It’s been nearly a full year since Damian Lillard made the comment vowing to return to the 2022-23 season in the “best shape” of his career. Despite the well-earned reputation for being a man of his word, Lillard’s statement deserved some level of analysis; it isn’t particularly commonplace for a 32-year-old with 28,293 minutes under his legs to return at the apex of his powers in the following season.
The jury remains out, with 24 regular season games (and hopefully, many more thereafter) remaining in the Portland Trail Blazers’ season. But if the first 58 have taught us anything, it’s that Lillard is either on-par — or unquestionably within reach — of his goal to be better than any other previous iteration we’ve seen from him individually.
Much of that stems from what he’s done since the ball dropped on New Year’s Day. Over the 2023 calendar year, no player has scored as effectively as the newly-crowned seven-time All-Star has. The points per game (35) tell some of the story, but perhaps even more impressively, he’s doing so at a historic clip from an efficiency standpoint. He’s shooting 49.3 percent (on 21 attempts) from the field, 37.2 percent (on 11 attempts) from three-point range, and 92.4 percent from the charity stripe (on 10.8 attempts).
Predictably, no other player can attest to the double-digit marks in attempts in all three, speaking just how much has been required of Lillard to keep the Blazers competitive and swinging.
In short, it’s a Damian Lillard we’ve never seen on this night-to-night basis. Yet, at the same time, it’s a story we know all too well.
In 46 games with him to this point, the Blazers are, poetically, 23-23. Which begs the question: how much longer can the treadmill, the figurative run in place, last? Will the luxuries of having All-Star teammates ever present themselves in the Pacific Northwest as Lillard reasonably deserves? What’s the overall end game? What we lack in answers, we have in highlights, observations, and ultimately, more questions. Here’s what stood out to one observer:
No. 1: The Round 1 Knockout
In one of the final years of his prime in 2008-09, Chauncey Billups — then a Denver Nugget, in the middle of his seventh consecutive appearance in the Conference Finals — discussed what it was like to play the defending two-time champion Los Angeles Lakers. His analogy was that, like a great boxer, they knew how to hang in a fight before turning on the intensity in those precious, final seconds of the round, thus earning an advantage on the scorecards.
Thinking about Lillard’s more recent play, Billups’ analogy somewhat describes the inverse of that; the 2022-23 version of Damian Lillard is starting games off much more aggressively than in seasons past, leaving little to question.
To illustrate: Lillard already has seven instances in which he has scored 25 or more points after the first half. For comparison’s sake, no other NBA player even has five. During the entirety of the 2019-20 campaign — his previous career-high in points per game — he only had six over the season’s entirety.
40 PTS— NBA (@NBA) February 14, 2023
Damian Lillard went off for 30 first-half PTS en route to his 11th 40+ PT performance of the season! pic.twitter.com/fbofjEeaLI
It isn’t the biggest takeaway, per se, of Lillard’s year, but it’s certainly noteworthy. Since Jan. 1, he’s poured on 393 first-half points, 67 points better than the No. 2 player, and he ranks atop the NBA exclusively in second quarters.
Just from observing Blazers games, especially recently, you get the feeling that he’s putting the onus squarely upon himself to keep Portland competitive. On the year, Portland is 9-5 when he hoists up at least 12 shots in the first half, compared to 14-18 when he doesn’t.
Which prompts a second thought:
No. 2: Unrewarded production
There are no shortages when it comes to statistics that point to Lillard’s impact as both the leader and unquestioned offensive catalyst within this Blazers group. The 11 different 25-point halves this season — no other player is in double-digits — tells some of the saga. Within that same realm, no other player this season has had more 40-point performances in losing efforts (4) than Lillard has.
We touched on this briefly in looking over Anfernee Simons’ play at the All-Star break, but one key issue Portland runs into is an inconsistency in generating serviceable play when No. 0 rests. Even when they keep two-thirds of that top-scoring trio on the floor in Simons and Jerami Grant, they’ve been a net negative. Part of having a roster this youthful and unproven is that it sometimes leaves players such as Lillard in an interesting on-court situation.
One example that comes to mind came during that Jan. 6 meeting in Indiana, in which Rick Carlisle schemed for the Pacers to meet Lillard at halfcourt, trapping with two defenders, more content to deal with a 4-on-3 disadvantage against his teammates than a clean 5-on-5 with him included:
In counter, Billups was forced to immediately bring Simons back into the game during his rest, given the lack of sufficient shot creators. It’s a show of respect that we’ve seen defensive-minded coaches entertain for years.
Over the course of an 82-game season, teams will try everything. We’ve seen teams try to match Lillard with size in the form of lanky, full-on power forwards (see the season opener vs. SAC), top-locking him to prevent his heavy dose of DHOs and pindowns (see Jaden McDaniels in the Jan. 4 game against MIN) — whatever works to keep the ball out of the hands of the NBA’s fourth-ranked scorer.
