NEW YORK — There's a Western Conference point guard tearing up the NBA this season. He spent his college years at a mid-major. He was picked in the first half of the lottery. He spent the beginning of his career playing second fiddle to veterans before taking the reins.
He's now one of the league's best scorers and distributors, a pick-and-roll maestro, a pull-up three-point assassin, bursting through the paint whenever he wants. He's one of two players in the league with multiple 50-point games this season. He's one of two players averaging at least 30 points and four three-pointers per game since the All-Star break.
His name is Damian Lillard, and it's no wonder he keeps getting compared to Stephen Curry. Just don't make that comparison in front of Lillard himself—the last time that happened, Dame didn't take too kindly to it.
His teammates and coaches had his back.
"The answer was appropriate," Blazers wing Allen Crabbe said before a recent win over the Knicks in New York. "He wants to be his own player. I'm pretty sure everybody wants to be his own player."
"I don't want to compare Dame and Steph," head coach Terry Stotts said. "It kind of gets to the point Dame was making. He's his own guy. Dame is a special player for us. He's a greater leader. He continues to get better, but comparing him to Steph or vice versa, that's not my place."
"I think what Steph is doing is pretty incredible in its own right," backup point guard Brian Roberts said, "but I feel like without what he's doing, then Dame, what he's doing, would kind of be at the forefront of the league. They're both playing at an unreal level right now."
"They are different players," fellow Blazers backcourt star C.J. McCollum declared.
Elite Scoring, Different Focus
|Best in the West|
|Player (via Basketball-Reference)||USG||AST %||TO %||FGA/36|
Curry is far more likely to pull up from deep, while Lillard is far more likely to drive.
"It's hard to handle either one of them," Roberts said. "The range from which both of them can shoot. Steph, how quick his release is and how he can get his shot off. Dame, his explosiveness getting to his spots so he can shoot and also getting to the rim. Obviously he can dunk on you, too.
"... They do a lot of things well. They both can shoot, obviously from deep range," he said. "I think Dame is a little bit stronger. You look at their body frames, Steph is a strong guard that's able to do a lot of things well, but Dame is more of a pit bull when you look at his body and his demeanor in terms of how he attacks the basket."
Curry takes 55.1 percent of his shots from deep, per Basketball-Reference.com, while Lillard takes only 41.4 percent of his shots from distance. While Lillard is third in the league in threes made and attempted this season, he is a world behind Curry on both fronts. Curry has made 304 threes and attempted 662 as of Thursday morning; Lillard has knocked down 182 and attempted 485.
That 122-make difference is the same as Lillard versus Oklahoma City Thunder backup wing Anthony Morrow, who is in 112th place. Curry has taken 177 more threes than Lillard, about the equivalent distance of Lillard and Kyle Korver or Khris Middleton, who are in 27th place.
Similarly, Lillard checks in 10th in the NBA with 9.7 drives per game, per the SportVU data on NBA.com, while Curry is down in 43rd with only 5.9. That 3.8-drives-per-game difference is the same as between Curry and Jose Calderon (who is all the way down in 144th place).
Both of them are incredibly efficient on the drive, though. Among the 56 players averaging at least 5.0 drives per game this season, Lillard ranks third and Curry ranks fourth in Points Percentage, (i.e. the percentage of possible points scored per drive), per NBA.com.
"It's more put pressure on the defense," Lillard said of his attack-the-paint mentality. "Maybe I get in the paint and the defense loads up and somebody comes open on the wing or open in the corner and I'll make the right play. Putting pressure on them and attacking.
"In transition, I'm not going to come down and slow down. I'm going to come down and try to score. I'm going to try to get around my man, and if I can't score, I'm going to make the next play. And when the next guy gets it, he'll make the next play. It's just an aggressive mindset."
Lillard's Outsized Burden
Curry is a shot-creation virtuoso. He just doesn't have to do it quite as often as Lillard does, though he easily could, per SportVU:
|Shouldering the Load|
|Player||MPG||Time of Poss (min)||TOP % (Rank)|
Lillard is shouldering a gigantic volume of opportunity, self-creating 79.6 percent of his two-pointers and 52.7 percent of his threes. Meanwhile, Curry self-creates 60.5 percent of his twos and 45.7 percent of his threes. Curry shoots far better on unassisted attempts than Lillard does, but it makes sense. Lillard is out here building skyscrapers, while Curry builds apartment structures.
Curry also benefits from more spot-up opportunities, per SportVU (h/t B/R Insights):
|Player||% of FGA||% of Points|
As of games played through March 1, Curry and Lillard had actually shot virtually the same rate (as a percentage of pick-and-rolls): Curry took a shot 28.6 percent of the time compared to 28.1 for Lillard. They'd also generated an assist at nearly the same rate: 8.9 percent for Curry and 9.2 for Lillard, per B/R Insights.
But check out these subtle differences:
|Player||Drive %||Pass to Screener %||Pass to Others %|
Lillard drives to the basket more often than Curry; that fact is borne out in their pick-and-roll usage. But look at the direction of their passes.
Is there anything more common when watching a Warriors game (aside from everyone on the Internet going bonkers at the latest Curry laser show) than seeing Curry drop a pass to Draymond Green on a short roll before Green either hoists from three himself or drives and dishes to the corner or tosses an alley-oop?
Otherwise, a good deal of Curry's passes go to the wings: to Klay Thompson, Harrison Barnes and Andre Iguodala. But not quite as large a share as Lillard's.
Lillard doesn't have a playmaking pick-and-roll partner like Green. His bigs—Noah Vonleh, Mason Plumlee, Ed Davis, Meyers Leonard—are finishers, so they get the ball considerably less often than Curry's. More of Lillard's passes go out to the wing, where you can find McCollum, Portland's secondary playmaker.
Understanding how differently teams defend Curry and Lillard underpins how different they really are.
Below is a breakdown of a few different things the man guarding the ball-handler (i.e. Curry or Lillard) and the screener (i.e. Green or Plumlee, etc.) have done while defending Curry and Lillard in the pick-and-roll. First, the man guarding the ball-handler:
|Pick-and-roll Defense – Ball-handler|
You'd expect the best shooter in the history of basketball to see his defender go over the screen more often, but Lillard's defenders are actually more overzealous. Defenses concerned with the threat of Curry pulling don't even trust their defender to fight over a screen. They're more willing to switch, blitz or pinch. All of that is largely unsuccessful.
Now let's check out the man guarding the screener:
|Pick-and-roll Defense – Screener|
|Player||Down||Hard Hedge||Soft Hedge||Switch|
Lillard is forced to the baseline on a side pick-and-roll more often than Curry. He sees soft-hedge coverage a bit less and is tasked with taking a big man one-on-one out of a switch far less often as well. Why defenses feel switching is the right way to deal with Curry, who knows, but that's why you see so many of them get shook before Curry launches a step-back three over their arms.
While the surface-level similarities between Curry and Lillard make for an easy (and fun!) comparison, the truth is they each attack the game in different ways. Those differences, as well as the difference in the quality and skill sets of their supporting teammates, show up in the way defenses react to each player as well. You can see it in the pick-and-roll numbers especially.
Curry gets everything from his jumper and the threat of his jumper. Whether that's an easier shot for himself or a teammate, it's all leveraged out by the fact that he could pull up at a moment's notice.
Lillard is liable to jack from deep at any time as well, and he's damn good at it. But he's also considerably more likely to use the drive, and the threat of the drive, to open things up for himself and his teammates.