Portland Trail Blazers: Has the national media undervalued the defense of Damian Lillard?

Damian Lillard, Portland Trail Blazers (Photo by Cooper Neill/Getty Images)
Damian Lillard, Portland Trail Blazers (Photo by Cooper Neill/Getty Images) /

The tag attached to Damian Lillard has always been “offensive superstar.” But has the media given Portland’s star his proper due as an improved, big-game defender?

Damian Lillard is from Oakland. East Oakland, to be exact. If the “Real Brookfield” tributes he alludes to in his hip-hop videos haven’t made you aware, watch a post-game interview of his after a game in which he gets in a scuffle with an opposing player. He’ll make sure you know where his roots lie.

I’m from Oakland,” he’ll declare with defiance. And for that, everything he’s seen in life allows him, from an outsider’s perspective at least, to seem fearless. That’s culture. True to ancestry, Oakland’s finest guards — from Brian Shaw to Jason Kidd to Gary Payton — have been remembered in mostly the same way. Fearless. Gritty. They found championships through their work on the less glamorous side of the court — the defensive end.

Ask the average fan what separates the Portland Trail Blazers’ floor general from those great California guards, and defense is probably  the answer. Ask James Harden the next time you talk to him. Like gorilla glue, the second that popular demand attaches the “defensive liability” to your name, expect an uphill climb in ripping it off. And while Lillard is certainly no Payton or Kidd on that end, it’s likely we’ve allowed 2013 thoughts to saturate the way we view him today. He’s long truncated a lot of those beliefs.

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At first glance, it’s a rational conclusion to come to. Only four teams give up more points than the Blazers, and Lillard’s No. 2 ranked 2,140 minutes played make it an easy correlation. But looking at his individual numbers, the hunt for a fair assessment tells a different story. For example, a few numbers per Synergy:

This season, opponents are averaging 0.91 points per possession when they attack Lillard on offense. That number ranks in the 59th percentile, the upper-half of the league. NBA.com suggests he ups that ante even more, forcing opponents to shoot 39.2 percent on those shots. That’s a respectable number in 2000 — not so much in 2020.

Synergy has eight different distinct play types on defense. Pick-and-roll defense against a ball handler (against both smalls and “bigs”), spot-ups, hand-offs, off screens, isolations, post-ups, and defense against pick-and-roll roll men.

Damian Lillard sits somewhere between “average” and “very good” in all but two of these categories — hand-offs and defending roll men. Take the latter with a grain of salt. There are only 18 instances this season, which, in a vacuum of Damian Lillard’s 695 defensive possessions, isn’t enough to call him a liability. Roll men are usually rim-runners. For this to not be a major problem is inspiring; if you remember earlier in Lillard’s career he’d cited screens (and getting over them) as a focus for improvement after the Spurs dominated Portland in the 2014 West Semis.

Portland isn’t Houston. One of Terry Stotts’ defensive philosophies is the “late-switch,” which, if the big doesn’t set a good screen, means each player can stay with their original man. Lillard’s work in closing out and defending spot-ups deserves a nod here, too.

He ranks in the 66th percentile in this stat, and that’s a key reason why opposing players shoot just 44.8 percent against him. With the circles turning, that late switch looks like this.

But enough numbers talk. I’m more of the belief that analytics can’t measure heart and determination, a calling card for Lillard at every  step in his Springfield-bound career. One thing that’s always come to mind is how focused Damian Lillard is on the defensive side of the ball during big, must-win games. We discussed it once during that Game Seven in Denver, but it’s always been a mindset, even back in college. Take note of what Lillard says during his Knuckleheads Podcast interview:

"“I’ll never forget we played Long Beach State at home. And it was another big game. They had a dude on their team that was like, scouts were coming to see him, he was a senior and all that. And my coach was like ‘You gone take him tonight. You gone guard him.’ And I just remember being ready like, ‘Oh, they got NBA people coming to see him?’ And he wasn’t getting nothing. Like, I was denying him, picking him up full court, blocking his shots, I was just on him.”"

The evolution seemed to begin there. Weber State’s archived basketball recaps from 2008 tell the same story of Lillard “shutting down” Donovan Morris, a 21-point scorer the year prior.

Maybe we can’t make the case for Lillard as an elite game-to-game defender, perhaps we can at least begin to craft one as a big-game one?

In the NBA, he’s been able to use his competitiveness to have similar success. You probably remember Lillard putting the Oklahoma City Thunder on the grill, burning them to the tune of 33.0 points and 6.0 assists on 46.1 percent shooting and 48.1 percent from deep.

Against that backdrop, it’s easy to forget how much success he had defensively against Russell Westbrook. At one point, he even barked, “Stop running from this (bleep) whooping.” NBA’s matchup tracking data tells us that over the course of that five-game series, Westbrook shot just 13-of-39 from the field and 4-of-15 from 3 when Damian Lillard guarded him, highlighted by a 2-of-10 performance in Game 2. Chances are, you remember this play.


It isn’t all sunshine and rainbows. Portland’s foolish, comedic idea of running drop coverage on pick-and-rolls against Golden State in the Western Conference Finals makes Lillard’s numbers look bad at the profit of Stephen Curry’s.

Pair Curry’s brilliance in that series on national television with Portland’s defensive struggles with new personnel together, and you have the recipe for a media-driven, unfair storyline. It’s become the fulcrum of every “trade C.J. McCollum” article, that Portland’s backcourt is “undersized,” (which doesn’t mean as much in the small ball era, and two inches, ironically, means little to a shot creator of that caliber. But I digress).

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Earlier this week, we attacked a similar thought with Carmelo Anthony. The premise remains the same. You wouldn’t build a defense around Lillard, but he certainly wouldn’t be what causes the foundation to crumple. When the challenge arises, Lillard’s proven he’s more than capable of forcing bricks and contributing to a greater cause (Portland was top-5 in 2017-18). A break in NBA action could be a vital time to research the validity of some of the “popular opinions” around the league. Chances are, there may certainly be more than meets the eye.