August 12, 2022

If it could be done on a basketball court, especially offensively, chances are Portland Trail Blazers star point guard Damian Lillard would have done it.

One-legged fadeaways out of the triple threat, à la Dirk Nowitzki? It’s not often, but he did. Overhand and inverted headbutts across the board with two defenders on their backs? Sure. Kickbacks from 37 feet to close out a playoff series? Absolutely.

This realization made Lillard’s statement during a late March appearance on Shannon Sharpe’s Club Shay Shay all the more intriguing. Reflecting on his future and the return from abdominal surgery, the six-time All-Star laid out his expectations for what he intends to deliver in 2022-23 in terms of health and production:

“I’m not looking at 100 (percent), I’m looking at 150, like are we absolutely sure? Am I strong in this area? I’m looking for every vulnerable place I can get myself in to try and find that place where I could re-aggravate something, just to know that I’m fine. And I’m not going to rush through this process because I know that when I get back to the field, I don’t plan on having anything in the way. .

I want to play at a level that I didn’t even play before that.

That last quote commands a level of emphasis because it’s not very often that 31-year-old players reach a different level at 32; then again, NBA history has not known many players like Damian Lillard.

Sifting through NBA history tells an interesting story. Before Lillard (and Paul George) in 2021-22, there were just 27 players averaging at least 24.0 points per game at age 31, as the Blazers star did a while ago. a season.

Of these 27, only six of them – LeBron James, Michael Jordan, Allen Iverson, Hakeem Olajuwon, Dominique Wilkins and Alex English – exceeded the previous season’s points average.

That’s not to say a decline is inevitable, especially since many of those 21 were at least close, just that history doesn’t side with a better-than-ever season at this point. In the best-case scenario, Lillard has a similar arc to Stephen Curry’s: an “off year,” a diving season at 31, and a recharge over the next few years.

Given what the body of Lillard’s work tells us, it is intriguing to choose different and reasonable ways in which he could sort of pull off a peak season in 2022-23. A few that stood out:

Maximum 3-point shooting accuracy:

Using BBallIndex’s metric that measures 3-point shooting quality, of the 462 players to compete for a three-pointer in 2021-22, a whopping 456 of them got better and easier shots than Lillard. Part of that comes with the territory of being a superstar; these archetypes end up having to get late in the shot clock sometimes, they command the best perimeter defender in the opposition, and they have to prepare for it three or four times a week.

That Lillard is a career 37.3% shooter from deep is an accomplishment in itself. However, thinking of the ways a more polished Lillard than ever could surface, you’d think he’s probably doing something he’s only done once in his career: reach over 40% on a 3 point range.

There are some things that Lillard agrees with this argument. Just taking into account the potential roster combinations the 2022-23 Blazers might miss — for example, a Nurkić-Grant-Hart-Simons-Lillard group — this could be one of the most self-sufficient offensive groups Lillard has among them. began.

It’s no affront to previous iterations of the Blazers, even some of them that had successful seasons in Portland. But, we’ve seen it before: the air dribble approach out of the basketball, then a drive-and-kick to a Blazers forward in the corner. Not only can each of Grant, Hart, Simons and Lillard score in a pinch, they can create this too. Hart and Simons each recorded an 80 percentile or higher in boxing, potential assists, and point guard talent metrics. Grant was above the NBA average in all three of those, as well as passing versatility.

When it comes to hugely talented wings of the past (think: Al-Farouq Aminu, Robert Covington, Moe Harkless), it’s justifiable that this year’s group have a higher offensive ceiling while still remaining recovery some of this defensive grain. Or, it could be June’s optimism speaking. Either way, catch-and-shoot wide open threes are much easier than contested drops against the shot clock. Both are amazing sites; both are in Lillard’s wheelhouse. Here’s hoping Lillard gets more from the former in an efficient and transcendent 2022-23 season.

Defensive activity:

Defense, by nature, is much more difficult to assess than attack. Despite this ambiguity, almost every measure had a similar idea when it came to Lillard’s defense. When the moment calls for it — seeing his first-round streak against the Thunder in 2019 or the Team USA exhibitions, when there wasn’t quite as much offensive pressure on him — Lillard showed his ability to be a defender. punchy. There are no Defensive Player of the Year votes in the future for the talented guard, but it looks like one of the areas where he could raise the bar.

The numbers told an interesting story. Lillard tied for career best block percentage; he also stole the ball at the lowest rate. The media was quick to call his pick-and-roll defense, sailing through the screens, but the Index ranked him in the 79th percentile in that regard.

Given his film on the pitch, the first thing that stands out is that Lillard leaves something to be desired in terms of finishing contests, and his reactions can be extremely late in closings. Sometimes there is a “hope he misses” approach. To give a few examples.

Obviously, we observers never know the whole story. TJ McConnell is shaping up to be a 32.7 percent 3-point shooter at low volume, so maybe the scouting report recommended going “under” on the pick-and-roll. And we haven’t even started on some of those disadvantageous undersized guard-forward formations the Blazers have produced. When you have a 6-foot-1 point guard as the low man scores a big on a pick-and-roll (it happened too many times in this game) or defending post-ups against players with a half-foot advantage over him, you’re past the point of getting in trouble.

Ironic as it may sound, Lillard having a sizable and energetic defensive season might involve him making less. If his offensive load isn’t as heavy, having cooler legs opens up opportunities for him to chase around the perimeter and attack passing lanes. The size, athleticism and feistiness are there to cover Lillard’s shortcomings, but don’t be surprised the Blazers star is making some standout plays throughout the year as well.

The middle game:

If watching the best of Damian Lillard has taught us anything, it’s that all defensive strategies are on the table when it comes to opponents trying to defend him. Of 60 foot half court traps at Sending in progress Four men (!) against him in a pick-and-roll, the message was clear: if it’s not a pre-game warm-up, this shot attempt won’t go open.

The pick-and-roll situation is intriguing, largely because of how teams defended it last season. Coming back to watch Lillard’s 90 mid-range attempts last year, many of them had a familiar theme: Lillard making a tight screen of his big – most often Jusuf Nurkic – who forces Lillard’s man to cover more ground. With the guard chasing the rear-view mirror, hoping to get back into the game, and the big, wide-eyed coaster to cover the rim, the Blazers star had plenty of looks like this:

This 3-point 16 range area was Damian Lillard’s 4G Wi-Fi; his accuracy betrayed him in most other areas, but he had the fourth best season of his career from there (46.4%) and was not far off his career best (47.3) .

There’s a domino effect that makes it look like it could come true: Inside the 10-foot zone, Lillard had arguably his worst season finishing on the rim since his sophomore year. Suppose he starts attacking with vengeance again. Suddenly those big ones are backing off even further, opening the door for Lillard to punish defenders with the mid game on a different level. Lillard is so cunning at attacking these switches that he can get to his (often) drifting recoils at any moment.

When you’re a six-time All-Star, Olympian, and member of the NBA’s 75th Anniversary Team, there’s not much room to up your game, but there are subtle ways to do it, especially with remarkable offensive assist, taking the pressure off. There’s a piece – a 6-foot-10 (?) Brooklyn Nets piece whose name rhymes with “Devin Morant” – that would be nice. But with or without, Lillard looks poised to remind the NBA world exactly who he is in 2022-23.