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Making Damian Lillard’s Case as a Top 5 Shooter in NBA History

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Despite being one of basketball’s most accomplished, versatile shooters, Damian Lillard is often overlooked when considering the greatest shooters. Why is that the case?

Oklahoma City Thunder v Portland Trail Blazers - Game Five Photo by Cameron Browne/NBAE via Getty Images

Where on earth is Damian Lillard?

For as long as teams have battled this decade’s Portland Trail Blazers, that’s become the pivotal question, an inquiry capable of determining a game, if not a full-on playoff series. Whether he’s 94-feet away from the basket, or right under it, the premise remains clear: always have eyes on Damian Lillard.

Which, in great irony, provokes a thought: sports outlets across the globe annually produce lists detailing NBA history’s greatest shooters, sometimes stretching it out beyond 20-to-25 players. Lillard’s right wrist commands the utmost respect of the game’s greatest defenders and coaches ... but when it comes to columnists, his shooting abilities have gone ignored in a way that would make Draymond Green and Ben Simmons feel special.

Last summer, CBS Sports listed their 15 greatest shooters, including five active players and four point guards. ClutchPoints followed suit with 20. Bleacher Report went as far as to rank just 2021’s best. Lillard drew nary a mention, not even an honorable one. With the exception of NBA.com, who ranked him as the 12th greatest shooter, it’s been a difficult sell suggesting that Lillard is an all-time great shooter to the public eye. And that’s where analytics come into play.

By the numbers:

Even a quick glance at Lillard’s traditional shooting statistics tells an excellent story of both how far he’s come as a shooter — he’s already tenth all-time in 3-point field goals made (1,988) — as well as how far he can still go. Heading into 2020-21, Lillard averaged about 222 3-pointers made per season, and if he’s just “normal” Lillard over the next two years, he’d be on the fast track towards joining Ray Allen, Stephen Curry, and (presumably) James Harden as the only players with 2,600 or more 3-pointers.

Raw numbers are arbitrary, especially given today’s 3-point-heavy climate. But that climb up the ranks, if nothing else, provides stability to his résumé.

There’s a potential chasm between how all-time great “shooters” are viewed. Some specialize as pure, catch-and-shoot scorers, mostly unable create their own shot, put the ball on the deck and work the midrange, or get to the charity stripe. Does Lillard not deserve added praise for his ability to produce from all three levels? As Dr. Seuss (might) describe it, Lillard can score in a house, or with a mouse, in a bunch, while eating lunch, off a double-drag, while playing freeze tag ... you get the picture. There’s no situation too mighty for the Blazers guard.

Of the 38 players with at least 1,500 3-pointers, Lillard ranks 12th in 2-point percentage and ninth in true shooting percentage. In terms of shot creation on-ball and off-ball? Well, does this suffice?

The legacy, gravity, and fear factor:

It goes without saying that a player’s impact in basketball will never solely be solved through numbers and charts. There’s a visceral, emotional complement that brings it full circle. Using just that baseline of the 38 players with 1,500 3-pointers made: how many of those players required an obligatory 30-point performance to give their team a chance? How many of them commanded 40-foot traps or challenged the “normal” way to defend?

With due respect to players such as Mike Miller (No. 14), Trevor Ariza (No. 32), or even all-timer Jason Kidd (No. 11), that’s a difficult argument. Each were generational shooters. But they weren’t the head of the snake that defenses sought to chop off night-after-night, season-after-season.

There’s one play that has always perfectly articulated the fear Lillard puts into defenses. Portland got out on a 2-on-1 fast break in a Feb. 9, 2020 game against Miami, with Lillard and Ariza out in transition with Goran Dragic as the sole man back. Dragic had a decision to make:

Give up a wide-open layup to Trevor Ariza?

Or surrender moving, potentially-contested 35-foot fast break 3-pointer to Damian Lillard?

The fact that defenders even have to weigh those pros and cons side-by-side is a testament to the trepidation that the six-time All-Star evokes. Lillard, ever calm, slows himself enough to freeze Dragic in place, looks Ariza off the way an elite NFL quarterback would, and uses his gravity to pull Dragic in enough to loft an over-the-top throw.

Apologies to the media; there aren’t 25 shooters in NBA history capable of consistently pulling off that ploy.

