Damian Lillard: turnover prevention in a scoring role


Damian Lillard is a peculiar offensive player. I don’t think I would classify him as a “shoot first” point guard like Russell Westbrook or Brandon Jennings, but rather a different kind of scorer. Instead of immediately looking for his shot as he sets up the offense, he surveys the court for his team’s best opportunity to score before settling on himself as the commonly correct choice. This, by itself, is not peculiar, as scoring point guards have become the norm in modern basketball. The peculiar part is the way in which his measured tour de force approach to offense prevents opponents from stealing the ball and momentum with it.

Lillard attempted more field goals per game than all but five point guards in the league last season, and consequently, outscored all but three. This barrage was a tremendous help to the Trail Blazers, which can be seen statistically in his team-leading 7.8 offensive win shares. So where would you expect a point guard that is such an enormous part of his team’s offense to rank in the turnover department? Normally, pretty high up there among the league’s leaders in coughing it up. However; Lillard’s propensity for shooting over passing in the right situations dips him down the list quite favorably.

2013-14 point guard turnovers per game

Feb 8, 2014; Minneapolis, MN, USA; Minnesota Timberwolves guard Ricky Rubio (9) guards Portland Trail Blazers guard Damian Lillard (0) in the second half at Target Center. The Trail Blazers defeated the Wolves 117-110. Mandatory Credit: Marilyn Indahl-USA TODAY Sports

1. Stephen Curry (3.8)
2. Russell Westbrook (3.8)
3. John Wall (3.6)
4. Michael Carter Williams (3.5)
5. Derrick Rose (3.4)
6. Eric Bledsoe (3.3)
7.Rajon Rondo (3.3)
8. Monta Ellis (3.2)
9. Ty Lawson (3.2)
10. Victor Oladipo (3.2)
11. Jrue Holiday (3.1)
12. Isaiah Thomas (3.0)
13. Jeff Teague (2.9)
14. Goran Dragic (2.8)
15. Kendall Marshall (2.8)
16. Kyrie Irving (2.7)
17. Brandon Jennings (2.7)
18. Ricky Rubio (2.7)
19. Brandon Knight (2.6)
20. Jeremy Lin (2.5)
21. Kyle Lowry (2.5)
22. Damian Lillard (2.4)

By frequently shooting instead of passing, Lillard erases could-be turnovers, but also could-be assists. Hence, it can be argued that Lillard pays for his good turnover marks with an underwhelming assist-to-turnover ratio (2.37), compared to someone like Jose Calderon (3.66). While this is true, it is not necessarily a negative. The perceived inefficiency is mostly canceled out by his uptick in scoring, since points for Lillard and points for his teammates count the same on the scoreboard. With an offensive rating of 116, he scores at the fifth highest rate of any starting point guard in the league.

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It is actually pretty unique to have a player that scores so much and turns the ball over so little. DeMar DeRozan was the only non-post player to average more points than Lillard last season with fewer turnovers, but he did not have Lillard’s responsibility of being his team’s primary ball handler. In fact, Lillard and Paul were the only distributors in the league to average fewer than 2.5 turnovers while scoring 18+ points per game. That is excellent company.

The importance of preventing turnovers cannot be undervalued. Consider that most instances in which the ball is stolen, a transition play is soon to follow. Scoring in transition is one of the easiest ways to put points on the board, so retaining possession long enough to get a shot off—even if it’s a bad shot—can forestall momentous swings. Every time Lillard pulls up, he negates the pickpocket entirely, while also running up his own point total if he successfully scores.

Not only did he commit fewer turnovers per game than the 21 listed point guards, he had the lowest turnover percentage of any player that started at point guard in the 2013-14 season. In Lillard’s case, the best defense was actually a good offense (though improvement on the other side of the ball couldn’t hurt). As long as he remains Portland’s most versatile offensive weapon, I cannot fault him for taking the game into his own hands.

Lillard’s unique style was a big part of why the Trail Blazers allowed the fifth fewest turnovers in 2013-14, while achieving the second highest offensive rating. His specific play embodied that of his team, and the value he held as a scoring point guard was paramount to Portland’s success. It is important that he remain focused on scoring when necessary in order to maximize his future contributions to the team.

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