Per Game Stats:
— 32.2 points per game (No. 3 in NBA)
— 4.8 rebounds per game
— 7.3 assists per game
— 46.3 percent from the field
— 37.1 percent from 3-point range
— 91.4 percent from the free throw line
On-Off, Advanced Stats:
— +12.8 on-off swing (No. 1 among current Blazers)
— +2.2 net rating (No. 1 among current Blazers)
— 64.5 TS% (No. 3 among current Blazers, career-high)
It remains unclear whether or not the 2022-23 season will be Damian Lillard’s final campaign as a member of the Portland Trail Blazers. Despite yet another year in which he ascended franchise leaderboards and added to his already-expansive highlight reel, Lillard’s superhuman play ended with a mortal result: two consecutive years with no postseason experience — or as Kevin Durant would call it, a “spiritual experience” — to show for it. As a result, both sides are left to wonder what life looks like without the other.
One thing that wasn’t unclear? Whether or not Lillard’s 2022-23 was one of, if not the best individual season of his career. The end result certainly doesn’t do it justice, but in nailing down a seventh All-Star appearance, the Portland star also put together career-best tallies in: points per game (32.2), 3-pointers made per game (4.2), at-the-rim shooting within 3-feet away (67.1 percent), 2-point percentage (57.2), and free throws made (510), culminating in the most efficient season of his career as a 32-year-old.
On Dec. 19, he also surpassed Clyde Drexler as the Trail Blazers’ all-time leading scorer against the Oklahoma City Thunder.
As we briefly discussed during February’s in-depth review of Lillard’s season, his growth as a more potent scorer from 2-point range is something that immediately stands out among his “Most Improved Statistics,” solely due to the fact that you seldom see it for a player in Year 11, and especially a guard at that. We’ve highlighted it before, but it remained one of the feel-good subplots, particularly during Lillard’s historic scoring outputs.
That article also hits on the new wrinkles of Lillard’s usage this past season, with “Horns” sets, more off-ball play, and the work Lillard put in with his trainers to become more potent around the rim.
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
Scoring in today’s NBA has never been as frequent. This year, an NBA-record 57 players averaged at least 20 points per game. Even amongst that exclusive crowd, the Blazers star still found a way to be conspicuous. Competitive in the NBA’s scoring title race throughout 2022-23, Lillard was one of six players to average 30-plus, finishing No. 3 behind Joel Embiid and Luka Dončić.
Once upon a time, it led to Lillard holding the heavyweight title among prolific scorers to kickstart the calendar year, averaging an inhuman-like 35.1 points, 7.5 assists and 5.3 rebounds on 48-37-92 percentage splits. The highlight of which came during his 71-point game against Houston, the first in NBA history to do so in under 39 minutes of play. Unfortunately, the Blazers went 14-21 over that 35-game stretch.
Lillard wasn’t blameless in that regard. According to NBA.com’s John Schuhmann, the 2022-23 season marked the fourth consecutive season in which the Blazers ranked among the bottom-five in defensive efficiency, tying for the longest stretch in play-by-play tracking history (since 1996-97). In shorter terms: Portland’s defense has been short on, well, defense for quite some time, and those numbers align with Lillard’s timeline.
There are tons of instances — such as here and here — where his defense looks spry, rotations are sharp, and he rises up to high-profile individual matchups on that end. But, his tape is also riddled with plays such as the one below. Akin to his teammates, sometimes the extra gear just isn’t there. Among 263 players to log 1,000 or more minutes, Lillard’s defensive rating ranked No. 242. Four of his other teammates were among that bottom-tier grouping too.
Of course, that tethers back to the long-standing notion often associated with Hall of Fame-caliber, high-usage scorers: If they’re giving you all of this production offensively, is it reasonable to expect them to be elite on the other end as well?
There was a close correlation between Lillard’s best defensive performances coming in games (and situations) in which he didn’t have to carry the burden by his lonesome offensively, which he sometimes had to do.
To utilize two statistics to illustrate that point:
(1) The Blazers only had four players that produced a positive on-court plus-minus. Three of those players are no longer Blazers; the other player is Damian Lillard.
(2) Portland’s offense with Lillard scored 121.4 points per 100 possessions, which would’ve ranked No. 1 in the NBA, by far. Without him on the floor? They scored 108.0 points per 100 possessions, which would’ve ranked No. 30 in the NBA. In shorter terms: It went from the NBA’s best to the NBA’s worst. In non-basketball terms: The Blazers’ offense on Lillard’s watch was the “book,” defined and nuanced. The offense without him was the “movie,” skipping steps and often held scoreless for sustainable periods of time.
Given numbers like that, it makes sense why Lillard often approached games with the aggressiveness that he did; he scored 40+ points in 15 different games this season, and still found himself on the losing end in six of them.
Damian Lillard’s 2022-23 NBA Season:— Dame Muse (@Dame_Muse) April 10, 2023
— 32.2 PPG (Career High)
— 4.8 RPG
— 7.3 APG
— 0.9 SPG
— 46.3 FG%
— 37.1 3P%
— 91.4 FT%
— All Star
— 15x 40+ PT games
— 3x 50+ PT games
— 2x 60+ PT games
— 1x 70+ PT games
— Blazer leading scorer
What a historic season by @Dame_Lillard pic.twitter.com/hpcEOvE73c
Lillard recently made shockwaves for his candid, honest assessment of the Blazers’ situation, acknowledging he would “have a decision to make” if Portland can’t strike lightning in a bottle and provide a championship-caliber roster.
When thinking about players’ goals for next season, the one for Lillard might literally be for him to be on the team. If he is, it might logically mean he believes in Portland’s long-term plans, and both sides see it as beneficial to continue chasing that championship glory that they appear to be getting further and further away from.
He also recently noted that he doesn’t want to be on a mid-tier team, either, which is precisely what Portland has perennially been. Over the last four seasons, Portland as a whole has literally been the word-for-word definition of “middling” in games Lillard has played in, going 111-109 in 220 regular season games since the 2019 Western Conference Finals run.
From an on-court aspect, Lillard’s less obvious “goals” to improve upon from in 2023-24 might include little tweaks such as not leaving his feet as often without a clear outlet pass — he was No. 2 in turnovers per game over the NBA season’s first month, with a handful of these — but offensively, he hasn’t left much meat on the bone.
In any case, Lillard’s impression of the moves made by Joe Cronin and the Blazers’ front office staff will remain the top-fold story throughout the coming weeks, alongside Portland’s spot in the 2023 NBA Draft.
And if this is the last iteration of Lillard that Portland gets a chance to see, it deserves to be viewed as it was. Like only a rapper could, he offered up quite the potential “swan song,” setting the stage for another remarkable 2023-24 chapter, regardless of where he ends up.