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Let’s talk about Damian Lillard’s jump shot

The new Bucks point guard is off to a frigid start from deep

Chicago Bulls v Milwaukee Bucks

While optimism on this iteration of the Bucks has been somewhat shaken over the course of these less-than-inspiring first ten games of the 2023–24 season, much of that has been due to concerns about the defense and for some, coaching. To be sure, those are legitimate things fans have been wringing their hands over and are a big deal. We’re talking about that plenty on here and on Twitter.

What’s not quite as big a deal, but still something that plenty are noticing, is the shooting accuracy—or lack thereof—from their star point guard acquisition. For a decade, we knew Damian Lillard as a high-volume three-point assassin with a range only rivaled by Steph Curry. But we’re still waiting for that guy to show up, at least consistently. He’s had just two games where he shot over 28.6% from downtown, and one of those was a 4/12 performance. He’s also only attempted fewer than seven triples just once, so he’s had the opportunity to get in rhythm.

I’m not a shot doctor, but to my eyes, there’s certainly nothing that looks off about Lillard’s form. I don’t think that anything the Bucks are doing offensively is necessarily causing his outside game to suffer either. While 38.9% of his threes are assisted, down from a career rate of 46%, his two seasons where that figure was similarly low (2019–20 and 2020–21) were nevertheless prolific campaigns for the point guard (40.1% and 39.1%, respectively). He’s also seeing 5.9 “open” or “wide open” threes per game (37.6% of his attempts) when a defender is at least four feet away. That 37.6% isn’t much different than his numbers in the past two years, nor is the split between catch-and-shoot (16.8%) and pull-ups (36%). Basically, he’s getting the same looks he was used to in Portland.

We’ve heard the soothsaying from Blazers fans who watched Dame for a decade, something to the effect of “he always starts slow. Don’t fret! He’ll be putting up his typically gaudy scoring and shooting numbers before you know it.” Hopefully they’re right, but with all due respect to our friends in Portland, he’s never had a start this slow, at least not through his first ten games:

Dame’s First Ten Games

Season FG% 3P% PPG
Season FG% 3P% PPG
2012–13 .487 .387 19.0
2013–14 .394 .411 20.1
2014–15 .468 .465 20.6
2015–16 .447 .422 25.3
2016–17 .495 .384 30.6
2017–18 .423 .338 27.1
2018–19 .478 .370 28.1
2019–20 .493 .392 33.0
2020–21 .438 .374 26.1
2021–22 .351 .247 18.5
2022–23* .443 .364 27.6
*missed at least one of team's first ten games

At 37% from the field and 26.9% from deep through eight games, this is the second-worst start to a season Lillard has ever recorded from the field. He is scoring more than he did during the years he played alongside LaMarcus Aldridge, and his misfires haven’t extended to the charity stripe, where he legitimately has never been better on such high volume. That’s done just enough to help make the Bucks’ half-court offense one of the league’s better units and help them in crunch time. Still, the overall offensive picture is not great.

Admittedly, ten is an arbitrary number based on this juncture of the season, but his cold spell is now at the point where fans are bemoaning more often. However, it seems that history suggests he’ll get back to his typical self soon, so how about over the next ten-game chunk in all these seasons?

Dame’s Next Ten Games

Season FG% 3P% PPG
Season FG% 3P% PPG
2012–13 .420 .377 18.8
2013–14 .410 .422 20.4
2014–15 .441 .317 19.2
2015–16 .389 .216 23.6
2016–17 .445 .328 25.8
2017–18 .406 .338 23.7
2018–19 .395 .205 24.8
2019–20* .377 .333 20.2
2020–21 .469 .381 32.3
2021–22* .444 .365 24.4
2022–23* .452 .416 21.0
*missed at least one of team's 11th–20th games

This could have been more what Portland fans are talking about. Injuries did affect him a bit more in those sections of his seasons, with one keeping him out a couple weeks last season. That interruption—occurring between his eleventh and twelfth games—didn’t affect him much, though, as you can see. Moreover, he saw his numbers crash down to earth a few times from some early-season sizzle throughout his career, particularly from 2014 to 2019. But in his three most recent seasons, he’s upped his shooting lines pretty significantly after two more typical starts and one horrendous one.

I also wanted to look at how his starts affected his end-of-season numbers, to see what kind of harbinger his initial quarter-season was:

Early Season vs. End-of-Season

Season First 20 FG% Yearlong FG% Diff First 20 3P% Yearlong 3P% Yearlong Diff FIrst 20 PPG Yearlong PPG Diff
Season First 20 FG% Yearlong FG% Diff First 20 3P% Yearlong 3P% Yearlong Diff FIrst 20 PPG Yearlong PPG Diff
2012–13 .434 .429 -.005 .382 .368 -.014 19.0 18.9 0.1
2013–14 .402 .424 .022 .416 .394 -.022 20.7 20.3 -0.4
2014–15 .455 .434 -.021 .297 .343 .046 21.0 19.9 -1.1
2015–16 .418 .419 .001 .371 .375 .004 25.1 24.5 -0.6
2016–17 .470 .444 -.026 .357 .370 .013 27.0 28.2 1.2
2017–18 .415 .439 .024 .338 .361 .023 26.9 25.4 -1.5
2018–19 .434 .444 .010 .335 .369 .034 25.8 26.5 0.7
2019–20* .447 .463 .016 .367 .401 .034 30.0 26.6 -3.4
2020–21 .454 .451 -.003 .377 .391 .014 28.8 29.2 0.4
2021–22* .397 .402 .005 .302 .324 .022 24.0 21.5 -2.5
2022–23* .448 .463 .015 .393 .371 -.022 32.2 27.7 -4.5
*missed at least one of team's first twenty games

In terms of overall shooting, his starts mirrored his final stats pretty often. The maximum his early FG% diverged from where it ended up is under 3% either way, and it was usually even closer than that. The good news for the Bucks is that he almost always heated up from downtown over the following 60-ish games. Plus none of those percentages through twenty games strike me as super high or unsustainable.

I understand Lillard is going through a divorce while adjusting to a new team, city, system, etc. Add to that some lingering calf soreness from last season. All of that undoubtedly makes for a difficult situation, which could have something to do with his struggles persisting longer past opening night than in all but one of his eleven seasons. Fortunately, there’s precedent for his success from behind the arc—probably the element of his game that Bucks fans are yearning most for—to improve as the season goes on, even if it’s not enough to save his full-season numbers.