Stephen Curry has become the face of basketball worldwide. The two-time MVP and three time champion is considered one of the greatest shooters in NBA history, but Damian Lillard may have a claim to being better than him.
Damian Lillard is an American professional basketball player for the Portland Trail Blazers of the National Basketball Association. He was drafted in 2012 by the Trail Blazers with the sixth overall pick and has been a starter since his rookie season.
Damian Lillard’s abdominal tendinopathy was discussed by Chauncey Billups long before it was officially revealed that the Portland Trail Blazers superstar would be out for at least the next 10 days.
During Portland’s blowout defeat to the Utah Jazz on Monday, Lillard was definitely more impacted than usual by his chronic core issue. On two instances, he knelt in discomfort, clenching his teeth and clutching his abdomen, and he lacked the perceptible off-dribble surge he shown when breaking out of his season-opening slump. Lillard had 11 points on 12 shots against Utah, missing his only two attempts from the restricted area and only getting to the line twice.
Chauncey Billups acknowledged after the game that he asked Lillard in real time whether he needed to sit out. Lillard turned down the offer. Despite this, Billups openly considered how the Blazers may use a handicapped Lillard in the future, alluding to his health’s precarious situation.
“Even if you utilize him as a decoy on the floor, he’ll still be defended with the same coverages as if he were hot,” Billups said. “He’s a fantastic player.” When he’s handicapped a bit, I believe I need to do a better job of employing him intelligently.”
Playing with a restricted Lillard, on the other hand, seems to be a much more manageable challenge than playing without him at all. Despite Lillard’s early problems artificially inflating the stats, the data back up the eye test.
Unsurprisingly, without Lillard on offense, Portland’s toughest struggle will be in the halfcourt. According to Cleaning the Glass, the Blazers’ halfcourt offensive rating is borderline outstanding while Lillard is on the floor, but drops a massive 8.7 points when he’s on the bench, putting him in the 89th percentile of players in the league.
Steph Curry is the only player in basketball who can stretch defenses higher up the floor than Lillard, which Billups characterizes as a game-changing factor. What’s the most revealing outcome of all that defensive pressure? Cleaning the Glass reports that with him in the game, Portland is taking roughly 10% more shots from the restricted area, one of the largest disparities in the league. Lillard doesn’t only pull two defenders to the ball on the perimeter, one of whom is usually a shot-blocker. He’s also a top-tier pick-and-roll playmaker who can nail tight-window pocket passes, locate shooters on the weak side of the floor, or go all the way to the hoop himself.
Anfernee Simons, as better as he is in 2021-22, doesn’t provide anything like that kind of offensive variety and floor manipulation. C.J. McCollum is the same way. With Lillard out, the Blazers will have to find other ways to score, which won’t be easy—especially if Norman Powell misses time or is hindered by his quad injury.
If Portland tightens up on the defensive end, managing Lillard’s absence on offense will be lot easier. Lillard has claimed that he is playing his greatest defense of his career this season, but apart from a few isolated instances with fast hands and additional attempts, there is little evidence to back up that claim. Even if this is true, Lillard isn’t the kind of perimeter defender who can have a significant influence on a team’s success.
With Lillard on the field, Portland’s second-to-last rated defense improves somewhat. His FiveThirtyEight defensive RAPTOR of -2.2 is the second-worst among club regulars.
With Lillard out, Simons will start, but Dennis Smith Jr. is the Blazers’ true “next man up.” He’s been spectacular since training camp began, fighting out Marquesse Chriss, Quinn Cook, and Patrick Patterson for the last roster slot, then putting on a display in preseason and dazzling when given the opportunity during the regular season. Though Smith’s improved general playmaking flair, particularly as a ball-screen operator, is clear, it’s his defense that has truly stood out.
Smith’s remarkable agility as a kid has been diminished by more knee problems. Despite this, he’s bringing more energy and force to that end than anybody on the team save Nassir Little, who is sidelined for at least a week with a sprained ankle. Smith’s obvious devotion to defense stands out when contrasted to the Blazers’ rotation guards’ sometimes lacking energy.
This isn’t a play Lillard, McCollum, or Simons are going to make.
Despite this, Smith’s defensive impact will be limited by his position and role. With Lillard out, he’s still Portland’s third guard, and if either Tony Snell or Ben McLemore gets hot from deep in his increased minutes, he may lose playing time. Unfortunately for Smith, he will not be a genuine defensive difference-maker.
All of this goes down to what everybody who has ever seen the Blazers understands: Lillard’s absence for at least the next four games, and who knows how many more, will make winning much more difficult. The scheduling isn’t going to help. The Blazers play the bottom-of-the-league San Antonio Spurs on Thursday, then host the Boston Celtics and Golden State Warriors before facing the Los Angeles Clippers in their final game. After Lillard’s 10-day window for “re-evaluation” expires, the Blazers’ next five games are against teams that will either make or miss the playoffs.
It’s time for Portland to do some soul-searching. Lillard’s absence isn’t only a chance for McCollum to re-establish his All-Star status, Jusuf Nurkic to show why he deserves more post touches, or any other player to showcase their value. Billups’ more egalitarian, motion-heavy offense and aggressive, help-based defense have a potential to make the Blazers’ whole greater than the sum of its parts.
What if none of it happens? Portland, which is trapped in the play-in bracket after a shambolic start to 2021-22, will almost certainly drop farther down the Western Conference rankings.
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The “chauncey billups’ 1997” is a number that has been around for a while. It was the year that Chauncey Billups became a member of the Denver Nuggets.
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