Will Damian Lillard Reach Elite Status This Season?

The sophomore slump is a rite of passage for most second-year players. It’s mostly precipitated by fatigue, as the slog of an 82-game season inevitably begins to take its toll. It often manifests itself in shooting droughts and/or nagging injuries.

On the surface, Damian Lillard was mostly immune to this last season, but if you were watching closely, you noticed that his field goal percentage came in peaks and valleys, and there were times throughout the season when he was downright streaky.

It wasn’t uncommon for Dame to go something like 1-for-7 during the first half of games, only to catch fire in the second half and end up with 20 points on only moderately effective shooting. Averaging 42 percent from the field throughout the season isn’t great. It had to be said. We overlooked this primarily because the Portland Trailblazers happened to be winning.

[RELATED: Damian Lillard and the Trailblazers are ready for big things this season]

Kyrie Irving is a good comparison here because his stat lines last season were eerily similar to Lillard’s. Lillard averaged 20.7 points, 5.6 assists, and 3.5 rebounds on 42.4 percent shooting from the field and 39.4 percent from three. Irving, meanwhile, averaged 20.8 points, 6.1 assists, and 3.6 rebounds on 43 percent shooting from the field and 35.8 percent from three. It’s enough to make you do a double take. Although Lillard was clearly more effective from behind the arc, the difference between 39 percent and 36 percent is approximately one more missed three-pointer per game. But, as we all know, the Cleveland Cavaliers were losing in spectacular fashion.

Still, Lillard has plenty of room for improvement. One of the ways he can improve is by getting into the paint more often and finishing around the rim. He was below league average in both the number of shots he took in the restricted area and the percentage he converted on those shots. Tony Parker (almost 60 percent), Russell Westbrook (55 percent), and Chris Paul (63 percent) all shot a higher percentage at the rim than Lillard (48 percent). The difference is marginal, but it’s still there. Lillard could stand to get a little better at finishing around the rim.

But it doesn’t just pertain scoring. Parker, Westbrook, and Paul wreak all sorts of havoc by getting into the lane, collapsing the defense, drawing fouls, getting layups, throwing lobs, or kicking it out for a corner three. It’d be nice to see Lillard show a little more creativity here.

In general, Lillard has to get a little better at orchestrating the offense. At this point, he’s more or less just another cog in Terry Stott’s well-oiled offensive machine. Lillard averaged 5.6 assists per game last season. Compare that to Paul’s 10 assists per game. This isn’t to say Lillard isn’t a capable, or willing passer. Quite the opposite. In fact, Lillard is at times unselfish to a fault, and Stotts’ sequences help facilitate this. To reach elite status, however, Lillard will have to get his assists per game up around the 8-10 per game mark.

He’s super savvy in pick-and-roll sets, and having an abnormally-efficient mid-range jump shooter like LaMarcus Aldridge on your team certainly helps (not to mention other competent shooters like Wesley Matthews and Nic Batum), but he’s yet to consistently exhibit the type of creativity we see from Parker and Paul when they snake around inside the lane and make things happen. Then again, there aren’t many players in the world who can do what those two do.

Of course, viewed through a different lens, you could argue that Lillard’s poise, cautiousness, self-control, decision-making, or whatever you want to call it, is an asset rather than a shortcoming. Too often, though, he seems perfectly content to settle for the long ball, and rightfully so, you might argue, since he’s so deadly from the beyond the arc. But a little more creativity in terms of breaking down the defense, getting into the lane, attacking the rim, and finishing and/or drawing fouls will only make him that much more dangerous. It’ll also allow more open looks from beyond the three-point line.

At the other end of the court, it’s no secret that Lillard has had his issues, and although he doesn’t commit the same kinds of atrocities as someone like James Harden, for instance, his pick-and-roll defense leaves a lot to be desired.

It starts early on in sequences where the opposing team’s big man – having studied film and knowing well his susceptibility to poor positioning – will come set a high screen on Lillard toward the top of the key. Like clockwork, Lillard will take too long trying to fight through said screen – or worse, try to go under it – forcing one of his teammates to rotate over from the help side, at which point the whole fabric of the defense starts to unravel. Below is an excellent video breakdown of Lillard’s overall defensive issues. The section on his pick-and-roll defense starts around the 2:15 mark.

Lillard has to be able to read and react much quicker if he’s ever going to overcome this. The good news for the Blazers is that these types of fundamentals can be learned/taught, but Lillard has to be held accountable. During training camp, Stotts seemed eager to redistribute the blame to the team’s help side defense, which of course is due directly to Lillard’s problems during screen-and-roll action. It doesn’t bode well if Lillard’s going to be coddled on this.

Defensively, Lillard still has a plus-5.4 net rating. But Westbrook’s net rating is above eight and Paul’s is above 11. CP3 also averages 2.5 steals per game to Lillard’s 0.8. Westbrook averages close to two steals per game. So, in addition to improving his pick-and-roll defensive, Lillard needs to show a little more urgency with his on-ball defense and when covering the passing lanes.

The last area is vocal leadership. There was a lot of talk during training camp about leading by example, but the point guard not only needs to be the coach’s liaison on the court but also the heart and soul of the team. With a team full of nice guys, it’s Wesley Matthews who’s one of the few players who has a little “F— You” to his game, and it was actually Robin Lopez, of all people, who emerged as a vocal leader last season. Lillard is naturally reserved, but it’d be nice to see him grow into this role moving forward.

(All stats per NBA.com/stats/)

What does Damian Lillard have to do to reach elite status this season?

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