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Damian Lillard Q & A with Blazer’s Edge

Featuring your questions!

Milwaukee Bucks v Los Angeles Lakers Photo by Juan Ocampo/NBAE via Getty Images

A couple weeks back, we asked you to submit questions on the Bucks’ then-uber shiny new superstar acquisition, some guy named Damian Lillard. Well, a day after his (exhibition) debut with his new squad, what better time to see how our friends over at Blazer’s Edge answer your quandaries about their erstwhile and still beloved hero now donning hunter green and cream? A MAJOR thank you for these incredibly illuminating responses goes to Dave Deckard, managing editor at our sensational Portland sister site, from where many new visitors and commenters are starting to show up around these parts. Welcome, Blazers fans! Anyway, onto the questions...

Wuzh asks: How bad is Dame as a defender really?

Not as good as you hope, not as bad as advertised.

The rap (editor’s note: I get it!) on Lillard is that no backcourt he ever played in excelled defensively. That’s at least partially true, but it was a two-way street. For years he was paired with sub-par defenders. Rotations often survive one guard who doesn’t defend well. They seldom survive two.

But whose fault was that really? Was Dame the culprit, or CJ McCollum and Anfernee Simons? The correct answer is “yes” Replacing any of the parties involved with a better defender would solve half of the issue. Here’s a hint: the player you replace doesn’t have to be Dame.

The Blazers had a good overall defense in 2019 when their frontcourt was solid, give or take a Jusuf Nurkic injury. Dame also looked just fine for a young player back in his early days when Wesley Matthews and veteran forwards/centers surrounded him. Mounting a stout defense with #0 in the starting lineup isn’t impossible.

Anecdotally, Lillard improved his individual defensive skill set as he aged. On the rare occasions that he played beside four defenders who could man their own stations, he looked more than capable of handling his own. He’s a good post defender for a guard and he can inhibit drivers adequately. Give him a good backstop in the lane and he’ll probably be ok.

The problem comes when Dame has to help cover beyond his own man. Like every NBA player, he can make basic rotations. But he’s not going to be a linchpin for your defense, nor be able to cover for serious deficits elsewhere. Put another weak defender by him—or God forbid, more—and the holes are too big.

If the Bucks can give Lillard a limited section of floor to cover, a specific assignment to take care of, and some help around him, I don’t think they’ll suffer greatly. It’s going to be a huge fall-off from Jrue Holiday, but it shouldn’t sink the ship. You just know that the price of 30 points per game is having to help a little in other areas.

Brew Hoop asks: As a pick-and-roll ballhandler, Dame seems best paired with Giannis, but what other Bucks roll men can you see him thriving with?

Dame hasn’t been a lobber most of his career. That may change when paired with the Greek Freak, but alley-ooping and attacking the rim would be a new wrinkle for his offense.

Lillard thrives in two situations. First, the defender goes under the pick or doesn’t get over quickly enough. Then you know what’s coming: instant three. Anyone who sets a strong screen should be able to facilitate that kind of opportunity for him. Dame also found huge success in high screen-and-rolls with center Jusuf Nurkic, precisely because both of them had multi-level scoring ranges, making all options open from the moment the screen was set. Lillard rarely finishes hard, though he’s capable. He can pull up off of his own dribble if his screening teammate drags defenders toward the rim on the roll. He also likes to get the ball to the roller early when he draws defenders himself. That requires a screener who can catch it and knows what to do 10–12 feet away from the basket.

You know the capability of your players better than I. I’ll just say that the fit with Giannis on the roll may take a bit more work than you’d think, though it’ll certainly come. If you have other strong pick guys who also score from the mid-range, look for those candidates alongside Dame as well (editor’s note: mid-range, you say? I think I know a guy).

Brew Hoop asks: Do you think his years with LaMarcus Aldridge in Portland could be somewhat instructive as far as what to expect with him alongside Giannis?

Only in the sense of knowing how to play beside a fellow All-Star and involve him. Lillard did that with McCollum for the better part of a decade as well. Dame isn’t inherently selfish. He’ll defer when he needs to and take over when he has to. Roster changes and injuries in Portland left Lillard as the only man at the helm for the last couple years. That’s why his stats ballooned and he looked more like a “me” guy. When he had other people to pass to, he was a great team player.

The asterisk here: he hasn’t played beside anyone of his own stature since 2015. His voice has been THE voice for eight straight years. Every dribble he took was justified simply because he was the one dribbling. It may take a minute for him to adjust back to a mutually dependent relationship. That doesn’t mean he’ll get selfish or battle for touches. The opposite may prove true. I’d almost be worried about Dame deferring too much at first, trying to fit in instead of just being himself. If that happens, though, it shouldn’t last long.

Other than that, there are almost no parallels between 2012–2015 LaMarcus Aldridge and 2023–24 Giannis Antetokounmpo. Aldridge was a pick-and-pop forward, a skill-and-finesse guy with a long body. He preferred the perimeter, the extended post, and being the target of set-up passes rather than working for his own shot organically. Giannis is quite different.

sheltD asks: How is Dame’s finishing around the hoop? Is he bouncy? Is he a one-foot or two-foot leaper? Can and does he finish with his left?

Dame can finish just about any way you please at the rim, including thunderously. He’s saved wear and tear on his body by not driving into traffic. He’s more likely to pick up a perimeter foul and feast on free throws than pinball his way through the paint for a tough and-one. But don’t discount his vertical or his ability to throw it down if the defense leaves a path. Just don’t expect that to be a major part of his game. If you want the secret sauce recipe for his offense, it’s at the charity stripe, not in the restricted circle.

Air Giannis asks: Just how good is his range and how will his gravity impact a guy like Giannis?

Just how good is Dame’s range? How good is Skippy at being peanut butter? This is literally what he does. Nobody besides Steph Curry even comes close. At his best, when he’s unconcerned, Lillard will launch it about six feet beyond halfcourt and make it look easy.

How that impacts Giannis depends on what Giannis is doing. If you just toss it to Antetokounmpo on the sideline and watch him create his own shot, Dame won’t have much impact. Once they find a rhythm, Giannis and Dame should be able to work together on the pick-and-roll. Theoretically, either could require two defenders to stop. Since the opponent only gets five total, the math works in Milwaukee’s favor there.

You’ll see other permutations too. Because of the aforementioned range, Lillard is a threat as soon as he crosses the timeline. Giannis and the Bucks will be playing 4-on-4 when Dame stands outside. Fewer defenders means more space for your other stars to operate. You can’t leave Dame for any reason in the halfcourt either. If Antetokounmpo and Lillard play on the same side of the floor, one of them is going to be single-covered. If not, the whole weak side is going to be free for shooters.

In Portland, Dame often served as a decoy, pulling defenders to him so fellow guards could operate. I don’t see why it’d be different with a forward.

Air Giannis also asks: Who is Dame’s favorite rapper? Any particular hip-hop influences of his?

You’d have to ask Dame that. I’m not sure. But you’re likely to get new Dame tracks nearly every summer. Not even gonna ask what rhymes with “Bucks”.

Once again, huge thanks to Dave for taking the time to talk with us about Dame. Please be sure to check out his and his colleague’s work at Blazer’s Edge for all your Rip City basketball needs.