Last season, Damian Lillard earned Rookie of the Year honors. Now he wants to be named an NBA All-Star and he's on the ballot. Outside of Portland, though, there hasn't been much talk about Lillard. Has he evolved from his rookie form? Have the basketball gods used an everstone on him?
Here, I will dissect Lillard's game to see if he's gotten better from last season, but first, let's key in on some points for progress.
First, he needed to get better defensively. Too often last season, Lillard was out of position on defense. It seemed the game was moving too fast for him on that end of the court. Second, he tended to take too many long twos and needed to get better at finishing at the basket. Finally, like many modern point guards, Lillard was primarily a scorer. With more weapons this year, Lillard needed to get his teammates involved and develop his general decision making.
Has he gotten better? Let's take a look.
This video is most, if not every, defensive lapse Lillard had against the Toronto Raptors this season. He is often out of position on pick-and-roll coverage and can be beaten off the dribble, despite his excellent athleticism.
On the first play, he is mismatched against Rudy Gay. Expecting Lillard to shut Gay down would only lead to disappointment, but not becoming Gay's travel agent to the basket would suffice. Here, Lillard falls for a simple dribble-head fake, leading to happy trails for Gay.
On the second play, Lillard ends up flat footed and, once that happens, Kyle Lowry blows by him. Lillard attempts an awkward jumping windmill something-or-other to no avail. He seemed put off by the pick that Lowry didn't use.
A pick is used on this next play.
Look how he dances around Gay—so much wasted movement. He has a decent recovery and gets low on Gay, who ultimately uses a Paul Pierce-like spin-stop-and-shoot move that a lot of players would have trouble defending. When Lillard was initially out of position, though, it was like an invitation for Gay to try something.
The next play is a simple pick-and-roll too. You can see Lillard look to his right. He knows what's coming. Jonas Valanciunas comes up to set the pick and Lillard tries to fight over the top of Valanciunas' screen.
Except Lillard misses the timing and, again, wastes a lot of steps. He is behind the play and Lopez, to no fault of his own, ends up on the wrong side of a two-on-one situation.
I've watched this final clip a million times and I still can't tell you why Lillard jukes to his right and opens the door for DeMar DeRozan. I just don't know. I'm sorry. DeRozan drives to the basket, forcing Lopez and Dorell Wright to help. DeRozan has both Quincy Acy and Landry Fields open.
Lillard still needs to improve a ton in this department. Last season, however, I probably would have had twice as many clips.
He's improved a little on defense.
As he told CBSSports.com, there are adjustments to be made when taking the leap to the NBA, such as learning what opponents will run and being in position before the action starts.
I think that has a lot to do with it as a rookie because you hear these calls and you don't know what they mean. So you're just playing it by ear. I think that's why with experience guys get so much better is because they know what to expect. You can see things before they happen because you've heard them before.
Last season, Lillard's defensive efficiency rating (amount of points per 100 possessions that the team allows while that individual player is on the court) was 107.2, according to NBA.com/Stats. This season, he has been better with a rating is 103.7.
Lillard's improvement may partly have to do with the Trail Blazers being a better defensive team overall. Portland has improved from last season, from 106.9 points to 103 points allowed per 100 possessions.
In watching Lillard, he seems to make fewer mistakes. That's not to say he doesn't still make mistakes, though, because he does.
Lillard took a lot of bad shots last season. This is his shot chart from his rookie year.
About 22 percent of his shots were long two-pointers. That means almost one of every four shots was, what many consider to be, the most inefficient shot in basketball.
Last season, he didn't have many teammates who could score and was forced to create a lot of offense himself, at which he did a good enough job to win Rookie of the Year. Still, he needed to cut down on some bad shots, especially the long two-pointers.
This is his shot chart this season.
Just 13.8 percent of his shots are long twos. To top it off, Lillard is shooting 50 percent from this distance, as opposed to just 42.7 percent last season.
Finishing at the basket
Despite this spectacular moment, Lillard has not improved at finishing at the rim. In fact, he has gotten worse.
Last season, Lillard shot 50 percent from the basket area. This season, he is converting less than 40 percent, according to NBA.com/Stats.
That is really bad.
Sometimes the ball just doesn't fall, but Lillard could be more aggressive about getting to the basket like he was against the Brooklyn Nets above.
As Lillard told reporters over the summer, he wanted to work on his floater this season, and he certainly has added the shot to his game. He told BlazersEdge.com what he worked on during the offseason:
Just a lot of change of pace stuff, more rhythm stuff, instead of using my speed and quickness all the time. And floaters, different finishes in the paint so I'm not always attacking the rim and getting beat up.
It seems as if Lillard is still experimenting with how he wants to attack the basket. That's fine while he's young and he has his jumper to bail him out. He needs to figure it out, though, because less than 40 percent is just ugly.
This video shows two clips of the Trail Blazers running the same play.
The first time, Lillard runs the play's first option and gets the ball to Batum, who nails the jumper. The second time, Gay is in position to defend it, so Lillard goes to his second option and passes to LaMarcus Aldridge.
Lillard made his reads and the right decision. If it were a rookie Lillard on that second play, I'm inclined to believe he would have forced the shot (a long two). Lillard has made a conscious effort to get his teammates involved, and he'll often do so by driving to the rim and kicking it out to teammates for open threes.
Lillard hasn't made a drastic leap this season. He's improved his decision making when it comes to his shot selection and getting his teammates involved, but still has a lot of work to do in regards to making shots in the paint and his defense.
That said, Lillard looks more polished. He may not be an All-Star in a deep Western Conference just yet, but he is taking steps in the right direction, and it's definitely attainable in the near future.
Stats are accurate as of Monday, Nov. 18, 2013.