What Does Damian Lillard’s ‘Better Than Ever’ Look Like?


If it could be done on a basketball court, particularly offensively, chances are Portland Trail Blazers star point guard Damian Lillard would have done it.

Vanish single-legged out of the triple threat, Dirk Nowitzki-style? It’s not often, but he has done it. Inverted spoon shots with two hands crossed on the backboard with two defenders in the back? Of course. 37-foot step-back shots to close out a playoff series? Absolutely.

That realization makes Lillard’s statement during a late March appearance on The Shannon Sharpe Show shay shay club all the more intriguing. Reflecting on his future and the return from abdominal surgery, the six-time All-Star laid out the expectations of what he intends to deliver for 2022-23 in terms of health and production:


“I’m not looking at 100 (percent), I’m looking at 150, are we absolutely sure? Am I strong in this area? I’m looking for all the vulnerable spots that I can put myself in to try to find that one place where I might be aggravating something, just to know that I’m okay. And I’m not going to rush through that process because I know when I get back on the court, I don’t plan on having anything come in the way.

I want to perform at a level that I wasn’t even playing before this.”

That last quote demands a level of emphasis because it’s not very often that 31-year-olds reach a different level than 32-year-olds; On the other hand, the history of the NBA has not had many players like Damian Lillard.

Examining the history of the NBA tells an interesting story. Before Lillard (and Paul George) in 2021-22, there were only 27 players averaging at least 24.0 points per game at age 31, as the Blazers star did a season ago.

Of those 27, only six of them, LeBron James, Michael Jordan, Allen Iverson, Hakeem Olajuwon, Dominique Wilkins and Alex English, surpassed the previous season’s point average.

This is not to say that a decline is inevitable, especially since many of those 21 were at least close, only history isn’t on the side of a better-than-ever season right now. At best, Lillard has a Stephen Curry-like arc: a “low year,” diving season at age 31, and a top-up in the next few years.

Given what Lillard’s body of work tells us, it’s intriguing to pick out a few different and reasonable ways in which could somehow pull off a peak season in 2022-23. Some that stood out:

Maximum 3 point shooting accuracy:

Using the BBallIndex metric that measures the quality of 3-point shots, of the 462 players who faced each other for a 3-pointer in 2021-22, a huge 456 of them got easier and higher quality shots than Lillard. Part of this comes with the territory of being a superstar; these archetypes end up having to hoist sometimes late on the shot clock, dominate the opposition’s best perimeter defender, and have to prepare for it three or four times a week.

The fact that Lillard is a 37.3 percent career shooter from deep is an achievement in itself. Still, thinking of the ways a more polished Lillard than ever could emerge, you’d think he’d probably do something he’s only done once in his career: shoot more than 40 percent from 3-point range.

Some things go Lillard’s way with this argument. Just considering the possible roster combinations that could exhaust the 2022-23 Blazers — say, a Nurkić-Grant-Hart-Simons-Lillard lineup — this could be among the most self-reliant offensive groups Lillard has started among.

This isn’t a slight on previous iterations of the Blazers, even some of whom had successful seasons in Portland. But we’ve seen it before: the approach of dribbling the air off the basketball, and then a punch and kick to a Blazers forward in the corner. Not only can each of Grant, Hart, Simons and Lillard score in a pinch, but they can to create That too. Hart and Simons each posted an 80th percentile or higher in box creation, potential assists and playmaking talent metrics. Grant was above the NBA average in each of these three, as well as in passing versatility.

As for extremely talented wings of the past (think: Al-Farouq Aminu, Robert Covington, Moe Harkless), it’s justifiable that this year’s group has a higher offensive ceiling while still saving some of that defensive value. Or, it could be June optimism speaking. Regardless, wide-open catch-and-shoot 3s are much easier than contested misses against the shot clock. Both are amazing sights; both are in Lillard’s wheelhouse. Here’s hoping Lillard gets more of the former in an efficient and momentous 2022-23 season.

defensive activity:

Defense, by nature, is much more difficult to assess than offense. Despite that ambiguity, nearly every metric had a similar idea when it came to Lillard’s defense. When the moment calls for it, watch his first-round series against the Thunder in 2019 or Team USA’s displays, when there wasn’t as much offensive pressure on him, Lillard has shown the ability to be an impactful defender. There are no Defensive Player of the Year votes in the talented guard’s future, but this feels like one of the areas where he could raise the bar.

The numbers told an interesting story. Lillard tied for the best blocking percentage of his career; he also stole the ball at the slower pace. The media has been quick to point out his pick-and-roll defense, skimming across screens, but the index recorded him at a 79th percentile in that regard.

Considering his on-court film, the first thing that stands out is that Lillard leaves a few things to be desired in terms of finishing contests, and his reactions can be notoriously late in closings. Sometimes there is an “I hope she misses” approach. To give some examples.

Obviously, we observers never know the whole story. TJ McConnell is shaping up to be a low-volume 3-point shooter, 32.7 percent, so perhaps the scouting report recommended going “under” in the pick-and-roll. And we haven’t even started on some of these disadvantageous shooting guard-shooting guard-undersized-forward lineups the Blazers have produced. When you have a 6-foot-1 point guard like the short man who touches a big on a pick-and-roll (this happened too many times in this game) or defending the posts against players with a half-foot lead on him, you’re past the point of being in trouble.

As ironic as it sounds, Lillard having a sizable and energetic defensive season could imply him making less. If his offensive load isn’t that heavy, having fresher legs opens up opportunities for him to chase around the perimeter and attack passing lanes. The size, athleticism and vitality are there to make up for Lillard’s shortcomings, but don’t be surprised that the Blazers’ star also makes some standout plays throughout the year.

The middle game:

If watching Damian Lillard’s finest hour has taught us anything, it’s that all defensive strategies are on the table when it comes to opponents trying to defend him. Of 60 foot half court traps a sending four men (!) to him on a pick-and-roll, the message has been clear: If it’s not a pregame warm-up, that shot attempt won’t be open.

The pick-and-roll situation feels intriguing, largely because of how teams defended it last season. Rewatching Lillard’s 90 mid-range attempts last year, many of them had a familiar theme: Lillard blocking his big player, most often Jusuf Nurkic, forcing Lillard’s man to cover more ground. . With the guard in the rearview chase, hoping to get back on the play, and the wide-eyed big one pedaling back to cover the rim, the Blazers star got plenty of looks like this:

That 16 to 3 point range area was Damian Lillard’s 4G Wi-Fi; his accuracy betrayed him in most other areas, but he had the fourth-best season of his career since there (46.4 percent), and it wasn’t far off his career-best (47.3).

There’s a domino effect that feels like it could come true: Inside the 10-foot box, Lillard had arguably his worst final season at the rim since his sophomore year. Let’s say he strikes again with a vengeance. Suddenly, those bigs are falling back even further, opening the door for Lillard to punish defenders with the midgame at a different level. Lillard is so cunning at attacking those switches that he can get to their (often) drifting backsteps anytime he wants.

When you’re a six-time All-Star, Olympian, and NBA 75th Anniversary Teamer, there’s not a lot of room for improvement in terms of upping your game, but there are some subtle ways you can do it, especially with noticeable offensive help, taking the pressure off. There’s a piece, a 6-foot-10 (?) Brooklyn Nets piece whose name rhymes with “Devin Morant,” that would be nice. But with or without, Lillard appears poised to remind the NBA world of exactly who he is in 2022-23.