Despite a monster performance in Cleveland last night, Damian Lillard’s shooting struggles this season have not been hard to see. Or, more specifically, while he has been an absolute assassin from beyond the three-point line, he has struggled mightily in the paint.
Take your pick of stats to support this – he is shooting 38.1% on two-pointers, 40.2% in the restricted area, 37.1% from within eight feet, and 36.3% in the key. That’s a lot of numbers saying the same thing – Lillard is really struggling around the rim, and this is a huge part of why his overall shooting percentages are flagging this year (his two-point percentage has dropped by over eight percent from last year, a mammoth dip).
We can see the symptoms, but the more important issue is identifying the cause of these struggles. While attending the Rockets game last week with David (Rip City Project’s mighty editor, who added these parentheses), the first thing that stood out to me was Lillard’s decision making; particularly in the key. It’s been an oft-repeated adage this year that “Lillard is trying to be more aggressive and earn more free throws,” but I think he may be taking this train of thought too far.
Several times throughout that game, I saw Lillard get into the lane, attempt to fling or flail his body into a defender (or three), throw up a shot that had no chance of going in, and then hit the deck while the Rockets were already off on a fast break. There is certainly a time and a place to try and draw fouls, and perhaps once he is more established the refs will be friendlier, but there are also times when aborting the drive is the only correct choice. Blindly jumping into a crowd doesn’t usually succeed, as compared to say driving straight at a backpedaling center. It all comes down to the situation.
Another area that could potentially help Lillard is just to clean up his mechanics. Obviously professional basketball players are the best in the world at what they do, but so many of his layup attempts have barely missed this year that you start to wonder if tweaking the angle on his release or where the ball hits the backboard could potentially help. A side effect of playing at the highest level is that these minuscule changes can make a world of difference.
Something else that I have read to do in multiple scouting articles (and implemented myself), is to watch where the ball contacts the backboard on a layup attempt. The higher on the backboard the ball hits, the better chance it has to go in because it has a more open angle to the rim (this is the same reason why an arced shot is better than a flat one). One way or another, you would think that Head Coach Terry Stotts, or an assistant like Nate Tibbetts, could help with his technique.
The final area that I think is causing issues is his lack of athleticism. A while back, I compared Lillard to other elite point guards during their first years. My worry then, which has only grown, has been that Lillard’s lack of elite athleticism may lower his ceiling. Freaks of nature such as Russell Westbrook and Derrick Rose have been able to levy their otherworldly explosiveness to accentuate their skill sets in a way that may not be possible for Lillard.
As a result, the first point I made about his decision-making becomes that much more important. If Lillard doesn’t have the ability to dominate opponents physically, his mental talent will make all the difference. Luckily with his killer three-point shooting ability, Lillard should be able to play mind games with opposing point guards, making this a bit easier.
Finally, I would love to see Lillard develop a consistent floater. In that earlier article, one of the point guards I compared Lillard to was Tony Parker, who was also never an athletic specimen. He just so happens to have the single best tear-drop in the NBA, which is a huge part of why he is almost always near the top of shooting percentage among point guards.
Using the threat of shooting the three, Lillard can often get into the key without too much difficulty. It is just that when he arrives, problems ensue. He doesn’t have that next level gear that allows other, more athletic guards to get to the rim before the help defense does. Instead, just imagine if Lillard had a consistent floater he could unleash as soon as he entered the key. The results would be devastating.
Right now, Lillard is shooting just under five shots a game at the rim, and making two of them. If he could make even one more a game, whether by tweaking his technique or using or a floater, that would be two free points for the Blazers, with minimal effort required. In a league as competitive as the NBA, two more points a game can make a huge difference.
While it’s easy to sit here and nitpick, the Blazers are currently the top team in the NBA and boast a 21-4 record. Any change for the positive then just makes the Blazers even scarier. As much as his shooting has disappointed, that’s the silver lining I’m focusing on: when Lillard breaks out of this slump, the Blazers’ already stellar offense becomes that much more deadly.