Damian Lillard has put his frustration over feeling disrespected at the forefront of his entire career.

He was too old coming out of college. Not explosive enough. One-dimensional. Too small. Over and over Lillard has kicked in the teeth of one set of criticisms only to find another waiting. He hasn't been considered underrated throughout his career, that's a subtle difference with him and others who have that chip on their shoulders. Lillard's signature moment came in just his second season, three years ago. 

The problem, of course, is how a moment like that so early in his career can set expectations. Once he's put on that level of stardom, the expectations begin to increase. Lillard has gone the past two seasons without making the All-Star team (and has been mad about it each time) and has made All-NBA just twice in his career. So much for the afterglow.

He's one of the most explosive scorers in the league, but has found the NBA rising up around him with players of the same type and caliber -- ball-dominant scoring point guards -- on better teams than his. The Blazers barely made the playoffs last season thanks to a down year in the conference. The grumbling about his defense became an outright criticism last year, and it is unlikely to improve much this upcoming season. There's hope though (we'll get to that in a second). 

Here's the big question: Lillard has been an afterthought, a surprise, a revelation, a phenom, an All-Star, and is now in that phase of his career where the questions about how you win more than a playoff round become louder than ever. So what's next for Lillard? 


The Good: Anything he does on his own

Lillard gets buckets. All kinds of buckets. At the rim, from deep, all over. Lillard's scoring ability is second to almost none in the NBA. He finished with a 46.9 effective field goal percentage on jump shots off the dribble last year, via Synergy Sports. He was 60th percentile around the rim. 

In isolation, Lillard finished in the 91st percentile shooting off the dribble, and in the 81st percentile coming off a ball screen. If you go under against him, or lose connection for a heartbeat, you are ruined. 

His quickness is ridiculous. Here, he makes a slight fake right away from the screen and it freezes Mike Conley for just enough time for Lillard to get a great look. This is three points before it leaves his hand. 

And when confronted with multiple layers of defense, Lillard is able to manipulate it with ease and get to where he wants. And where he wants isn't always all that close to the basket, even on drives. 

Lillard was sixth among all guards last season in points per 100 possessions at 36.2, just ahead of Kyrie Irving. He posted career highs in points, field goal percentage, True Shooting Percentage, rebounds, and offensive win shares last season. And yet, it never felt like a career season for Lillard. Some of that was the team's overall mediocrity, but it also just didn't feel like Lillard was as impactful last season. 

The Bad: He has the wrong teammates

When you look at the breakdown of where Portland was successful and not, a pretty clear picture emerges. 

(ON-BALL) Play set(ON-BALL) NBA rank (OFF-BALL) Play set (OFF-BALL) NBA rank

Pick and roll (ball-handler)










Pick and roll (roll-man)






What you see here isn't rocket science. The basics: 

  • Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum are incredible players who can score from anywhere. 
  • The Blazers' spot-up weapons, specifically Alan Crabbe (93rd percentile), Lillard, McCollum, Mo Harkless, and Meyers Leonard can knock down open jumpers off the attention the stars draw. 
  • No one can do anything as a screener. They have absolutely no pick-and-pop weapons, and no one who can effectively roll. This includes phenom Jusuf Nurkic who inspired "Nurkic Fever" after being traded from Denver. The Blazers' offensive and defensive ratings soared with the addition of Nurkic, but Nurkic himself was actually only in the 12th percentile in points per possession rolling to the rim with Portland, shooting just 47 percent on such attempts. Now, the Blazers did create a fair amount of offense by passing to Nurkic on the short roll. Nurkic had 63 assists with Portland last year, with roughly 20 of those coming off the pick-and-roll. But in terms of actually finishing, it's a bit dicier. 
  • No one can cut. 

The absence of a pick-and-pop threat is particularly harmful to Lillard. Nurkic only took 10 pick-and-pop shots with Portland. Meyers Leonard shot 33 percent on such attempts. Al-Farouq Aminu shot 7 of 24. 