This isn’t anything we didn’t know; with each passing day, 2015 — the last time Lillard had an All-NBA teammate in LaMarcus Aldridge — gets further away. But if his impact and the pressure on him could be boiled down to one statistic, perhaps this could be the one:
With Lillard on-court, the Blazers’ offensive rating (122.4) would rank No. 1 in the NBA.
With Lillard off-court, the Blazers’ offensive rating (110.4) would rank No. 28 in the NBA.
And for some that might be curious, the defensive side:
With Lillard on-court, the Blazers’ defensive rating (119.3) would rank No. 29 in the NBA
With Lillard off-court, the Blazers’ defensive rating (115.4) would rank No. 25 in the NBA
In short, the defense has been anemic regardless of who is on the floor. But without their floor general, the offense goes from historically-solid to L.A. Fitness on a Tuesday night-esque. There are multiple reasons for that, though, it certainly stands out among statistics.
No. 3: Have we learned anything new about this year’s Damian Lillard?
Tigers don’t change their stripes, and seven-time All-Stars don’t magically evolve into different players. But, what they can do is adjust things they were “very good” in, and become “great.” Across Lillard’s 2022-23 numbers, there’s the argument that he’s worked to do just that. Take this for example: in every area inside of the arc, the 32-year-old is piecing together career-highs across the board:
Something that I haven’t heard a lot of talk about — Dame Lillard is shooting a career-high from 2-point range (57.7 percent) and at the rim (67.2 percent).— Marlow Ferguson Jr. (@meloferg) February 1, 2023
For a 32-year-old, and a PG at that … sort of awesome to see. Seven-time All-Star incoming. pic.twitter.com/hNIYt16h7k
A career-high 51.3 percent from that 10-to-16 foot, midrange area, too. He wasn’t kidding about the “best shape of my life” stuff from last spring. ⭐️— Marlow Ferguson Jr. (@meloferg) February 1, 2023
Those random visits to Basketball Reference at 4 AM will show you some stuff. pic.twitter.com/gPK26N1w3M
There was some initial shock in seeing this; for listeners of the podcast, I’ve sometimes rambled about how the wrong-handed layups left Lillard in a disadvantageous position to finish at the rim. Nonetheless, he’s checked every box offensively. The end result is that we’re seeing a rare season in which a player is eclipsing career-bests in: (1) true shooting percentage, (2) free throw rate, and (3) 3-point rate all at once. Normally with added volume comes dips in efficiency, though this hasn’t been the case.
Lillard was actually asked about this by Sean Highkin of the Rose Garden Report on Jan. 23, to which he explained the rationale.
“I think a big part of it is being healthy. In the past years, I think I was able to still get around people, but sometimes when I would be going so fast, I wouldn’t be able to explode because I couldn’t brace and stop myself and be unbalanced and jump with enough power. Or if I was going downhill, I couldn’t go side-to-side because I wasn’t able to stop myself as good, it wasn’t as comfortable.
… The second thing is just focusing more on what I need throughout the season. Sometimes I go back to the facility at night and in between games, you know, we play today, no game tomorrow, we’ll have a light practice and I’ll go back at night, and I’ll actually work on finishing to where it’s like, my trainers are telling me, ‘We don’t need to be jumping around and doing all this stuff, but let’s get 20 finishes in and make sure you’re keeping your eyes up and finishing high and working on your touch. We’ll do some Mikans (drills), we’ll do some floaters, we’ll do some long strides into high finishes off the glass. Sometimes he’ll push me and I’ll be off-balanced and I’ve gotta find the timing. But it’ll literally be 25 finishes and it just keeps you sharp.”
Outside of that, we’ve previously gone into detail into how he’s developed more of an off-ball game. These Horns sets — see here and here — don’t appear as often as they did in the early season, but they do show a player that, despite having considerable mileage on his game, is still working for different ways to incrementally adjust and improve.
Other Thoughts and Observations:
- We’ve rambled about Lillard’s offensive play. How about on the less glamorous side of the ball? Lillard — like the Blazers as a whole — haven’t offered tons to write home about on defense, but if you were looking for a game with Lillard being locked-in on that end, one could argue the Dec. 27 game against Charlotte is the one. Matched up mostly against Terry Rozier, a 21.8-point scorer, Lillard held scorers to 2-of-16 as the primary defender, filled with plays such as this.
- We haven’t been able to say this often: in “clutch” situations (games decided by five minutes or less with five minutes or less), Lillard actually hasn’t been the unquestioned No. 1. He and Simons are both tied with 53 field goal attempts, with Simons shooting slightly better. Adjust it to three minutes though, and Lillard’s brilliance shines through: 53.1 percent (on 32 attempts), 7-of-15 from deep, and 16-of-17 from the charity stripe.
- The turnovers: at one point, Lillard ranked third in the NBA in giveaways. With more careful play, he now ranks 15th. That tendency to leave the air without a plan still pops up from time-to-time, though it’s been much improved since earlier in the year.