Do Not Cross Damian LillardCameron Browne/NBAE via Getty Images
Chris Kaman has been around the block. He’s halfway through his 12th NBA season and has already worn the colors of five different franchises. He’s seen it all, and he’s not afraid to tell you about most of it — sometimes to his detriment. When you ask him about the tired old sports cliché of some athletes rising in big moments while others shrink, he shoots from the hip.
“I’ve played with guys like Dirk and Kobe, and they obviously love crunch time. But there are some big-time names in the league that don’t want the ball at the end. I know because I’ve played with them.”
Kaman doesn’t have that problem in Portland, where he plays now, alongside Damian Lillard. “Oh, he definitely rises,” Kaman says, laughing. “He’s fearless. He plays with a chip on his shoulder. It’s like LaMarcus [Aldridge] said last week after the Laker game.”1
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There is a theory that to be truly great in the NBA, as in many other walks of life, a person needs to be at least a little bit crazy. They must have a drive to win at almost any cost and a belief that their talent is the best possible vehicle to deliver that victory. Michael Jordan had that edge. Larry Bird had that edge. Kobe Bryant has that edge. And when you listen to Damian Lillard talk about crime scenes, you start to think he might have it too.
“The people I work out with in the summer would always push me harder at the end of the workouts. They say, finish strong, kill it. The term they would use is ‘yellow tape.’ You know, when it’s a homicide, they bring the yellow tape out? I embraced that. At the end of games I enjoy that part. I have a yellow-tape mentality. Finish hard. Kill ’em off.”
Lillard’s crime scenes have become legendary. Just ask Houston.
Wood on the Fire
To understand Lillard, you have to understand the chip on his shoulder. Many of his colleagues in the NBA — especially his fellow top-shelf point guards — are essentially basketball blue bloods. They have been lauded and recruited for much of their lives. Lillard has a different story. He was just a two-star recruit coming out of Oakland High School, and ended up going to college at Weber State in Ogden, Utah — not exactly Tobacco Road. Undeterred, Lillard turned Ogden into a developmental cocoon. Four years later, he emerged as a lottery pick who would go on to win Rookie of the Year.
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Despite his remarkable evolution, Lillard still has doubters. This summer, Coach K, perhaps basketball’s most untouchable aristocrat, cut Lillard from Team USA in favor of Kyrie Irving — whom he coached in college — and a recovering Derrick Rose. It was a decision that Lillard could certainly have griped about, but instead he had fun with it.
Team USA may have easily won the FIBA Basketball World Cup this summer, but with every game this season, Lillard is making Krzyzewski’s decision look more foolish. And whether or not he admits it, the snub did nothing but stoke his flame.
Unlike Irving, Lillard has become a quintessential NBA point guard on a winning basketball team, effortlessly blending scoring and playmaking. His offensive toolbox is equal parts sharing and scaring. Looking at his career shooting constellation, two clusters quickly emerge: one above the break and one in the restricted area. He leaves the midrange to old guys like Chris Paul and Tony Parker.
Lillard is much more than just a scorer. He’s also the quarterback of one of the NBA’s best teams. In the last few years, he’s developed playmaking skills that help make the Blazers a diversely adept offense. As Aldridge says, “it all starts with the point guard, and he’s one of the best.”
The rocky season starts for Kevin Durant and LeBron James have opened the MVP conversation wider than it has been in years. Names like James Harden and Stephen Curry are being tossed around for consideration. We should be talking about Lillard in the same breath as Curry and Harden this season. Interestingly, these three turn up together at the top of a bunch of wonky leaderboards that demonstrate playmaking — especially perimeter playmaking.
One of Lillard’s biggest strengths is his ability to create unassisted 3s for himself.
Unassisted 3s, as of 1/18
1. James Harden: 54
2. Damian Lillard: 49
3. Stephen Curry: 47
4. Brandon Jennings: 40
5. Chris Paul, Kyle Lowry (tie): 31
I love this stat, because it reveals which guys are really good at breaking opponents down with crossovers and step-backs as means to generate open shots the hard way. This is something that Danny Green and Kyle Korver — amazing shooters — just can’t do. And it’s something that Lillard has worked hard to get good at. The keys, he says, are to quickly morph from dribbler to shooter and to embrace that uncomfortable, often chaotic transition. “It’s your handle and it’s your gather. And even though it may not ever be completely comfortable, you know what it should feel like when it’s a good one. I’ve done it enough to have that feeling.”
Lillard’s ability to generate 3s goes beyond his world-class step-back. As I wrote about two weeks ago, in the context of Harden, a vast majority of 3-pointers require an assist, and in an era increasingly obsessed with 3s, players who can both knock down and create 3s for their teammates are increasingly valuable. When you consider assists that lead to 3s and made 3s, you can quickly find which players are the most prolific engines of the league’s growing 3-point economy.
Total 3s produced (assists + makes) (as of 1/18)
1. James Harden: 243
2. Stephen Curry: 207
3. Damian Lillard: 200
4. Kyle Lowry: 167
5. Chris Paul: 167
There they are again — the Big Three. Harden, Curry, and Lillard are the GM, Ford, and Chrysler of the NBA’s new 3-goggle industry. Lillard gets it: “Three points are more than two. Every time I get in the paint, I’m looking for Wes or Nico [Nicolas Batum], because they shoot so well from beyond the line.”
