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Are Damian Lillard’s Turnovers an Issue for the Blazers?

Lillard’s numbers aren’t great so far this season. How much does it matter?

NBA: Portland Trail Blazers at Oklahoma City Thunder Alonzo Adams-USA TODAY Sports

The Portland Trail Blazers season has come in fits and starts so far. They’ve benefited from stellar play among their top stars, but overall output has been shaky as their record hovers near .500. In the midst of the ups and downs, one Blazer’s Edge Reader wonders whether a less-mentioned aspect of Damian Lillard’s play might be contributing to the struggles. That’s the subject of today’s Blazer’s Edge Mailbag.

I rarely see any talk of Dame’s TOs and his assist to turnover ratio vs. other point guards. In the [December 19th] OKC game, especially in the 4th quarter, they were on sight for everyone to see. It seems like it just doesn’t match the Dame $ narrative so it isn’t discussed. Can you please address if it should be a concern?

Noury

The first person we need to compare Dame to is Dame. And you’re right. His assist-to-turnover ratio this year is 2.0. That’s much lower than the 2.6 he averaged last year in a partial season, or the 2.5 he averaged in 2020-21 while playing 67 games. The number is more reminiscent of his rookie season in 2012-13 or the 2015-16 campaign.

But let’s hold on a second. What happened in those two years? In 2012, Dame himself was new. In 2015, LaMarcus Aldridge departed and Lillard was left captaining a brand new, and relatively inexperienced, lineup.

Guess what’s also happening thus far this season? Lillard is adjusting to teammates as they adjust to a new system. He doesn’t have the sure pick-and-pop outlet to Aldridge. He doesn’t have the consistent high pick and roll sets with Jusuf Nurkic either, as the Blazers don’t run those plays as much as they once did. Instead you’ve got Anfernee Simons and Jerami Grant as the next two scorers in line, the players whom Lillard would normally expect to garner assists with. They’re still feeling their way a little bit. They’re also isolation scorers in their own right, and wouldn’t be expected to convert every Lillard pass into an automatic dime.

Despite this, Lillard’s assists are still pretty high. His per-minute numbers rank this as the third best season of his career so far. As you’ve noted, his turnovers are also high. If extended through next April, 3.7 turnovers per 36 minutes would rank as the worst season of his career. It’s slightly more than the 3.3 turnovers per 36 he registered in...you guessed it: 2015-16. (His rookie season featured comparatively few turnovers, but also the lowest usage rate of his career. He simply wasn’t given as many opportunities to cough up the ball in his first season.) There’s reason to suspect that circumstances are contributing to Dame’s turnover rate as much as Dame’s turnover rate is creating adverse circumstances.

Comparing Lillard to the rest of the NBA this year, the numbers aren’t great. He’s the 99th player out of 450 in assist-to-turnover ratio. But we need to look at the asterisks here too.

Only 47 of those higher-ranking players are point guards. 18 of those are starters. That still ranks Lillard near the bottom third of the league among starters, which isn’t a high recommendation. He’s light years behind Mike Conley, who has a 4.9 assist-to-turnover ratio, and Chris Paul with a 4.7. But he’s tucked near D’Angelo Russell, Steph Curry, and De’Aaron Fox (all at 2.2) plus Ja Morant and point-forward LeBron James (2.1). If Lillard was cruising along at his career average of 2.4, he’d be no worse than 60th in the league, around 14th among starting point guards. That’s the median in a 30-team league—modest for a player of Lillard’s caliber—but how many of those other point guards also score 28 per game?

Turnovers remain a mild issue for the Blazers as a whole. They rank 22nd in the league in turnovers per possession, 26th in assist-to-turnover ratio as a team. But that’s not destroying them and, like Lillard’s individual numbers, it’s likely to get better with reps. Lillard is a part of those low numbers, but he’s hardly the sole cause of them. Anfernee Simons and Jerami Grant—the next two significant rotation members by usage rate—own 1.9 and 1.4 assist-to-turnover ratios respectively.

So yes, this could be a concern. But the caveats are significant: it’s a year of transition and Lillard’s numbers don’t represent a full season yet. Even if they did, Lillard is somewhat below average among his peers, not horrible, and he has plenty of talented company in that statistical neighborhood. Finally, the team is not prospering as a whole in this area, offering little credible alternative.

For all these reasons, I’d like another calendar year—extending through January, 2024—to see if this remains an issue for Dame. Until then, well... it’s not exactly no harm, no foul, but it’s probably not much extra harm? Lillard’s assists and turnovers aren’t causing the Blazers to lose games they otherwise would have won.

Thanks for the question! You can always send yours to blazersub@gmail.com and we’ll answer as many as we can!