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What Does a ‘Better Than Ever’ Damian Lillard Even Look Like?

A few months back, the Portland Trail Blazers star entertained the idea of returning “better than ever” from his abdominal surgery. Already a top-10 player, what would that next level look like?

Portland Trail Blazers v Oklahoma City Thunder - Game Three Photo by Zach Beeker/NBAE via Getty Images

If it could be done on a basketball court, particularly offensively, odds are Portland Trail Blazers star point guard Damian Lillard has done it.

One-legged fadeaways out of the triple threat, à la Dirk Nowitzki? It’s not often, but he’s done it. Reverse, switch-hand scoop shots across the board with two defenders on his back? Sure. 37-foot stepback shots to close out a Playoff series? Absolutely.

That realization makes Lillard’s statement during a late-March appearance on Shannon Sharpe’s Club Shay Shay all the more intriguing. Pondering over his future and return from his abdominal surgery, the six-time All-Star laid out expectations for what he intends for 2022-23 to offer in terms of his health and production:

“I’m not looking at 100 (percent), I’m looking at 150, like are we absolutely sure? Am I strong in this area? I’m looking for every vulnerable spot that I can put myself in to try and find that place where I might be re-aggravating something, just so I know I’m good. And I’m not gonna rush through that process because I know when I get back on the court, I don’t plan on having anything in the way.

I wanna perform at a level I wasn’t even playing at before this.”

That last quote commands a level of emphasis because it isn’t very often that 31-year-old players reach a different level as a 32-year-old; then again, NBA history hasn’t experienced many players quite like Damian Lillard.

Sifting through the NBA’s history tells an interesting story. Before Lillard (and Paul George) in 2021-22, there had only been 27 players to average at least 24.0 points per game at age 31, as the Blazers star did a season ago.

Of that 27, only six of them — LeBron James, Michael Jordan, Allen Iverson, Hakeem Olajuwon, Dominique Wilkins, and Alex English — surpassed the season prior’s point average.

This isn’t to say that a decline is inevitable, especially since many of those 21 were at least close, just that history doesn’t side with a better-than-ever-type season at this juncture. In a best case scenario, Lillard has a similar arc to that of Stephen Curry: a “down year,” dive season at age 31, and a reload over the coming years.

Given what Lillard’s body of work does tell us, it is intriguing to pick out some different, reasonable ways in which he could somehow pull off a peak season in 2022-23. A few that stood out:

Peak 3-point shooting accuracy:

Using BBallIndex’s metric that gauges 3-point shot quality, of the 462 players to square up for a three-pointer in 2021-22, a whopping 456 of them got higher-quality, easier shots than Lillard did. Part of this comes with the territory of being a superstar; these archetypes end up having to sometimes hoist late into the shot clock, they command the opposition’s best perimeter defender, and they’ve got to prepare for it three or four times a week.

That Lillard is a career 37.3 percent percent shooter from deep is an accomplishment in itself. Though, thinking of ways a more polished-than-ever Lillard could surface, one would think he probably does something he’s only done once in his career: hit over 40 percent from 3-point range.

A few things go Lillard’s way with this argument. Just considering the potential roster combinations the 2022-23 Blazers could run out — for example, a Nurkić-Grant-Hart-Simons-Lillard grouping — this could be among the most self-sufficient offensive groups Lillard has started amongst.

This isn’t a slight at previous iterations of the Blazers, even some of which that had successful seasons in Portland. But, we’ve seen it before: the dribble-the-air-out-of-the-basketball approach, and then a drive-and-kick to a Blazers forward out in the corner. Not only can each of Grant, Hart, Simons and Lillard score in a pinch, but they can create it, too. Hart and Simons each clocked in at an 80 percentile or higher in box creation, potential assists and playmaking talent metrics. Grant was above the NBA’s average in each of these three, as well as passing versatility.

