MILWAUKEE -- The Milwaukee Bucks crashed out of the 2023 NBA playoffs in the first round because when they really needed a basket, they couldn't get one. You can point to Giannis Antetokounmpo's back injury, but the fact remains that late-game scoring has been a major issue for this team ever since they rose to contender status. Even when they broke through and won a title, they were on the ropes at times during that run because they struggled to reliably generate easy baskets.
That will no longer be the case.
On Sept. 28, in one of the biggest trades in the history of Wisconsin professional sports, let alone the franchise, the Bucks acquired Damian Lillard in exchange for Jrue Holiday, Grayson Allen, a 2029 first-round pick and first-round pick swaps in 2028 and 2030 in a blockbuster three-team deal with the Portland Trail Blazers and Phoenix Suns.
In Lillard, who was officially introduced on Monday at media day, the Bucks have added one of the best and most unique offensive threats in the league to a roster that desperately needed his specific skillsets. The move comes with a genuine defensive cost, but the offensive upside is so staggering that it may render any concerns about the other side of the ball moot.
Lillard's injuries, the Blazers turn towards tanking in recent seasons and their games being on late at night make it easy to overlook how dominant he's been. Everyone knows he's a star, but the casual fan in particular might not really know what this guy can do. Let's start with the basics.
Last season he put up a career-high 32.2 points and 7.3 assists per game, while shooting 37.1% from 3-point land, and finished third in the league in scoring. There have been five seasons in NBA history where a player averaged at least 30 points, seven assists and shot 35% from downtown; Lillard now has two of them. He had a 71-point game, a 60-point game, a 50-point game and reached the 40-point mark 15 times in 58 games. Along the way he made his seventh All-Star Game and seventh All-NBA appearance.
Simply put, the Bucks have never had a perimeter scorer like Lillard alongside Antetokounmpo. But it's worth digging a little deeper to see specifically how he'll help them, especially come playoff time.
Let's start with the pick-and-roll, one of Lillard's preferred modes of operation. Last season he averaged 11.1 possessions per game as a pick-and-roll ball-handler, which ranked fourth in the league. In those opportunities, he scored an impressive 1.13 points per possession. No one in the league can match Lillard's combination of volume and frequency. To find a player who scored as efficiently you have to go down the list to Donovan Mitchell (1.13 PPP on 9.3 PNR ball-handler possessions per game), and to find someone who (barely) surpassed LIllard's efficiency you have go down to Steph Curry (1.14 PPP on 7.7 possessions).
If you play drop coverage, he'll walk into a 3-pointers all day long. Hell, even if your big isn't sitting all the way back in the paint he still might just pull up from five feet behind the line. Against more aggressive schemes he's more than capable of getting downhill into the paint, where he can look to score himself or find teammates. He's a willing and talented passer, and will excel with spacing around him, which the Bucks will have.
Now, let's consider his new teammates, Antetokounmpo and Brook Lopez. First of all, they're huge. Second, they're extremely smart with good footwork. Third, they have varied skillsets that Lillard and the Bucks can use to their advantage -- Antetokounmpo as a roller, Lopez as a roller or pick-and-pop threat. The Bucks weren't a huge pick-and-roll team under Mike Budenholzer, but when they did go to it last season they scored 1.055 points per possession, which was second only to the Dallas Mavericks.
Just look at the space Lopez creates here for Holiday with a high screen, and that was set with one of Lopez's feet nearly on 3-point line. Imagine that screen another three to five feet from the basket. Lillard is going to feast with that much separation.
Sticking with that same game, here's Antetokounmpo screening and rolling for a thunderous slam. And that's despite catching the ball at the free throw line against a fairly congested paint. With Lillard, they can run that screen even further away from the basket, which will give Antetokounmpo an even bigger runway to get downhill.
"I haven't played against a lot of coverages where teams aren't at the level of the screen, whether it's showing, trapping, or just being there to where I have to give the ball up," Lillard said. "I can't imagine [other teams] wanting him to have the ball at the free throw line coming down hill with an advantage and Khris on the wing and Brook, you've got really good players out there."
There has never been a good answer to the Lillard pick-and-roll problem, and that was before he was playing with another all-time great. Assuming Antetokounmpo is willing to lean into being more of a screener when he doesn't have the ball, the Lillard-Antetokounmpo pick-and-roll figures to be one of the most devastating combinations in the league. It's an ultimate "pick your poison" dilemma for defenses. Sit back to protect the paint and one of the most prolific 3-point shooters the game has ever seen will fire away. Oh, you forced the ball out of his hands? Now the most powerful and athletic big man in the world is roaring towards the rim with a full head of steam. Good luck!
"I'm a pick-and-roll player," Lillard said. "I've played a lot of pick-and-roll in my career. When I think about playing with him, I was just trying to figure out how do you defend it? I just don't know how you handle that. I think it's gonna be something that teams have to put up with and try to figure out. I'm excited, because I think there's gonna be a lot opportunity for me out there because of who he is, and vice versa."
And that's just considering the most basic high pick-and-roll, nevermind all the counters and alternatives. Consider a Lillard-Lopez pick-and-roll with Antetokounmpo in the dunker spot or as a weakside cutter; or what about an Antetokounmpo-Lopez pick-and-roll with Lillard spacing the floor out to 30 feet; if you want to get crafty you could even run an inverted Antetokounmpo-Lillard pick-and-roll and see what on earth the defense does about that. The possibilities are endless and fascinating.
