Analyzing how Damian Lillard terrorizes defenses across the NBA

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Damian Lillard retro
Damian Lillard retro

Damian Lillard has become one of the premier point guards in the NBA, blending tantalizing handles with cold-blooded scoring to inflict damage onto his opponents on a nightly basis. In what has been a golden generation of point guards, Lillard continues to stand toe-to-toe with his contemporaries and never looks out of place.

It all starts with Lillard’s handles; the ability to size up his man, put them on skates, and then react accordingly, is where the majority of his offense gets generated. If this were NBA 2K, Lillard’s archetype would be space-creating shot-creator, utilizing his cross-overs, step-backs, and hesitation moves to find clear pathways to the rim or to get his shot off.

While Lillard is getting to work sizing up his man, he draws the attention of the on-ball defender and any help defenders positioned within his vicinity. By bringing this much attention, off-ball maneuvers can begin to take places, such as pin-downs, curls, or cuts; this both free’s up the offense and opens driving lanes for Lillard to attack with his blazing speed.

Every member of the Memphis Grizzlies collapses the paint when Lillard attacks.

Once space has arisen, Lillard goes to work, either with his pinpoint dime-dropping, blowing by guys to get into the restricted area, or pulling up to drop a bomb in the defenders face. A genuinely multi-faceted scorer, Lillard is a threat from all three scoring levels, which accentuates the threat he poses as a playmaker as a bi-product.

Dime-dropping is where Lillard poses a problem for the defense, do they anticipate the pass and sag off a little bit? Do they prioritize defending the threat of a three-ball? Or do they expect the drive? Scoring isn’t their only worry when Lillard is the ball handler, causing teams to live-and-die with decisions that get formed within a matter of seconds.

It’s that passing ability which has seen Lillard’s assists numbers sit steady throughout his career, averaging six-and-a-half per game over 607 regular-season games, and, 5.1 over 51 playoff appearances. Looking more closer to home, this year, Lillard has assisted on 33.3 percent of his teammate’s made buckets following a pass into a scoring position, ranking him in the top 30 percent of point guards for assist percentage per Cleaning the Glass.

As with all high usage guards, Lillard’s primary area of play is as the ball-handler in pick-and-roll situations. Synergy is tracking Lillard as utilizing the pick play on 51.9 percent of his offensive possessions, which makes sense, as when coming off the screen, Lillard can read and react to the defensive coverage. Which leads nicely to the scoring threat Lillard poses, both as a ball-handler and dribble-drive penetrator.

Cleaning the Glass has Lillard as one of the leagues elite when it comes to points per shot attempt, averaging 125.5 points per 100 shots, which is good for the 98th percentile among guards league-wide. Those shots come from two predominant areas of the floor, either around the rim or from deep. As you would expect from a dominant point-guard, taking shots from the corner is not their primary target; as such, Lillard has only taken 23 corner three’s over 58 regular-season games this year.

Outside of the corners, assassin like precision engulfs Lillard’s three-ball shot profile, shooting 39 percent from anywhere else beyond the arc on 208-of-528 shooting. That scoring split from deep ranks Lillard in the top 14 percent of guards for non-corner three efficiency, and the top 16 percent for three’s across the floor.

Being able to score so regularly from deep, while also posing a threat from a play-making standpoint leaves defenses shook. Opposing teams will try to “ice” or “blitz” Lillard out of the pick-and-roll, hoping to get the ball out of his hands. Usually, this hope is in vain. When teams force Lillard into a corner, he is an elite isolation player, operating in isolation 18 percent of the time he has the ball in his hands, which equates to 272 possessions this season. 

The ability Lillard possesses to drive past his man, cross them over, or drain a jumper in their face, solidifies his billing as a premier scorer out of isolation. Elite isolation players will only find themselves getting “iced” or “blitzed” when the chips are down and when all other coverages have yielded no results; this is due to the extra man the defense has to commit to the ball-handler.

Conversely, defenses may choose to play a man close up on Lillard, to try and deter the drive. Unfortunately for those defenses, Lillard possesses a ridiculous change of pace to beat his man and get into the lane where he becomes a drive and dish threat, or a destructive force in the pick-and-pop. When venturing inside the arc, Lillard favors the long two, shooting between the free-throw line and the break where he is sufficient, shooting 49 percent on a total of 109 attempts.

Don’t get it twisted though, while Lillard may prefer to pull-up from the long two range, he’s still a threat around the rim, where he’s finishing at an average league rate of 48 percent. Finishing with either hand, on up-and-under, reverses, floaters, or straight-up jams, Lillard displays a nifty touch down low, which can be tricky for larger defenders to deal with; thus Lillard spends a reasonable amount of time at the line.

According to basketball-reference, Lillard has averaged 6.7 trips to the line this season, converting 88 percent of his attempts. Performing at the charity stripe with such regularity is just another facet of Lillard’s offensive game that puts the look of defeat in a defenses eye. Defenders could do everything right and still end up giving up easy buckets at the line due to Lillard’s ability to draw contact on the drive. 

When looking at all these traits individually, it becomes clear that being as elite as Lillard in just two of these aspects would make you an exceptional rotational point guard. The fact that Lillard is such an unstoppable force that leaves devastation in his wake on a nightly basis further enforces the growing opinion that he’s one of the top three point-guards the league has to offer.

Damian Lillard can do it all; he’s an elite scorer on all three levels, a dime-dropping extraordinaire, foul drawing maestro, and ball-handling genius. With Lillard’s supermax deal due to kick in next season, where he will earn north of $40 million until the 2024-25 season, rest assured there will be plenty more on offer from him as he continues his climb towards the NBA’s best point guard.  

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