The NBA’s 2023-24 season is set to tip off within the next month-and-a-half, which, for the Portland Trail Blazers, will either prompt a heartfelt goodbye or the most awkward “hello” in franchise history as it relates to Damian Lillard.
For the small-market Blazers, suddenly the talk of the town across the Association, this represents somewhat-uncharted territory. After spending much of the past decade feeling overlooked and in obscurity — some of it fair, some of it unfair — they’ve become the hub for off-the-wall trade proposals, hot takes and even the occasional theory on when precisely it failed its seven-time All-Star.
One theory — Stephen A. Smith’s suggestion that Lillard simply “didn’t get it done,” and being “good, but good enough” — evoked some interest. Despite Lillard boasting a claim as the greatest to ever lace up in Portland, it perhaps holds some merit from an end result standpoint; the story could very well end with 11 seasons played and nary a championship. But in considering the full picture, how should NBA history view Lillard when the lights were on brightest?
Let Lillard tell it himself, and he’ll tell you that comparison is the thief of joy. For that reason, perhaps the best place to start is by merely comparing the 75th Anniversary Team nominee to himself. Given his penchant for well-timed postseason daggers and the résumé built on rising in big games, his own numbers in the regular season vs. postseason tell quite the story, as seen here:
There’s something of a tug-of-war with Lillard’s postseason dossier, just as one would anticipate from a player who: (a) boasts the 11th-highest points per game average (25.7) in NBA playoffs history, but also (b) has the 10th-lowest win percentage (36.1) of any player with at least 50 games played.
Perhaps it’s best to first consider the positives.
Where Lillard’s Playoff Production Stands Out Among League History:
In an era in which even the league’s reigning Most Valuable Player wasn’t immune to a historic decline in regular season vs. postseason production, Lillard commands praise for how similar his numbers remain against heightened competition. The postseason points, for example, rise by a half-point — granted, as do his minutes per game and field goal attempts — yet it remains noteworthy.
To put it into further, somewhat-fun context: since the 1976-77 NBA-ABA merger, a whopping 61 players have averaged at least 20 points per game in the regular season.
In a list of many of the game’s greatest scorers, 35 of them increased their scoring average in the postseason (i.e. LeBron, Jordan, Kobe); 22 of them decreased their average (i.e. Harden, C-Webb, Ewing); 2 were exactly the same (Julius Erving and Clyde Drexler), and the final two, Zion Williamson and Paulo Banchero, have yet to qualify.
The 35 that did raise their game are a fascinating study. Using that 50-games played benchmark — to weed out players who only played, say, an impressive series or two — that list shrinks to 25. Outside of a few potentially-dubious examples — for as great as DeMar DeRozan is, you might not normally consider him a “raise your game in the Playoffs”-type of player — it’s a list of players with reputations as big-shot takers and big-game performers.
Lillard’s résumé, in its own right, is pockmarked with examples in which he didn’t elevate from a box-score standpoint, the 2018 series against New Orleans immediately coming to mind.
But for a perimeter-oriented guard whose money is made by hitting shots such as the one below, part of it is understandable:
Lillard’s postseason’s efficiency numbers, in some areas, appear troubling. But a consistently-steady true shooting percentage (56.9) in the fourth quarters of “clutch situations” — five minutes or less in games within five points — and a 3-point and free throw rate similar to his regular season numbers allow him to come close to what he’s historically been in the regular season. He’s also historically offset his poor-shooting games with some noteworthy defense and intangible play, on occasion. And anytime you’ve got an opponent literally offering a “thank you” prayer after you miss, you’ve done something right.
How about a few random milestones?
— Most points scored or assisted in a single playoff game, as well as NBA history’s only 50-point, 10-assist game.
— One of only two players with a 25-point quarter in the Playoffs (w/ Iverson)
— Most 3-point makes in a single series in NBA history (35)
— The only player in NBA playoffs history with multiple 10 3-pointer games
— One of only four players with 200+ points and 60+ assists in one series
Where (and Why) Lillard Has Struggled At Times in the Postseason:
To say that Lillard’s brilliance has been as demonstrative in the “second season,” though, would be a bit ambitious, especially in the form of pure shot-making. Lillard, a 43.9 percent regular-season shooter, has only exceeded that number in three of his 12 series. We’ve long graduated from the idea of efficiency being the only way to evaluate a player’s greatness, but it does command a note.
To get a better understanding, going back to watch all 1,216 — give-or-take — of Lillard’s shots in the playoffs felt helpful. If there were one area in which Lillard’s offensive brilliance cratered in comparison to the postseason, it came in his trademark pull-up jumpers.
As outlined in that above photograph, it dips from 39.1 to 34.0 percent in the postseason, and perhaps even more noteworthy, Lillard’s midrange numbers go from 42.8 percent to 27.8 percent in the 10-to-16 foot range.
Thinking like a coach, it works precisely in how an opposing team’s coaching strategy would prefer for Lillard, a man with a million ways to obliterate a defense. When one of NBA history’s greatest pull-up 3-point shooters also doubles as an elite finisher, sometimes the best scheme involves making him think twice about each of those, instead “settling” for lower-percentage middies.
Lillard remains fully capable of hitting any shot the moment the Blazers’ plane touches pavement. But a scheme — often involving an elite one-on-one defender, help at the ready in gaps, and a big prepared to help takeaway that 3-pointer and influence a two-point pull-up — have proven capable of containing him.
