Damian Lillard making claim as NBA's most dangerous offensive player

Damian Lillard making claim as NBA's most dangerous offensive player

It's January 6, and Damian Lillard sits in the corner of the visitor's locker room.

He's absorbing the questions that are being tossed his way concerning another tough loss, toeing the line between urgency and understanding; it's not a lack of effort, he says, but maybe too much effort and desire leading to pressing at the wrong times. 

The result is the result: A 108-99 loss to the Indiana Pacers headlined by poor shooting. Lillard wasn't himself, dropping just 19 points on 7-for-24 shooting (6-for-16 from two, 1-for-8 from three). As a whole, the Portland Trail Blazers scored a paltry 17 points in the fourth quarter. They missed their last 13 field goal attempts in the game.

"You're not gonna win if you can't make a field goal," Lillard says, matter-of-factly.

It would appear that statement, and that game, represented something. It'd be too strong, too narrative-y, to consider it a turning point. But Lillard hasn't fallen under 20 points since then. To be frank, he's been absurd in the 21 games since. 

We're in the midst of the most impressive stretch of Lillard's career. Not only is he scoring at a high clip (38.7 points per game), but he's also doing so on otherworldly efficiency. 

The three-point shooting immediately stands out with Lillard. The basic numbers — 40.1% on 12.0 attempts a night during this stretch — are ridiculous on their own. He's one of five players taking at least eight threes and hitting them at a 40% clip, joining Klay Thompson (44.7% on 11.6 attempts), Buddy Hield (41.7% on 9.0), the currently-injured Steph Curry (41.2% on 10.9) and Michael Porter Jr. (40.4% on 8.1).

But the way Lillard is going about it is what makes this run special.

He's been torching the nets on spot-ups (44.6% on 3.1 attempts), getting busy off movement — an absurd 16-for-22 (72.7%) on threes off screens, per InStat tracking — and doing a ton of damage off the bounce (38.6% on 8.8 attempts).

No player has taken (35) or made (16) more threes from 30 or more feet than Lillard during this stretch. His 45.7% clip on those bombs leads the NBA among the 23 players who have attempted at least five (5!) of those shots.

Think about that. The only players aside from Lillard to make at least 40% of those attempts are Desmond Bane and Talen Horton-Tucker — and they're a combined 4-for-10.

It's insane. 

What has continued to go somewhat under the radar is the work Lillard has done inside. He's converting 64.3% of his two-pointers — the third-best mark among the 50 players averaging at least 10 attempts inside the arc. The two players ahead of him are centers — the somehow-underrated Jarrett Allen (70.8% on 10.1 attempts) and MVP frontrunner Nikola Jokic (70% on 12.2 attempts).

Lillard's been the best driver in the league over the past month. He's fifth in volume (376) and, again, has made good things happen when attacking. On trips featuring a Lillard drive at any point of the possession, the Blazers are generating a blistering 1.29 points per possession (PPP) per Second Spectrum.

That's the best mark in the NBA among 114 players with at least 100 drives under their belt. Beyond that, the difference between Lillard and second-place James Harden (1.222 PPP) is larger than the gap between Harden and 13th-ranked Tyler Herro (1.158 PPP). He isn't just leading — he's kinda lapping the field right now.

If you limit the parameters to direct plays — meaning Lillard finishes the possession, or passes it to someone who immediately finishes the possession — that number rises to 1.39 PPP. That, again, leads the NBA by a wide margin. 

There's no real way to defend Lillard. Give him too much space, and he's proven comfortable to pull from quite literally anywhere. Press up too much, and he's fine gaining inside leverage and finishing through contact, around contact or absorbing enough to get to the free throw line. Oh, right: He's averaging 11.4 free throw attempts during this run, too. 

That duality has made Lillard the most dangerous scorer in the league as of late.

He's fresh off a 71-point performance against whatever the Houston Rockets are. He converted 9 of his 16 shots inside the arc, drilled a career-high 13 triples and made all 14 of his free throw attempts. The 80.4% True Shooting mark made his outburst the most efficient 70-plus-point game in NBA history.

And this is roughly a month removed from Lillard dropping 60 points on the Jazz on 89.8% TS. This may shock you, but that happens to be the most efficient 60-plus-point game in NBA history.

Lillard has been cooking for most of the season, but this 21-game stretch is something else entirely. Through Jan. 6, Lillard ranked 14th in the league in scoring (27.1). Because of this run, he now ranks third (32.3) with a realistic chance at passing Joel Embiid and Luka Doncic (33.1) for the top spot. 

Lillard (+8.4) has also shot past Jokic (+7.9) for the lead in Offensive Estimated Plus-Minus (OEPM). He may not be the playmaker Jokic is — and that distinction is probably what gives the edge to Jokic as an overall offensive force when you zoom out — but Lillard deserves his flowers in that regard too. 

To have a 35.4% assist rate and a turnover rate under 10 (9.8) while carrying this sort of usage (36.3%) is almost unheard of. In fact, only two players — Michael Jordan and Tracy McGrady — have recorded seasons with an assist and usage rate over 30%, and a turnover rate below 10.

Lillard isn't just efficient as a scorer; he's just doing efficient work with the ball in his hands.

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