They do not have that kind of a weapon. And that's really harmful for specifically Lillard, who's not a big, athletic lob passer. He's considerably more efficient with that pick-and-pop pass, it's part of what made his combination with LaMarcus Aldridge so dynamic. The absence of able cutters hurts him as well. Lillard is able to create in traffic, especially with able finishers. 

That pass in the clip below was to Vonleh, who was in the 10th percentile on cut scoring last year. His hands are a big part of the problem.

All of the Blazers' bigs last season, Nurkic included, were defined as "below average" or worse by Synergy Sports on scoring from cuts.

As good as the Blazers were on catch-and-shoot plays (fifth overall when shooting unguarded), that number plummeted to 22nd with a defender in their face. They have no one outside of McCollum who can knock down a contested shot, and non-shooters like Evan Turner exacerbate that problem. 

Going Forward: Adjustments and development

There's reason to think Lillard may actually improve offensively next season if he stays healthy. The additions of rookies Caleb Swanigan and Zach Collins could provide finishers and pick-and-pop weapons for Lillard to use more effectively. Collins, in particular, projects really well as a pick-and-pop weapon. But that's if either can get on the floor as rookies. 

Two, there's a decent chance a trade is made, specifically involving Leonard. If, say, the Blazers were to be the third team in a Carmelo Anthony deal with Houston and they acquire Ryan Anderson (which league sources indicated Portland was involved in preliminary talks for), that would be a huge boost to the weapons Lillard can use as a playmaker. 

Nurkic, with another full season, could be much better, particularly if he's in shape as his offseason social media posts indicate. Vonleh, though, may be the most interesting question. Vonleh, at 6-9 with a 7-4 wingspan, was so bad at finishing plays last year that he almost has to be better by default. He simply cannot be worse than last year, if that's any positive. 

The key here is that Lillard is often compared to Stephen Curry and Kyrie Irving, as both scorers and in profile, since neither one are high-assist, volume playmakers. But we've also never seen Lillard in a situation where he's needed to be that, or surrounded by the weapons to do that, at least not since the end of 2015. He'll always be a score-first point, he's too good not to be, but there could be potential, as he gets older and adapts, for him to grow in that capacity. He has to be given the right weapons around him. 

Individually, it's hard to find scoring areas where Lillard struggles. His only lower area (below 60th percentile) involved hand-offs coming off screens, which had a lot to do with the guys screening for him. Lillard tends to come around a little wide on such plays (something that happens on the defensive end as well). But it's a minor quibble, and he still had a 50 percent effective field goal percentage on such plays. 

There is a question that lingers in all this: would Lillard be better off with different weapons -- better screeners, more versatile guys -- instead of CJ McCollum? Portland's offense was great last year, and Lillard and McCollum have great chemistry. But much of what they do is redundant. A trade of McCollum could boost Lillard's individual production. It might be the answer, but it might not make the team better. In some ways, it's similar to the reverse of what Russell Westbrook and James Harden are experiencing leading up to this season. They had freedom to do everything last season, and this time around they will have better teammates, but ones that need the ball. The difference is that Chris Paul and Paul George may make their star teammates better. It's not crystal clear how Lillard and McCollum actually maximize what the other does, despite them being very successful together. 

In the end, though, if Lillard's going to go forward with his own game next year, it's going to have to be on defense. 


If there's not a lot for Lillard to improve on offensively in individual situations, then defensively, there's not much he can do. He's 6-3 but with a short wingspan, he's not built as a long, rangy defender. With the suspect guard defenders in this league (two of them finished top two for MVP last season), you find a lot of plays where they just simply gave up, that the effort just wasn't there. You don't find as many of those plays for Lillard. If he is out of gas, he's more likely to pass off by calling out a switch than just simply stopping play. 

His problem is mostly due to two factors: Size and aversion to contact. 

For starters, because he doesn't have that range, he just gets beat. Flat-out beat. In the clip below, you'll see what Patrick Beverley does to Lillard, who is not out of position, or lackadaisical. He just gets beat. 