With respects to extremely-talented wings of the past (think: Al-Farouq Aminu, Robert Covington, Moe Harkless), it’s justifiable that this year’s group has a higher offensive ceiling while still salvaging some of that defensive grit. Or, that could be June optimism talking. In any case, wide-open catch-and-shoot threes are much easier than contested fallaways against the shot clock. Both are incredible sights; both are in Lillard’s wheelhouse. Here’s to hoping Lillard gets more of the former in an efficient, transcendent 2022-23 season.

Defensive activity:

Defense, by nature, is much more difficult to evaluate than offense. Despite that ambiguity, nearly every metric had a similar idea when it came to Lillard’s defense. When the moment calls for it — see his first-round series against the Thunder in 2019 or the Team USA exhibitions, when there wasn’t as much offensive pressure on him — Lillard has shown the ability to be an impactful defender. There are no Defensive Player of the Year votes in the talented guard’s future, but this feels like one of the areas he could raise the bar in.

The numbers told an interesting story. Lillard tied for a career-best in block percentage; he also stole the ball at the lowest rate. The media has been quick to call out his pick-and-roll defense, navigating through screens, but the index charted him for a 79th percentile finish in that regard.

Considering his on-court film, the first thing that stands out is that Lillard leaves some things to be desired in terms of finishing contests, and his reactions can be egregiously late on closeouts. There’s sometimes a “hope he misses” approach. To put out a few examples.

Obviously, us observers never know the full story. T.J. McConnell profiles as a low-volume, 32.7 percent 3-point shooter, so perhaps the scouting report recommended going “under” on the pick-and-roll. And we haven’t even started on some of these disadvantageous guard-guard-guard-undersized-forward lineups the Blazers have churned out. When you’ve got a 6-foot-1 point guard as the low man tagging a big on a pick-and-roll (this happened too many times in this game) or defending post-ups against players with a half-a-foot advantage on him, you’re past the point of being in trouble.

Ironic as it may be, Lillard having a considerable, energetic defensive season could involve him doing less. If his offensive load isn’t as burdensome, having fresher legs opens up opportunities for him to hunt around the perimeter and attack passing lanes. The size, athleticism, and feistiness there to cover Lillard’s shortcomings, but don’t be surprised the Blazers star makes some standout plays as well throughout the year.

The in-between game:

If watching Damian Lillard’s prime has taught us anything, it’s that all defensive strategies are on the table when it comes to opponents trying to defend him. From 60-foot half court traps to sending four men (!) at him in a pick-and-roll, the message has been clear: if it isn’t a pre-game warm-up, that shot attempt won’t be open.

The pick-and-roll situation feels intriguing, largely because of how teams defended it last season. In going back to watch all 90 of Lillard’s midrange attempts last year, many of them had a familiar theme: Lillard screening tight off of his big — most often Jusuf Nurkic — which forces Lillard’s man to cover more ground. With the guard in rearview pursuit, hoping to get back into the play, and the wide-eyed big in a backpedal to cover the rim, the Blazers star got plenty of looks like this:

That 16-to-3-point range area was the Wi-Fi to Damian Lillard’s 4G; his accuracy betrayed him from most other areas, but he had the fourth-best season of his career from there (46.4 percent), and wasn’t far off from his career-best (47.3).

There’s a domino effect that feels as though it could come true: inside the 10-feet area, Lillard had arguably his worst at-the-rim finishing season since his sophomore year. Say he returns to attacking with a vengeance. All of a sudden, those bigs are dropping back further, creaking the door open for Lillard to punish defenders with the in-between game at a different level. Lillard is so crafty at attacking those switches, he can get to his (often) drifting stepbacks any time he wants.

When you’re a six-time All-Star, Olympian, and NBA 75th Anniversary Teamer, there isn’t much room to go up in terms of improving your game, but there are some subtle ways that he can do that, especially with noteworthy offensive help, taking pressure off. There’s one piece — a 6-foot-10(?) piece from the Brooklyn Nets whose name rhymes with “Devin Morant” — who’d be nice. But with or without, Lillard appears poised to remind the NBA world of who exactly he is in 2022-23.