The pick and roll has been a staple in the diet of NBA offenses for years, especially for the Portland Trail Blazers. That is because Damian Lillard is quite simply one of the best in the NBA at getting buckets in those situations. He’s averaging the second most points as the ball handler in pick and roll this year at 14.6 points per game. He ranks in the 94th percentile for pick-and-roll ball handlers and averages 1.17 points per possession, which is 4th among players who’ve played 20 games or more.
Part of the reason for his success in past seasons was the two-man game he developed with Jusuf Nurkic. Lillard and Nurkic have a special chemistry both on and off the court that has blossomed into one of the best pick-and-roll partnerships in the NBA. But with Nurkic out for an extended period of time, the role of the second man has fallen most predominantly onto Enes Kanter’s shoulders.
So how has the Lillard-Kanter combo worked out so far? Let’s dive into it.
Let’s start with Lillard, because we already have some of the key stats that show how good he has been this year. This isn’t an anomaly; Lillard has ranked in the 94th percentile of pick-and-roll ball handlers since the 2017-18 season. Considering the frequency with which he runs the pick and roll (spoiler alert; it’s a lot!), that number becomes even more impressive.
Almost 48.3% of Lillard’s play types are pick and rolls per NBA.com. That ranks 12th among pick-and-roll ball handlers. Of those 12 players, Ja Morant (who ranks third) is the only one close percentile-wise. He’s almost 15 percentage points lower at 79.4. Few players can match Lilard’s frequency and proficiency.
There are a lot of reasons he’s so good. For starters, Lillard is a pull-up machine. His numbers show that, as 53.6% of his shots have come off pull-ups. His numbers in those situations aren’t bad either considering the frequency with which he shoots them. He’s making about 44% of his mid-range pull-ups and 36% of his threes. And those threes are not exactly ones that toe the line either.
Obviously, this is from last season, but it’s perfect because it shows the problem that Lillard poses to defenses. All Lillard needs is a screen that is just good enough to stop whoever Dame’s matchup is. If he gets that, then he can quite literally pull up from anywhere on the court and drain it.
Lillard gets the shot off so fast here that Kanter doesn’t even need to roll. If you sag even a little bit on the screen, then Lillard can put one right between your eyes and make you pay. Ironically, it’s the kind of thing that other teams do to expose Kanter a lot of the time; either force him to play high or let him sag so you get the easy three. Robin Lopez sags just enough here, and Lillard makes him pay. Again, all he needs is a good screen.
Along with this, Lillard just has impressive pace control when the ball’s in his hands. He can seemingly stop and go in an instant, and it helps the offense in so many ways. It does things like draw fouls on unsuspecting defenders, open up easy shots, and more.
Here’s an easy floater to get things started. Instead of taking it to the rim at a million miles an hour, Lillard takes his time attacking the hoop. His hesitation puts Alex Len in an uncomfortable position the whole way through, having to decide between smothering Lillard or dropping back more and more. Lillard makes Len pay for giving him enough space for an easy floater.
Lillard spends most of this pick and roll watching what Coby White is going to do. Kanter slows down to make it harder for White and Lillard takes it easy so he can toy with Lauri Markkanen a bit. Once Markkanen is confirmed to drop, Lillard shifts his attention towards White, making a difficult step-back jumper look all too easy.
Here’s one more clip to show how he uses pace to get buckets. Kanter sets the screen and Lillard slowly makes his way over to top of the arc. Lillard once again diagnoses what Markkanen wants to do (foolishly dropping) and instead of taking it inside for an easy midrange jumper or dump off to Kanter, he quickly steps back to get an easy three points. The way Lillard manipulates defenders in the pick and roll is just mean.
If anything has been proven, it’s that all Damian Lillard needs is a good screen to make some magic happen. Do you know who has proven to be a pretty good screener? Enes Kanter! Kanter is one of the most functionaly strong players in the NBA. A while back I wrote about the good and the bad with Kanter, and one of the great things about Kanter is how he’s a strong guy who is acutely aware of his power. It helps him fight for boards, finish inside, and set solid screens.
Enes Kanter’s screen setting has helped lead to points. Kanter ranks 15th among NBA players in screen assists per game at 4.1 and 11th in screen assist points per game at 9.9. It’s not quite at the same level this year as Nurkic, who was averaging 5.0 screen assists per game and 12.3 screen assist points per game before his injury, but it’s still towards the top.
There are plenty of examples of Kanter setting hard screens above, but how good is he at scoring when rolling? Well, he’s not a savant or anything. He’s getting 1.05 points per possession in the pick and roll and ranks in the 45th percentile as a roll man. He’s not particularly graceful in his movements (I mean, have you ever seen him sprint?), but for a guy whose main strength isn’t pick-and-roll offense, he’s effective enough.
I don’t mean to keep picking on poor Lauri, but the Bulls game happened to have a lot of good material for this article. This spin move from Kanter is no exception. He sets a solid screen for Lillard and puts a nice move on Markkanen for the bucket. All Kanter needs to really do is get himself down by the block. Once he does that, there’s a good chance he can score.
But as noted before, it’s not as much about how often he’s scoring. Kanter gets a lot of his buckets on putbacks and post-ups, and that’s totally fine. What they really need Kanter to do is hit dudes hard so that things can open up for Lillard.
I love how Kanter just casually shoves Zach LaVine out of the way here. It makes it easier for Lillard to pull up for what is an absurd three that should never work. But once again, all Lillard needs is someone who can make contact on screens. Enes Kanter does just that here, and Lillard pulls the trigger on a ridiculous shot.
So how does the Lillard-Kanter two-man game compare to the Lillard-Nurkic combo? This year, Kanter has been the better roll man, with Nurkic only in the 35th percentile in his limited playing time. Nurkic started to regain his form a little before the injury, but his struggles finishing inside hurt his effectiveness in this area.
However, when Nurkic is healthy and in shape, he’s still the top option. He was one of the best roll men in the NBA in 2018-19, his best year before his sudden leg injury. He was averaging 1.13 points per possession at a high frequency (24.6%), ranking in the 61st percentile among roll men. Along with this, his versatility as a passer and occasional mid-range shooter made him more of a threat to defenders.
Kanter just doesn’t have that versatility. He doesn’t have much of a shot outside of 10 feet and doesn’t possess great passing vision. Along with this, he has a tendency to lose the ball by just fumbling it or just misreading the pass. There’s a reason he’s averaging only 1.2 assists and 1.3 turnovers. When Nurkic is healthy, he’s the better option than Kanter still.
But Nurkic isn’t healthy, and Kanter is what we’ve got. Frankly, he’s been pretty solid all things considered. Obviously, Kanter has his limitations as a player, but that doesn’t mean he has no value. And when it comes to operating in the pick and roll, Kanter has done just fine with that. And that’s fine because Damian Lillard continues to do what he does best: Get buckets.