With all due respect to the Splash Brothers down in Lillard’s hometown, the so-called “Rain Bros” are also freakishly productive from beyond the arc. As of January 18, Wesley Matthews was leading the league in made 3s, while Lillard ranked fourth. However, a vast majority of Matthews’s makes involve assists, and nobody has generated more of them than Lillard, who has assisted on 49 of Matthews’s 118 made 3s this season.
Top Five Assister-Shooter Duos, as of 1/18
1. Damian Lillard to Wesley Matthews: 52
2. Ty Lawson to Wilson Chandler: 48
2. Chris Paul to J.J. Redick: 48
4. Stephen Curry to Klay Thompson: 47
5. James Harden to Trevor Ariza: 44
“I Will Turn That Perceived Weakness Into a Strength”
That’s a typically chill Michael Jordan quote. But it could just as easily be a Lillard sound bite. This is a guy who works obsessively to improve the flaws in his game. To truly measure how good Lillard is this year, it helps to look at where he previously faltered. Last year, there was a glaring weakness on his shot chart: He struggled at the rim.
“I was challenging bigs who’d be standing there waiting for me with time to gather themselves before I shot,” says Lillard. “I went home this summer and did a lot of workouts where I was taking contact and just working on different solutions. I worked on my floater, a running jumper, and going strong to the rim.”
So far this season, he’s much more effective close to the basket.
No play epitomizes Lillard’s improvement near the rim more than this ferocious dunk, which, unsurprisingly, happened in the fourth quarter of a close game.
While that play just looks like brute force at work, Lillard maintains that he groomed the Lakers’ bigs by “mixing it up” earlier in the game. Like Clayton Kershaw throwing a series of off-speed pitches before burying a batter with high heat, Lillard is learning how to keep interior defenders off-balance.
“In a similar possession earlier, I came down and drew the big over, and I passed it off to Chris Kaman,” he says. “So on the dunk, it was kind of the same situation, and I could tell he was waiting to see what I was going to do, and by the time he came over I was already up.”
From this angle, you can see exactly what he means. Jordan Hill’s help is just too slow to catch up to Lillard’s fastball.
“That’s what I mean by mixing it up.”
Lillard has also been working on the other noted flaw in his game: his defense. Any sports-bar argument about Lillard’s place among the league’s best point guards will inevitably feature someone mocking his ability to defend. Because as inspiring as their run last season was, it was hard to take the Blazers seriously as contenders given their 16th-ranked defense. It was just way too low for any Western Conference team dreaming of deep playoff runs. This year they rank fourth.
Cue the X-Files music. How can a team with the same coaching staff, same defensive principles, and same five starters exhibit such a drastic improvement on defense? “I think it’s just time and desire,” says Lillard. “We’re just better as a unit. We’re communicating better. We understand the principles better. We came back as a team that wanted to be better defensively. We took it as a challenge.”
Lillard’s Rain Bro, Wes Matthews, concurs: “You cover for each other on defense just as much as you help each other on offense, and familiarity helps you know where everybody’s going to be. I’ve been playing with Nic [Batum] for so long that I know when he’s going to go take a stab at a ball, and he knows when I’m gonna take a stab at it.”
That kind of institutional knowledge just isn’t present on teams like, say, Cleveland. And perhaps one of the most underrated components of defensive success in the NBA is having a group of guys who are familiar with both the system and each other.
Just to Get a Rep
Just as familiarity between individuals can improve team defense, an individual’s familiarity with the game and the language of the league can improve his overall game. This is certainly the case for Lillard, now in his third NBA season. “This year, I’m finally familiar with the terms I hear. When teams call out plays, I’m familiar with what’s coming,” he says. “The intellectual part really helps. When you first get into the league and you don’t know these terms, you’re lost.”
In a Western Conference overflowing with fantastic offensive guards, it’s impossible to hide a weak backcourt defender. You will get exposed. When your nightly assignments include guys like Tony Parker, Stephen Curry, Chris Paul, Russell Westbrook, Goran Dragic, and Mike Conley, every little mistake turns into points. Lillard made a lot of those mistakes last year, and people noticed. He had a mediocre defensive reputation and, unsurprisingly, it drove him crazy.
“I know, personally, people said a lot about what kind of defender I was. So I wanted to get better at it.”
Lillard hasn’t turned into Chris Paul or Gary Payton, but he has made strides, and those strides are arguably the biggest factor in the Blazers’ much-improved stinginess. The truth is, defense — especially perimeter defense — remains one of the last bastions of analytical murkiness within basketball discourse. There’s no stat akin to, say, free throw percentage, that definitively exposes the league’s best and worst perimeter defenders. Unlike shooting or playmaking, even the league’s most “advanced” stats have yet to effectively characterize defensive play.
As a result, individual defensive reputations are as hard to quantify and difficult to change. If you earn the label of “good defender,” you get to wear it like a championship belt, regardless of what you’re doing on the floor. Just ask Rajon Rondo, who has enjoyed a fairly strong defensive reputation despite recently admitting that he hasn’t “played defense in a couple of years.”
Lillard is in the opposite boat. Yes, he struggled his first two years, but are we open to the idea that, like every other aspect of his game, his defense has greatly improved? Are we willing to admit that a guy with his demeanor is probably not going to suck at something for very long?
Who knows how far the Blazers might go this season? One thing is clear, though: Their point guard is quickly ascending the superstar ranks. With each year, he is improving aspects that were previously thought to be flaws. And the improvements in his game — on both sides of the ball — are directly tied to those of his team. If it’s true that the point guard is the heart and soul of a team, the Blazers have a mighty heart and a fearless soul. Get your popcorn ready.