Damian Lillard – A Tale of Tape


Apr 14, 2013; Denver, CO, USA; Portland Trailblazers guard Damian Lillard (0) during the first half against the Denver Nuggets at the Pepsi Center. Mandatory Credit: Chris Humphreys-USA TODAY Sports

As the joke goes, the immortal John Gruden believes that, “There isn’t a problem you can’t solve by watching tape.” While the man’s legendary appetite for film is only mildly exaggerated, I am stepping up my own efforts in this department. There really is nothing that can substitute for sitting down and grinding through some old game film.

Likely being the future of the franchise, I wanted to take a close look at some film of Damian Lillard. To start with, though, I wanted to watch times when he struggled, because I often find these situations to be the most valuable to analyze.

To aid me on this front, I used the Game Score metric found on Basketball-Reference, which is a quick calculation to determine how well a player performed in a single game. I used it as a baseline to find some games that Lillard struggled in, before finally settling on the Blazers’ March 19th game against the Milwaukie Bucks (a 102-95 loss). Basketball-Reference ranked it as his eighth worst game of the season.

Even without fancy metrics and their ilk, a look at the box score clearly indicated that it was a bit of a struggle for Lillard – 2/10, 0/4 on threes, three rebounds, six turnovers, eight points, but 11 assists. I was originally trying to find a game without such gaudy assist numbers, but then I decided it would be nice to see one aspect of his game working when the others obviously weren’t.

So, I dived right in and watched every minute that Lillard played, focusing only on him. Here are my observations:

The game was the second of a back-to-back, both on the road, and Lillard’s 67th of the season. This is all to say that Lillard looked tired, and I can understand why. This goes a long way towards explaining the meager 10 shot attempts – he didn’t look to create for himself often at all. In fact, I could count on one hand how many times he tried to drive to the hoop.

But, by not looking to create for himself, he could expend his energy on finding his teammates, to the tune of 11 assists (tied for his second most of the season). Let me tell you, though, that if his teammates didn’t brick wide open jumper after wide open jumper or fumble the ball away, that total could have been 20. Easily.

A conversation I had with some of University of Portland’s basketball players has stuck with me for a long time. I asked them if they had ever played with NBA players, and they both said they had at various open gyms and the like. I asked what it was like, and they both said the same thing – NBA players’ vision, especially guards’, is off the charts. And Lillard put that on full display in this game. His vision is incredible – he saw seam after seam after opening developing and made the appropriate pass most of the time. It was a joy to watch.

On the other hand there were prominent negatives, which start with turnovers. For all of the great passes, there were too many bad ones. His first turnover of the game was a slow, lazy pass that Monta Ellis easily intercepted. Two more of his turnovers came on failed passes to the post from the top of the key. As I mentioned in my last article, turnovers are ruthless. When a game comes down to the wire, everyone always remembers the clutch play or buzzer beater, but no possession is more important than any other during the course of a game. Those turnovers in the first three quarters matter just as much as any in the last minute. This is why I am happy to say that while having six turnovers like he did in this game is brutal, Lillard only had six turnovers or more in seven games this season. That’s manageable for a rookie.

As for his shot selection, there was not much to criticize; sometimes the shots just don’t fall. Of his ten attempts, there were only three that were ill-advised – two rushed threes and an out of control, off balance, Westbrook-esque layup attempt. Both of the threes came too early in the shot clock, and the far wiser option would have been to let the team get into its sets.

What I was most interested to watch on tape, though, was Lillard’s much-maligned defense. This is something that is hard to translate into numbers, and for which watching film is indispensable. It was exacerbated in this particular game, because Lillard’s defensive rating (estimated points given up per individual 100 possessions) was an astronomical 120, which over a large time period like his 44 minutes is worth noticing. I wanted to see first-hand where this came from.

Rather than being discouraged, I liked what I saw. Most importantly, the effort was there. While there was some zoning out when he was on the opposite side of the floor as the ball, the effort was otherwise nonstop. That’s the first ingredient necessary for defense. Positioning was acceptable, but it was apparent that he, like every other rookie before him, is still figuring out just how much to leak off his man when offering help or sagging to the key. That’s something that only experience can solve, and which will get better with time.

Where I think Lillard’s defensive rating really took a shot, though, was in giving up threes. By my count, he directly gave up four of Milwaukie’s nine threes, three to Brandon Jennings and one to Ellis. Now, the bottom line is that his man made those shots, so call me a homer, but man, two of those Jennings threes had no business going in and I can’t really fault Lillard for them. On his other three, Jennings just stuck it in Lillard’s eye, and on Ellis’, Lillard was way out of position on a botched (over)rotation.

He conceded entry to the paint via drive to his man far too easily more than once, but these days without hand-checking that’s hard for almost any player to stop. When it’s all said and down, for being a statistically bad defensive game, there were more than enough positives to satisfy me.

To broaden that sentiment, this game made me happy more than anything. Things were not going Lillard’s way at all – shots not falling, fatigue rearing its ugly head, and his man, Jennings, making some ridiculous shots. Despite these obstacles, Lillard still found a way to contribute, and contribute valuably, with high level court vision and facilitation. He obviously made a concerted effort to focus on getting his teammates involved, and while the Blazers were getting blown out most of the game, it was an encouraging sight.

If this was one of Lillard’s “worst” games, I’m excited for the future.