Constant improvement is appreciated in different ways. For young, ascending players, it is acknowledged and complimented, but mostly, it is expected. Stagnation is scrutinized, while growth is often overlooked. For stars already in their prime, constant improvement is perceived as more challenging, and as such, they tend to receive glowing praise when it takes place.
This season, that’s exactly what’s happening with Damian Lillard. Aside from his jaw-dropping scoring barrages, his improvement is the source of adulation from the general public.
Lillard has returned from each summer a better player throughout his career. The most substantial jump, the one that thrust him into the superstardom, came between 2016-17 and 2017-18. Back when he was 27, such a leap was relatively expected, as he was in his athletic peak and entering his sixth NBA season, a defined recipe for success.
But the spectacle he is hosting this year tops all of that. At 29, coming off a career-best campaign and down 60 percent of a starting lineup from a 53-win team — including a fringe-star center in Jusuf Nurkic — sustaining the upward trajectory is more complicated. Ho-hum, external factors are considered external for a reason. Lillard’s brushed them off and produced a historic offensive season, averaging 29.5 points a night on career-high 62.1 percent true shooting with 7.9 assists and only 2.9 turnovers per game. Even accounting for the league-wide offensive surge in recent years, Lillard’s true shooting is still 5.5 percentage points better than NBA average.
Almost anywhere you look will place Lillard among the elite offensive players in the NBA this season — and by elite, I mean in the top-three of a myriad of metrics. Most people understand this, but the specific numbers that depict Lillard in rarified air are, well, bonkers. His plus-5.39 Offensive Player Impact Plus-Minus (OPIPM) trails only Luka Doncic and is the 29th-highest in the stat’s database, which extends back to the 2009-10 season.
According to Synergy, Lillard resides in the 97th percentile as a pick-and-roll scorer and the 88th percentile in isolation, actions that compose 70.4 percent of his play-type profile. Despite ranking second in total ball-screen possessions (744) and third in isolation volume (260), Lillard remains remarkably proficient. Among the 58 players with 200-plus pick-and-rolls, Lillard leads the way, generating 1.134 points per possession. And among the 43 players with at least 75 isolations, his 1.081 PPP is third behind DeMar DeRozan and James Harden.
For some, high usage in a given action is merely a vehicle through which to simplify and open up one’s collective offense; middling efficiency is acceptable because of the sheer volume. For Lillard, both the usage and productivity are elite, sparking one of the best offensive seasons from a point guard in recent memory.
The modern game’s most floor-bending shot, a pull-up three, is how Lillard establishes his mastery. Harden leads the NBA in pull-up long balls (573), while Lillard is in second (392), averaging a career-high 7.3 attempts a night. Harden’s knocked down 35.8 percent of those looks, while Dame’s drained 40.1 percent of his. J.J. Redick (100 attempts, 42.6 percent) and Bojan Bogdanovic (125 attempts, 40 percent) are the only other players to reach 40 percent on at least 100 of those shots, while Lillard laps them in the sheer number of made baskets.
Quite simply, nobody is approaching his fusion of volume and efficiency. As a reference point, Steph Curry connected on 43.8 percent of his 6.4 pull-up threes each game during his unanimous MVP season in 2015-16. Lillard isn’t quite there in terms of efficiency, but he also isn’t on a team anywhere near as loaded as that Warriors squad.
An uptick in success and volume as a jump shooter largely explains Lillard’s career-best scoring efficiency. He’s upped his three-point rate from .415 (his career mark before the season) to .489 this season while draining 39.3 percent of them, the second-highest clip of his career. A product of Lillard’s gung-ho mentality is a previously-unseen long-range gumption. He’s taken a league- and career-high 102 shots beyond 30 feet and knocked down 42.2 percent of them. On his other 437 triples, he’s converted 38.7 percent. So far, this season, bombing from way downtown has been more successful than pulling up from just behind the arc.
Rear-view contests do not dissuade him, a vital trait for esteemed pull-up maestros. He is arguably the king of shooting in a crowd — freeze some of the clips below and note the defender’s contest. It’s not poor effort or execution, Lillard is merely too good to be affected, whil conservative coverage or inattention to detail are a death knell. Recently, opposing teams have stopped relying on an aggressive drop scheme in ball-screens against Lillard and forced their big men to play at or above the three-point arc.
That strategy hasn’t mattered. The Blazers are initiating the offense earlier by setting screens higher on the floor and letting Lillard fire away from deeper. The lower-body strength, bravado, and skill that allow these shots to be efficient are rare.
The butterfly effect of Lillard’s increased range is his scoring at the rim because teams must offer newfound respect on the perimeter. His blend of strength, burst, change of direction/start-stop savvy, and advanced driving technique enable him to get downhill as he prefers, and it’s made easier when rim protectors have to venture outside the paint in anticipation of his pull-up shooting. In the half court, he’s shooting 56.1 percent at the rim and getting there 33.5 percent of them, both of which are the second-highest frequencies of his career.
Basically, this is the most successful he’s been at merging volume and efficiency. A chart helps illuminate that concept…
Damian Lillard's rim frequency/efficiency in the half-court each year of his career, think you're seeing the impact his increasingly deep range is having this year: pic.twitter.com/9ifCrEXC92
— Jackson Frank (@jackfrank_jjf) February 14, 2020
…and video helps visualize it. Lillard is so adept at getting lower than defenders to establish leverage/power, and has the balance and core strength to not be pushed off his spots and absorb contact, showcasing an array of elite athleticism indicators that guide his dribble-drive game.
The offensive burden Lillard is bearing for Portland is enormous, and it stems from roster issues that have largely popped up to a bundle of injuries. Hassan Whiteside (18th) is the lone fellow rotation player with a Player Impact Plus-Minus inside the top-125, while CJ McCollum (126th) and Carmelo Anthony (290th) join them as the sole others inside the top-300. As a result of the Blazers’ depleted roster, 83.4 percent of Lillard’s makes are unassisted. Arjun Balaraman of Nylon Calculus charted every player since 2000 to average 25-plus points per game and discovered that only Harden, in each of the past three seasons, has posted a more extreme ratio than Lillard this year between assisted and unassisted makes.
Lillard has operated above 60 percent every season of his career, so high-volume self-creation is not a new phenomenon for him. But to bolster his scoring efficiency while turning up the difficulty sliders on a team lacking many viable rotation players is truly special. The deep range draws parallels to Steph, and the individual creation resembles Harden.
Yet Lillard is authoring a distinct season that incorporates aspects from both future Hall of Famers, which is why it’s been such a joy to watch. Something like this doesn’t happen often, so it’s best to simply revel in the uniquely historic campaign of Damian Lillard, a superstar whose peak is elevated every year.