Lillard wasn't terrible in isolation defense (48th percentile) but given that he's routinely hidden on lesser weapons to try and save his energy, it's not great. The other problem is when he gets switched on 2-guards, he's giving up a lot of size and it's hard for him to contest; he's not exactly a jump-through-the-roof standing leaper. 

Same situation here on a post-up with the youngster, Devin Booker

Now, that's Klay Thompson, arguably the second-best shooter, league-wide, and Booker, the kid who scored 70 in a game. Those are big-time scorers. They're going to get theirs. But it does reflect the limitations Lillard has, physically, in defending in those situations. Most of the spot-up shots Lillard surrendered last season weren't him completely losing his man, but being unable to effectively contest. 

Screens give him problems. 

It should be noted up front that Lillard is not an outlier here. Running through screens requires precision, strength, coordination, and anticipation. Even then, it's difficult and often painful. It is an inherently difficult thing, which is why so many NBA players struggle with it: it's hard. 

That said, Lillard tends to go out of his way to avoid contact and is looking to remain completely clear most of the time. 

Giving the opponent that kind of room opens up more options, more comfort, and increases efficiency. 

There's an interesting wrinkle in this. Lillard tends to foul in those situations, and he can't afford foul trouble. So if he's aggressive trying to slam through, he picks up a cheap foul, if he tries to avoid it, guys are roaming free. 

The big takeaway is that there's a lot of room for improvement with Lillard. He's not hopeless, even if he's physically limited. Some of his weaknesses will no doubt be soothed by the presence of superior rim protection with Nurkic and Vonleh. 

That combination, specifically, is important. With either on the floor after the Nurkic trade, Lillard's defensive rating improved, but was still spotty. With both on-court, however, it improved dramatically, down to 101.8, while being 110 with both off the floor. Still, the Blazers will likely continue to have trouble defensively, given the absence of truly great defensive wings on the team. Al-Farouq Aminu is versatile and talented, but his impact hasn't been reflected in actual on-court evidence. Mo Harkless is decent-to-good, but not excellent. With McCollum and Lillard as both suspect, there's only so much the team can make a jump. 

But if Lillard gets to the point where a lot of his contemporaries are, as just a "fine" defender, continuing to give good effort with a little more focus and attention, then the problems for Portland won't lie with him. The real takeaway, is that with Lillard, while stars always need to keep improving, it's more about putting the right pieces around him on both sides of the floor, than fixing anything with him. 


Lillard has played the aggrieved overlooked star card consistently for three years. He's mad about All-Star slots, he's mad about All-NBA. He doesn't know why he's not mentioned more among the greats. The question though, isn't about whether Lillard deserves more recognition. (He does.) It's about whether that's where his focus should be. (It shouldn't.) 

Every athlete draws on their own motivation, and to be sure, slights are the most commonly-used method. But for Lillard, he doesn't need to try and earn his place. He is a star. He's in commercials. He's talked about in the media and is recognized for how great he is. What he needs is team wins. That will sort out all his frustrations involving accolades. And to that end, Lillard needs to focus on making sure the Blazers are the absolute best they can be. His role as a team leader has never been more important than this season. It's a make-or-break season for Portland. 

They just signed head of basketball operations Neil Olshey to a multiyear extension, but there are real questions about where this team is going. The Nurkic trade saved their bacon and allowed them to sneak into a first-round sweep. They sloughed off Allen Crabbe for nothing, and still will be giving big minutes to Evan Turner, who was one of the worst players in the league in plus-minus last season. (He also turned things around after a mid-season injury and played very well to finish the year; his fit with this team is questionable at best.) They are reliant on Nurkic, who pouted and moped his way out of Denver, and who has had injury issues consistently. 

Portland has a lot of concern areas which, if a few go south, could put them out of the playoff race by Christmas in a stacked West. Lillard remains their best defense against that outcome, and the player who, if he manages to take steps forward in facilitating the offense, leading the team to stay hungry, and improving defensively while still being one of the best one on one players in the league, can take Portland to the next level. 

Where does Damian Lillard go from here? 

That's up to him.