To fully realize that combination, the two-time MVP said that him and Lillard will need to spend plenty of time in the film room and on the court to expedite their chemistry, but he can't wait to see it in action.
"At the end of the day we have a guy that can read the pick-and-roll, can shoot behind the pick-and-roll, can make the right pass," Antetokounmpo said. "I'm excited to see how that's gonna work. It's gonna be fun for me. It's gonna be a lot of open looks for me, which in a couple years I haven't had. I think it's gonna be some open looks for him. It's gonna be exciting to see how we can work together."
While Lillard's craft and guile makes him an unstoppable pick-and-roll operator, his pure skill does the same for him in isolation. On a bad Blazers team, Lillard was often forced to go one-on-one last season, and excelled in those situations. He scored 1.17 points per possession; among players with at least 200 isolation attempts, only Kyrie Irving was more efficient. If you need someone to go get you a bucket, Lillard is as good as it gets.
Just as he has an answer for any defensive tactic in pick-and-roll situations, he will cook against any individual defensive approach, even against elite opponents.
Here's two-time Defensive Player of the Year Kawhi Leonard getting blown by after he tried to pressure Lillard away from the basket.
Here's Josh Hart, a terrific perimeter stopper, giving Lillard a cushion to try and keep him out of the paint, which results in a pull-up 3 from well behind the line.
Even if you play great defense, as Jalen Suggs does on this example, when he cuts Lillard off and nearly pokes the ball away for a steal, it might not matter.
Handing the ball to Lillard and asking him to make something happen is one of the most efficient plays in basketball, and the Bucks will now always have that in their back pocket.
Lillard is a historically great 3-point shooter. While his 37.1% mark last season and 37.2% career mark don't jump off the page, his ability to hit at an above league average clip while shooting with the frequency, difficulty and depth that he does is truly remarkable.
A quick rundown:
- Lillard's 11.3 3s per game last season were the seventh-most in a season in league history and he shot 37.1%
- Of his overall attempts, a league-high 7.4 were off the dribble, and he shot 37.2% on those looks
- Of his overall attempts, a league-high 3.3 were from at least 29 feet (essentially five feet behind the line), and he shot 33.1% on those looks
What are you even supposed to do here?
No one else in the league shoots as many off-the-dribble or deep 3s as Lillard, and yet he's still one of the league's best shooters. Whether Lillard has the ball or not, defenses have to respect him out to 30-plus feet. That adds a unique dimension to the Bucks offense, and will create even more space for Antetokounmpo and others to attack.
Lillard is, for obvious reasons, thought of primarily as a scorer. However, he's also one of the league's more consistent playmakers. He's averaged at least seven assists per game in ever season since 2020; only Luka Doncic, James Harden, Nikola Jokic, Russell Westbrook and Trae Young can say the same.
Whether he's seeing two defenders off a screen or getting downhill into the paint, Lillard is constantly creating advantages. His willingness to get his teammates involved when they arise is one of his best qualities and a major reason why he'll fit right in with the Bucks.
Watch here as Lillard comes off a screen and calmly reads the double before slipping a pass into Jusuf Nurkic. That was an easy finish for Nurkic; imagine if that Antetokounmpo instead.
Here is a totally different situation where Lillard gets into the paint, sees the help arrive and whips the pass out to Matisse Thybulle for a corner 3-pointer. With the Bucks, that will be Khris Middleton or Brook Lopez.
Neither of these were particularly brilliant passes, but they were the right play. More than that, they were easy plays because of how much attention he demands. Everyone else on the Bucks is going to benefit from playing with Lillard just as much as he's going to benefit from playing with them.
Solving the Bucks' problems
"Clutch" time, at least statistically, is defined as the game being within five points with less than five minutes to play. The Bucks were 0-2 in games that reached clutch time in the first round last season, and during their clutch minutes they shot 7-of-19 from the field with six turnovers.
If you want to zoom out a bit, here's a look at the Bucks' fourth quarter efficiency in the playoffs in the Budenholzer era
|Season||Off. Rtg||Rank among playoff teams||Final result|
Conference finals loss
Second round loss
Second round loss
First round loss
Under Budenholzer, the Bucks had tremendous regular season success, going 271-120, and in his five seasons, they finished fourth, eighth, fifth, third and 15th in regular seasons offense. But his system-based approach that was highly dependent on Antetokounmpo getting into the lane at will did not translate well to the playoffs against better, more prepared and harder-working defenses.
When the game slowed down and became a halfcourt grind, the Bucks often didn't have a solution. One-on-one isolation and post scoring has never been Antetokounmpo's strong suit; Middleton has his moments, but not consistently enough, and it's unclear if he'll ever be the same player he was pre-injuries; Holiday's offensive struggles in the playoffs, meanwhile, are well-documented.
The same cannot be said for Lillard.
His pick-and-roll dynamism, 3-point shooting and playmaking give them so many different looks they can throw at opponents, and his isolation scoring is perhaps the best bail-out option in the league. Plus, he's a proven playoff performer with multiple series-ending shots -- a boast only Michael Jordan can also make. The last time the Blazers were in the playoffs in 2021, he averaged 34.3 points and 10.2 assists on 44.9% shooting from beyond the arc over six games in the first round.
In Lillard, the Bucks finally have their playoff problem solver.