mean Lillard can’t still be an all-world player. To speak in old PlayStation terms, even if that R2 turbo-speed doesn’t work as fast, that R1 button — normally the counter or reverse button — still works like new. And a player of Lillard’s caliber has counter-after-counter for what defenses can throw at him.
In the meantime, Lillard has said all of the right things about the slump, he’s playmaking at a career rate, and, to his credit, hasn’t shied away. It’s only a matter of time before the tables turn. My prediction: it happens tonight, with Lillard’s first 30-point game of the season. At this point, it would be the only thing that truly makes sense.