How good of a point guard is Damian Lillard?
Pretty damn good. Although only one season into his career, Lillard has already proven the caliber of his game. He won the Rookie of the Year award unanimously and connected on more 3-pointers (185) than any rookie in the history of the NBA. He played with the poise of a seasoned veteran and was an absolute force on the offensive end.
Yet on the other side of the ball, he doesn’t quite shine in the same way. Even Lillard himself has stressed the need to improve his defense in order to complete his own developing game, and to set a tone of defensive commitment for the rest of his team. So how bad was he really?
With any exploration into defensive evaluation one should first recognize that defensive output is far more difficult to quantify than that of offense. Statistics-wise, many defensive metrics are still in a state of development. Some of these formulas completely ignore numerous defensive actions (i.e. shot contesting, active help defense, quick and consistent rotations). With others, ample lineup data is needed in order to arrive at an accurate result (see specifics of RAPM for details). When examining film as well, some details are at times hazy — players’ actions often depend on the defensive systems they play in. With some teams players are taught to be more aggressive on the pick-and-roll, for instance, or to sag far off their man and help. There are times when their calculated micro-movements and defensive philosophies are not easily understood.
This is why it’s important to apply a healthy balance of advanced statistics and educated film analysis when concerned with someone’s defensive ability. Bearing this in mind, we can take look at Damian Lillard.
What do the stats say?
Talking Practice Blog’s IPVd is, in short, an all-encompassing stat that looks to evaluate how much a player is hurting or helping his team’s defense per 100 possessions. Last season, Damian Lillard’s IPVd sat at a -1.0, which dragged his all-inclusive IPV down to around 100th in the league (for a Rookie of the Year and soon-to-be All-Star, one might call this a disappointing rating). RAPM, similar in nature but with more emphasis on box score data, put Lillard in a similar boat. He posted a -1.5 RAPM rating on defense to rank at a mere 104th in the league. 82games.com’s on/off statistic also suggests the Blazers’ defense was worse with Damian Lillard playing, as they allowed an extra 2.4 points per 100 possessions. Basketball-Reference’s defensive rating says Damian Lillard allowed 112 points per 100 possessions when defending – noticeably higher than his team’s already poor defensive rating of 109.2. Finally, D-ASPM — a metric derived from exclusively box score data — gave Lillard a putrid 1.80 (for this metric, the higher the worse). This was notably inferior to other young, talented point guards: John Wall posted a -0.79 D-ASPM, Russell Westbrook a -0.56, Stephen Curry a 0.01, and Kyrie Irving a 0.80.
Only 82games.com’s Opponent Counterpart 48-Minute Production does not rate Lillard as harshly. Opposing point guards averaged a 15.5 PER when defended by Lillard. While this isn’t a great mark, it looks adequate when compared to that of players like Stephen Curry (16.5), and John Wall (19.7).
All in all, the vast majority of metrics appear to say the same thing in Lillard’s case: he clearly hurts his team on defense.
What does the film show regarding Lillard’s defense?
More bad than good. Below (enable captions):
First, Damian has a tendency to get caught up when encountering on-ball screens – not only does he not position himself favorably, but he also doesn’t recover well after making contact with the screener. This is important to note, given the importance of the pick-and-roll in modern NBA offenses. A good pick-and-roll defender will always have his head on a swivel (think Chris Paul or Mike Conley). These little guys cannot avoid getting hit by screeners sometimes, but gritting your teeth and pushing through, quickly accelerating afterwards, or gracefully rolling off the screener’s body can significantly help the team’s chances of getting a stop. Damian Lillard has yet to show much of that in his play.
Lillard’s defensive motor was also a cause for concern. He was seen at times to give up mid-play and his closeouts and shot-contests were often too half-assed. Even the innate reactions that shone so much on offense were very lacking on defense, as a quick first step often caught him off guard. At 6’3” and 195 lbs, Lillard isn’t the smallest point guard by any means, but he still would get pushed around sometimes by bigger, or more rugged, opponents.
Are there any good signs with Lillard’s defense?
Certainly, Lillard does have some things going for him. Mentally, he’s shown to be a very cerebral player on offense and as he gains experience, some of his natural savvy should translate over to the defensive end. Physically, he has great footspeed and a 39.5 inch vertical leap, both being coveted tools that should help with a large number of things on defense. In fact, while his on-ball defensive deficiency received most of the attention, overlooked was his effectiveness as an active help defender in Portland’s system. His near-6’8” wingspan will continue to come in handy for being a pest and shot contesting. Below, we see him buckling down where we get a glimpse of the havoc he can cause with active help and great length:
Can he get better?
At this point, Trail Blazers fans should feel relieved to hear their star point guard own up to his defensive deficiencies, which the stats suggest are very real. If Damian pushes himself to put forth more effort on defense, he should at least relieve the issues related to motor and focus. Defense doesn’t always come naturally, even to athletic and smart players — i.e. Charles Barkley, Magic Johnson, James Harden, or Amar’e Stoudemire — but given Damian’s tools, the rest can come if he realizes the mental and physical potential. Barring a growth in offensive output to a prime-Nash level, Damian Lillard must realize that potential if he’s to find himself involved in any “top point guard” discussions.