When the average fan thinks of Damian Lillard, both now and forever, it’s likely that a few defining characteristics will come to mind. The cold-blooded, borderline-inhuman ability to rise to the occasion in must-score situations. The loyalty and the plus-minus that comes with it. Take your pick. But one aspect that sometimes goes unnoticed has been Lillard’s willingness to attach new wrinkles to his game on a season-by-season basis. He’s rewritten the second half of his career, almost solely through deepened 3-point range, he’s become one of the NBA’s premier finishers, and, though not quite elite, he has made strides defensively.
Now, after scoring more points than any player in the NBA over the last two seasons and statistically capping out defensively, the question is: how much better can the soon-to-be-31-year-old become?
In bringing new head coach Chauncey Billups and a barrage of new staff on board, the Portland Trail Blazers front office is betting on whatever the “over” is in that regard. The expectation is that this is a move that catapults Lillard — and whomever his backcourt sidekicks are next season — over the top and back into championship contention. Does history support that notion?
It’s a reasonable assumption that former star-guards-turned-coaches should be able to guide their point guards to their most productive seasons. There’s overwhelming evidence, though, that suggests that it’s quite the opposite. FiveThirtyEight’s Jared Dubin compiled data on the 76 former point guards that have been hired as head coaches since 1999-00. The lion’s share of the 599 point guards included in the same fell short of their previous season’s production in a smart on-off plus-minus statistic known as RAPTOR.
On the flip side, the NBA stratosphere has undergone a shift. As Dubin notes, many of this season’s most successful teams — think the Hawks, Nets, and Clippers — were coached by former floor generals, and point guard-led teams took up the highest share of the NBA’s wins than at any point in the decade.
Two aspects in particular provide much hope as it relates to Billups’ chances of coaxing even more out of Lillard in 2021-22. For one, Lillard isn’t a player pockmarked by weaknesses. The six-time All-Star hasn’t been a positive in defensive box plus-minus since 2017-18, but he hasn’t been far off. Small, subtle changes under a defensive-minded head coach could aid in further development. It’s a tried-and-true process. Allen Iverson, for instance, mentioned some of the defensive tricks he learned under the tutelage of Hall of Fame guard Maurice Cheeks. On an episode of ESPN+ Detail (subscription required), Iverson talked about defensive positioning and the use of the outside hand to cut off passing lanes on defensive stunts. Billups, a two-time All-Defensive Teamer, likely has a multitude of tricks he can teach to the Blazers’ guards.
The second aspect comes in how the Tokyo Olympics could be providing the groundwork. If Billups is searching for more ways to unlock Lillard’s offensive potential, that may be an ideal place to start. When Lillard returns for his tenth season, he won’t be surrounded by four All-Stars soaking up attention, and the success he’s had off-ball with Team USA is something that Blazers fans have longed for.
It’s mere hypothesis for now, but in considering what worked during Billups’ prime playing years, if he brings some of those sets to Portland, it strengthens their offensive identity. Detroit, with two score-first guards in Billups and Rip Hamilton, specialized in this “Hawk” series that got Billups efficient pull -up jumpers if defenders were too respectful of Hamilton’s slice cut, or vice versa. It’s a pick-your-poison set that, with two interchangeable ball handlers like Lillard and McCollum, opens up opportunities. Cheat on those two, and a tertiary option will be open. It wasn’t out of the ordinary to see this year’s Clippers run that sort of set and have success with it.
What’s most intriguing, though, is that Lillard has been vocal about wanting to learn habits and tendencies from Team USA’s decorated, title-winning coaches, and that likely begins on the defensive end. Past guards have spoken glowingly of what the Team USA experience does for them defensively when the season starts.
Thus far, it’s been a mixed bag in exhibition play, but it figures to be interesting to see how Billups and the coaching staff guide Lillard through some of his minor defensive shortcomings, such as navigating through screens. The Clippers and Blazers were both among the NBA’s most frequent users of the drop coverage, and Ivica Zubac, just like Jusuf Nurkic, often found himself left out to dry because guards weren’t getting through screens quickly enough. Per NBA.com, the Clippers and Blazers both ranked among the bottom-five in points allowed per possession to pick-and-roll ballhandlers.
Outside of Lillard, though, there has to be some fascination in regards to what this coaching staff can do to develop someone such as Anfernee Simons. Under Tyronn Lue, Billups was appointed as the “point guard coach,” which is notable considering the Clippers underwent lengthy stretches without a de facto floor general in 2020-21. That meant that almost overnight, Billups was tasked with turning Paul George and Kawhi Leonard into something they hadn’t been as much of to that point: primary playmakers and creators for others.
Billups explained part of that process in tutoring George, who went on to have the highest assist rate of his career in 2020-21, per ESPN’s Ramona Shelburne.
“I just want to teach him how to see the game,” Billups said. “What to look for on certain plays — not just worrying about the guy in front of you, if you can beat him. ‘Where’s the guy going to help from? What shooters do you have? Where are they on the floor?’
“There’s a mindset that comes with that. Because sometimes you just want to be a killer out there and take advantage of every matchup. Well, as a point guard, you can’t quite do that. You got to kind of play chess.”
The pick of supporting statistics is reassuring, too. Shelburne hit on one from Second Spectrum, showing that Clippers players hit on 55 percent of their shots when assisted by George, No. 1 among 68 players to meet the criteria. Then there’s Reggie Jackson — who planned to retire before the season’s start — putting together the lowest turnover rate of his career. He found a way to drop that number even further in the Playoffs, despite playing 622 minutes, No. 2 on the team.
Because he’s a first-time head coach, it’s difficult to gauge what Billups will copy-and-paste from the Clippers schemes into his own. But those who’ve watched from afar haven’t been shy about the superlatives they attach to the former five-time All-Star. He’s been labeled the “point guard whisperer” and the one who Clippers players go and confer with during game stoppages. Players under his coaching have eulogized his ability to adjust in-game, a welcome sight after the story about those same Clippers mocking Lillard for not having a coaching staff capable of countering the Clippers’ trapping defense last season.
Here’s to hoping this time around that it’s Lillard that gets the last laugh.