While it might be too early to tell if the Portland Trail Blazers are serious playoff contenders, there's no doubt that they have shown serious improvement from last season.
Offensively, the team is on fire. Leading the league with an offensive rating of 109.4 (per NBA.com), the Trail Blazers do an excellent job sharing the ball and working inside-out. Defensively, they are only middle of the pack—their 103.5 defensive rating ranks them 20th.
Damian Lillard, however, has made significant strides on the defensive end. Wanting to dominate your matchup is a natural instinct in basketball, but the best defenders are often the ones that buy into team defense as a whole.
This is what Lillard has done. It's particularly important at the point guard position because how he guides the opponent's primary ball-handler often dictates how the rest of the defense covers in help. This season, Lillard has completely abided by the schematic principles Portland has set out.
Portland's defensive formula is one that is slowly consuming the entire league, as teams routinely replicate the most successful strategies: Clog the paint, run three-point shooters off the arc and force teams into mid-range jumpers and floaters.
Only two teams in the entire league (Indiana and Phoenix) are shooting over 45 percent from 15-19 feet, and neither team even breaks 49 percent. The mid-range, quite simply, is wildly less efficient on a points-per-possession basis than shots in the paint or from three-point range.
This is still an evolving game plan in Portland. The team has given up the ninth-most shots from 15-19 feet in the league. Meanwhile, Indiana, the league's most effective defense, has given up the most. Last season, San Antonio, Chicago and Indiana—three of the five-best defenses last season—were first, second and third in mid-range shots given up.
What this does, at least statistically, is usually hurt the point guard as an individual defender. Teams with the most dangerous offenses have their point guards or other ball-handling guards penetrate, only to kick to shooters or rolling/cutting big men.
Though the offensive point guard racks up assists, it doesn't necessarily grab the eye in a negative way in term's of the defensive point guard's performance. While other players fill up the stat sheet with points and their defenders receive the brunt of the blame, it's usually the point guard who gave up the initial penetration that put his teammates in a compromising position.
In Portland, the Trail Blazers are turning point guards and other perimeter ball-handlers into scorers. And that's why, according to Synergy Sports (subscription required), opposing ball-handlers on the pick-and-roll are shooting 45 percent against Lillard—ranking him in the 25th percentile in the NBA, the bottom quarter of the league.
But it's not that 75 percent of the league is better than Lillard at guarding the pick-and-roll; it's that he's adhering to team principles.
On this play against the Dallas Mavericks, Dirk Nowitzki slides over to run a side pick-and-roll with Jose Calderon. Portland's big defending Dirk, LaMarcus Aldridge, verbally cues Lillard with the pick-and-roll coverage.
Oftentimes teams predetermine their pick-and-roll defense based on personnel or location. This is why you won't always hear a defender call out any type of defense—hedge and recover, blitz, switch, etc.—as the play develops.
Here it's a "blue," also known as "ice" or "down," and Lillard properly reacts by rotating his hips and putting his back to Dirk.
Calderon, reading Lillard, rejects the screen and heads towards the corner. Aldridge, in order to stay attached to Dirk and to not give up the pick-and-pop jumper, only shows with a hand until Lillard can recover.
This incites Calderon to capitalize on the space and rise up for the jumper. He knocks it down before Lillard can fully contest.
This might seem like a loss for the possession, but it's a win in Portland's book. If the outcome of every defensive possession were a mid-range jumper from Jose Calderon, they would probably win the game.
The idea, here, is to keep the ball away from Dirk and force Calderon to become a scorer from the mid-range area. They accomplish their goal on this play and consider the entire possession a win.
Here it is again, this time with slightly better defense on Utah's Alec Burks. On the play before, Lillard hopped inside to force Calderon baseline a little late. This led to him contesting Calderon's jumper late, making it a slightly easier shot than it could have been. Though this is still the shot Portland wants to give up, it's probably a bit more open than they would have liked.
Against Burks, Lillard does an even better job defending the side screen-and-roll. This time he trails over the top and maintains an inside position.
This squeezes Burks' options, as he's receiving pressure from both the dropping defender and Lillard from behind.
His only option is to beat Aldridge baseline, put up a weird in-between floater or throw a wild-and-dangerous overhead pass to Jeremy Evans. Aldridge cuts off the baseline, essentially forcing Burks into the floater.
The ball goes in, but it's undoubtedly a poor shot.
Portland's defense is far from perfect. Opponents are shooting 35.7 percent from three-point range against them and they're 21st in the league at protecting the rim, giving up a bucket on 57.7 percent of attempts.
This will only improve with time as Lillard matures as a defender and Terry Stotts' system becomes more ingrained with the team. But for now, Lillard and the defense are playing well enough as the offense carries the load.