It works all the same in a half-court setting, too. In March, Jared Dubin of FiveThirtyEight discussed the lengths — literally — that defenses were willing to go in order to prevent Lillard’s percolations. In the tracking era, the Blazers have been blitzed more than any team in history, at 13 percent of their pick-and-rolls, which is all the more noteworthy when you consider that no team runs their screens as high as Portland does for Lillard, at 28.9 feet away from the basket.

In essence, setting a pick-and-roll for Lillard basically guarantees a 4-on-3 opportunity if the timing aligns and his teammates can take advantage. But these traps and blitzes have been the sole reason for Portland’s premature postseason exits. Thinking positively, it’s conjoined Lillard as a one-of-a-kind shooter alongside Curry.

You knew it was coming: Lillard had arguably the greatest shooting season of all-time in terms of “deep shooting” — shots from 30-feet to 40-feet away — in 2019-20, when he hoisted 53 of them, hitting on 42.7 percent. He’s followed it up by hitting a league-high 31-of-94 in 2020-21 as well. Assuming health permits, this would give Lillard five of the NBA’s 20 best shooting seasons on those shots, as well as a chance at the two best ever.

How important is late-game shooting?

When considering the game’s all-time greatest shooters, most of them have memories of a clutch, late-game example closely attached at the hip. That’s an often-forgotten part of what makes one a Pantheon shooter: regardless of whether they’re 12-of-21 or 4-on-21, the goal of ensuring they don’t get to that shot No. 22 with the game in the balance is a part of the story.

Lillard certainly holds his ground in this category. To say that Lillard is as great a shooter as Ray Allen, Reggie Miller, Larry Bird, or Curry is a bit bold and fanboyish for my liking. But speaking anecdotally, he’s got a case in the 6-to-10 range. Here’s how he stacks up to a dozen of the best and most available, per Basketball Reference’s Stathead.

Fourth quarter or overtime; game within 5 points; last 3 minutes; reg. season + Playoffs:
— Dirk Nowitzki: 56-of-132 (42.4%), 13-of-41 (31.7%) in 96 games
— Kevin Durant: 53-of-136 FG (39.0%), 23-of-69 (33.3%) in 112 games
— Damian Lillard: 45-of-100 FG (45.0%), 19-of-46 (41.3%) in 70 games
— Ray Allen: 40-of-106 FG (37.7%), 23-of-58 (39.7%) in 84 games
— Steve Nash: 32-of-91 FG (35.2%), 16-of-50 (32.0%) in 70 games
— Reggie Miller: 23-of-58 FG (39.7%), 14-of-41 (34.1%) in 48 games
— Stephen Curry: 22-of-73 FG (30.1%), 10-of-46 (21.7%) in 62 games
— Chauncey Billups: 21-of-73 FG (28.8%), 17-of-46 (37.0%) in 60 games
— J.J. Redick: 15-of-38 FG (39.5%), 11-of-28 (39.3%) in 35 games
Klay Thompson: 13-of-28 FG (46.4%), 9-of-17 (52.9%) in 24 games
— Peja Stojakovic: 12-of-54 FG (22.2%), 5-of-26 (19.2%) in 44 games
— Kyle Korver: 11-of-34 FG (32.4%), 11-of-30 (36.7%) in 30 games

We can go down the rabbit hole of hypotheticals — what if Larry Bird always had this tracking readily available ? Mark Price? John Stockton? Reggie Miller over his full career? It’s certainly a reasonable play. Nonetheless, this listing only serves to show how ingrained Lillard’s case as an all-time great, top-tier shooter is. He doesn’t fit the bill as the type of textbook shooter you’d only run a “floppy” set off of, or on staggered screens and dribble hand-offs. But when you consider how many of the game’s greatest pure shooters limited themselves to just 3-point attempts, that hardly feels like an indictment.

In fact, it should elevate Lillard, showcasing not only the offensive responsibility he commands year-after-year, but in how creative he is in doing so. Save for Thompson, he’s the most efficient on this list, and atones for it by surpassing the Splash Brother in volume and reliance.

That the two greatest plays in Damian Lillard’s career are ones that encapsulate his shooting ability, excellence down the stretch when palms get sweaty, and the defensive attention prescribed to him should be enough to make his name known. Despite often being the smallest man on the floor, opposing defenses make a concerted effort to locate Lillard at all times.

And going forward, any list ranking the NBA’s all-time greatest shooters certainly should as well.

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