One other tendency we’ve seen from the smartest of teams is to try to limit Lillard with size. In Denver, it was often Aaron Gordon or Torrey Craig; the Warriors stymied him with Andre Iguodala. Consider the 2019 Playoffs, Lillard’s most celebrated postseason run, and the matchups defenses most often frequented. 185 possessions against Craig; in 2021, 83 possessions against Gordon — enough to prompt a press conference dialogue — so on and so forth. It’s a tried-and-true strategy that sometimes has success.
Lillard isn’t unique to this struggle, but one final note comes in just how differently games are officiated in the postseason. Shot attempts that would normally generate whistles in the 82-game frame go mute in the Playoffs. Lillard’s tape is littered with would-be-regular-season-fouls, that, if called, would’ve added substantially to his PPG total and efficiency metrics.
Somewhere, Trae Young and James Harden are collectively rolling their eyes; such is just life as a perimeter-oriented superstar.
How Truly Helpful Were Those Around Lillard?
On Lillard’s new album, “DON D.O.L.L.A”, there’s a song entitled “Cabo,” in which the Blazer great has a bar dedicated to never changing locations because he’s “surrounded by GOATs.” It’s obviously a show in flow and wordplay, but, as a basketball observer, internally, one couldn’t help but draw that parallel to his Blazers tenure.
For comedy’s sake, let’s paint a picture of how differently the NBA world looked the last time Lillard had an All-Star teammate: Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook were the faces of “loyalty,” a combined one team among them, Nikola Jokić hadn’t yet made his NBA debut, and Tim Duncan made an All-NBA Team. Fast forward to today: the Durant-Westbrook pairing have played for a combined nine teams, Jokić has won two MVPs, and Duncan — just like Lillard’s then-All-Star teammate LaMarcus Aldridge — have pivoted into retirement.
The year in question? 2015.
Lillard, akin to many of the players of that ultra-competitive, loyal, Iverson-like ilk, will likely never admit that their supporting casts simply didn’t stack up their peers, instead opting to “believe” they could win with whatever. He even went as far as to suggest as such in complimenting Moe Harkless and Al-Farouq Aminu in 2019. Underrated, talented glue players as they were, players of that cloth simply weren’t going to cut it in series against Durant-Curry-Thompson-Green-type groupings.
In Lillard’s case, with teams knowing his teammates didn’t carry those take-over-a-game credentials — outside of one C.J. McCollum — and it often led to him being among incredibly-exclusive lists of players that defenses preferred to “blitz” instead of switching on pick-and-rolls. Here’s how it looks in video-form. Lillard isn’t blameless in that he could’ve made that pass to Aminu, but it highlights how anxious defenses were to let almost anyone but Lillard score.
Which prompts the question: were Lillard’s teammates better — taking advantage of Lillard’s added defensive attention — or worse in the Playoffs? Here’s how the numbers shook out.
Points and percentages aren’t the end-all, be-all in comparison, but it does provide some context for both gauging Lillard’s best supporting casts, as well as if they raised their game in any way with added minutes, but also added pressure in the postseason.
It’s at this point that you might consider Terry Stotts’ role. A successful, rightfully-celebrated coach in the Pacific Northwest, his Blazers carried a very Billups-esque reputation both in how they: (1) struggled mightily without Lillard — see the seven-point ORTG dip without No. 0 — and (2) failed to adjust post-halftime, particularly in the second halves of games. To list a few examples:
— 2016, West Semis G2 vs. GSW — led 87-76 going into 4Q, outscored 34-12; no Curry
— 2016, West Semis G4 vs. GSW — led 67-57 at half; lost in OT
— 2016, West Semis G5 vs. GSW — led for 29:18 of game, lost by seven
— 2017, West Round 1 G3 vs. GSW — led 82-66, 6:20 in third, lost
— 2019, WCF vs. GSW — led by 17+ points in three different games; lost all three.
— 2021, West Round 1 G6 vs. DEN — led 97-84, 3:11 in 3Q, lost by double-digits.
Lillard’s ledger appears similar; he shot 44.3 percent on 583 first-half attempts vs. 38.3 percent on 633 second-half (or OT) attempts, a six-percent droppage. It likely stems from an assortment of issues — the fatigue of carrying that heavy a burden, simple postseason intensity, and, of course, a failure to fully adjust to a defense’s second half coaching adjustments.
None of this, of course, is meant to diminish the work of Lillard, Stotts or any of the Blazers that provided memorable seasons year-after-year on the way to, at one point in 2021, the longest run of consecutive postseason appearances in the NBA. It’s merely focused on outlining both sides of the coin. Lillard’s status as a Hall of Famer, Mount Rushmore Blazer and all-time great guard are all but cemented.
The day after his most recent postseason exit in 2021, Lillard went to one of his favorite, often-tweeted rap lyrics: “How long should I stay dedicated? How long ‘til opportunity meets preparation?” Assuming he’s referring to a chance to win an NBA championship, it remains similarly-unclear as to if that day will actually come, if it happens in Portland, Miami, or on an XBOX in someone’s basement.
In the meantime, though, the more things have changed, the more they’ve stayed the same: all eyes — from Blazers fans, to the media, to the five defenders dedicated to containing him — remain firmly locked on No. 0’s very next move.