Portland Trail Blazers’ star point guard Damian Lillard does so many things well it’s impossible to critique any aspect of his game without feeling like it’s nit-picking. But, as most people already know, Lillard isn’t the best defender. He’s far from it actually, and that fact could be very problematic for the Blazers next season.
Portland struggled on the defensive end all season and allowed 102.8 points per game, which was 22nd best mark in the league. During the playoffs against two offensive juggernauts, the Houston Rockets and NBA Champion San Antonio Spurs, the Blazers allowed 110.5 points per game. Yikes.
Allowing so many points suggests there are defensive weaknesses all over the court for the Blazers, which is completely true, but the only player for Portland who can make a realistic defensive improvement is Lillard. He is the only starter who has not reached his athletic peak. The other starters may be able to give more effort, but they can’t drastically improve their defensive game. They are likely too far into their careers, and we’ve seen what they have to offer.
I also believe Wesley Matthews, Nic Batum, LaMarcus Aldridge, and Robin Lopez bring enough to the table defensively to take the Blazers to the next level, like into the Western Conference Finals and possibly the NBA Finals. Each player has their weaknesses and none are “lockdown defenders,” but together, Portland has the pieces to slow down the league’s best offenses. And, as we saw in the NBA Finals, hot three-point shooting puts a phenomenal amount of pressure on the opponent to score. Portland has plenty of that fire power, and that pressure might actually be the best kind of defense the Trail Blazers could play.
For the Blazers’ defensive improvement, the next step is getting Lillard up to par. And when I say “up to par,” I mean it in the literal sense of the phrase. Lillard just has to be average; that’s all he has to be. Tony Parker was never considered a top defensive point guard, but he’s just good enough to not be a weak link. Oh, and he’s got four rings and taken over countless important games throughout his career. Lillard can easily be as good or better than Parker on defense. Of course, it’d make things a whole lot easier if Lillard was Kawhi Leonard or Tony Allen defensively, but that’s never going to happen.
“He can be like Patrick Beverley [of the Houston Rockets] if he wants to, but that’s a mindset,” Payton told CSNNW.com Thursday night at American Airlines Arena. “I think Damian has to be willing and ready to play that type of way. Right now, he’s scoring so easily and he’s so good at the offensive end, he doesn’t have to think about defense. He doesn’t have to think about it because he knows he can outscore somebody.
“He can have 35 [points] when he wants to and that’s where the game is going right now. But we have to get that out his mindset. If he wants to be a two-way guard and have his name in a legacy for being that way, he has to step it up on the defensive end.”
Perhaps some perspective is necessary when reading into Payton’s remarks. Among critics, Payton is widely considered one of the best defensive point guards in NBA history, so of course he’s going to say Lillard needs to become better defensively. If you asked Kobe Bryant what Lillard had to do to be better, Kobe would probably say score more points and do a better MJ imitation. All criticism is relative.
While The Glove is one of my favorite players ever (Sorry, Blazers’ fans, I was a Sonics fan once upon a time), Payton also comes off a little old-timey with his gripe about the current state of NBA defense. Regardless of Payton’s, for the lack of a better term, nit-picking, he’s definitely got a point; Lillard must improve defensively for his own legacy as well as Portland’s team defense. Lillard doesn’t want the reputation of the guy who can’t guard anyone as soon as Paul Pierce retires.
I feel stupid complaining about Lillard’s defense because defense is hard… and it’s even harder when the team relies on Lillard to bring the ball up the court, average more than 20 points per game, play nearly 40 minutes per game (which he has done in his first two seasons in the league), and have enough left in the tank to bury cold-blooded game-winners in crunch time. The guy can only give so much. And, thanks; I think I’ll have Lillard’s series-winning three over him playing a little harder on defense any day of the week. Maybe next season head coach Terry Stotts will play a deeper bench (a la what the Spurs do every season), so Lillard would be a little fresher and could have some extra energy to work harder on the defense.
Schematically, the Blazers need Lillard to be better, in order to rise to the top of the West. Too many times in the playoffs, Lillard (along with every other Blazers perimeter player) got beat off the dribble and forced Portland’s defense to rotate. Against the Rockets, it nearly killed the Blazers, but Portland was able to hang on due to the Rockets’ insistence on getting Dwight Howard touches. Against the Spurs, dribble penetration was the sole reason Portland lost that series. Lillard and the rest of the Blazers can’t let that happen again.