Damian Lillard Says People Think He Fell Off, But Reality is Complicated

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The Damian Lillard experiment hasn’t gone exactly the way the Milwaukee Bucks hoped, at least so far.

Lillard is well aware. In a recent interview with Yahoo! Sports’ Vincent Goodwill, the 33-year-old point guard expressed frustration with the way he has been portrayed by fans and in the media, despite averaging just under 25 points and seven assists.

“People acting like I fell off,” Lillard told Goodwill. “Of course it’s not going to look like Portland[…]I could be doing things better. But we’re second in the East. It ain’t about individual performance. How can I contribute to a champion? We’re going to have a chance.”

That’s all true. Lillard’s stats are still good, and his production was always going to take a bit of a step back once he was paired with a player of Giannis Antetokounmpo’s caliber for the first time in his career.

The Bucks have slipped to third in the Eastern Conference since Lillard’s interview with Goodwill, but they trail the red-hot Cleveland Cavaliers by just half a game. A good stretch would put the team back in the position it wants to be.

Damian Lillard of the Milwaukee Bucks on February 3, 2024, in Dallas. Lillard’s fit with the Bucks has been far from seamless so far.

Photo by Sam Hodde/Getty Images

But there have been clear issues in Milwaukee, as evidenced by the firing of head coach Adrian Griffin halfway through the season and the arrival of veteran head coach Doc Rivers. Some of those issues could define the level to which the Bucks, as Lillard put it, “are going to have a chance.” After all, the problem is less that Lillard fell off and more that when the Bucks acquired him, there were two major red flags, both of which are still waving.

The first red flag was that Lillard has never been a plus-defender, and the offensive potential of a Lillard pick-and-roll with Antetokounmpo needed to surpass the defensive liabilities created by Lillard defending opposing guards.

The second: The Bucks really wanted Jrue Holiday—who they dealt as part of the Lillard trade—to end up in the Western Conference, rather than on one of their rivals.

The latter red flag came to fruition almost immediately: The Trail Blazers made Holiday available, and the Bucks’ top competition at the top of the Eastern Conference—the Boston Celtics—leapt at the opportunity to replace the hole in their lineup left by the absence of Marcus Smart with a defender of his caliber in the former All-Star Holiday.

That was a hit for the Bucks, but getting Antetokounmpo to sign an extension in the wake of Lillard’s arrival was the kind of multifaceted victory the front office could claim even with Holiday suiting up for a rival.

The defense, however, requires a little unpacking.

First, it’s notably worse statistically. Per the stats site Cleaning the Glass, the Bucks have the 18th-best defense in the NBA. Last year, they were fourth.

Lillard isn’t the only problem on that end, and he has actually been one of the NBA’s better on/off performers this year (a stat that measures how good a team is with a player on the court vs. off). Lillard is in the 89th percentile league-wide and second on his team only to Antetokounmpo (with whom the Bucks are 17.1 points per 100 possessions better). For all of his defensive deficiencies, the Bucks’ defense has allowed five fewer points per 100 possessions with Lillard on the floor as opposed to on the bench.

But when you remove the Bucks’ better defenders, the paint starts to run. With Lillard on the floor and Bucks center Brook Lopez out, the Bucks’ offense manages to tread water, but the defense plummets to the fifth percentile.

With Lillard on and Antetokounmpo off, the numbers get much worse: The Bucks are outscored by 7.2 points per 100 possessions. That’s a problem for the Bucks—Lillard should be a crucial piece of the puzzle with Antetokounmpo off the floor, a one-two punch who can play well together and punish opponents individually when they are staggered as well.

The eye test of Lillard’s defense isn’t pretty either.

There are some signs of progress. Despite Rivers’ blunt assessment of his team’s defense in Lillard’s recent return to Portland (Rivers categorized it as “awful”), the Bucks have been on the rise over the last two weeks, allowing 115.6 per 100 possessions per Cleaning the Glass, which is 12th in the NBA. Those aren’t contender numbers, but they are a start, and they appear to be figuring out how to move Lillard around within the flow of their defense.

The Bucks also haven’t really utilized the potential of a Lillard-Antetokounmpo pick-and-roll much to date. A pick-and-roll is designed to force defenders into a number of uncomfortable decisions, and Lillard—one of the best off-the-dribble 3-point shooters of all time—handling the ball while Antetokounmpo rolls to the basket should be a duo tailor-made for those sets.

But while Lillard runs 10.1 pick-and-roll sets per game as the ball-handler, per the NBA’s tracking stats, Antetokounmpo acts as the roll man just 2.0 times per game. Maybe the Bucks are saving that look for the time being, preventing opposing teams from building up a backlog of film that could be used to prepare for a playoff series, but they haven’t been quite as unstoppable as expected.

In his interview with Goodwill, Lillard noted that teams can turn themselves around, and the Bucks certainly have plenty of time to do so.

“I’m not a finished product,” Lillard told Goodwill. “We’re not a finished product.”

Still, the first few months of the season have shown holes, and those holes cost Griffin his job. It remains to be seen if Rivers can right the ship.

The Bucks take on the Suns on Tuesday at 10:00 p.m. ET on TNT.