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Defensive Strategies: Damian Lillard

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This series will provide strategies on how defenses can best guard, or attempt to guard, some of the most dangerous offensive players and actions. Today’s post will try to show how defenses can slow down the offense of the reigning Rookie of the Year, Damian Lillard. 

There wasn’t much Damian Lillard couldn’t do on the offensive end in his rookie season, as he averaged 19 points on 46.9% shooting on 2 point field goals and 36.8% on 3 point field goals. Lillard will look to shore up some of the holes in his offensive game in his second season, as he hopes to lead a Portland team that had a great offseason back to the playoffs. It won’t be easy to defend him as he continues to grow and improve as a point guard but these strategies will put him in situations where he will be less effective.

Shade him left

It’s not a smart idea to force him completely left, as Lillard will be able to shred the defense by using the open space to his advantage but it is smart for the defense to shade him to the left side off the dribble. Lillard drove left more often last season, which is probably a result of the defense forcing the rookie to beat them with his off hand. However, he had the tendency to settle for jump shots instead of driving to the rim.

Looking at Lillard’s shot chart, he was average on mid-range jump shots from the left side of the court. He can improve on these pull up jump shots off the dribble to his left and the defense should shade him that way to encourage him into these positions.


Looking at the video, Lillard often makes these jump shots even tougher, as he spins back to his right before taking a fadeaway jump shot, which is a near impossible shot to convert regularly. Lillard also struggles with jumpers when he is on balance while driving to his left, as partly shown by the shot chart above and further highlighted by the video below.

When he does finish his drive and get the whole way to the rim, Lillard is not quite as comfortable finishing with his off hand as he is on the right side. Defenses can take advantage of this by forcing him to the left side and putting him in a tougher position. Lilliard will still find some success when finishing with his left hand but it will be a better outcome for the defense if they force him to the left side of the rim.

Help defense needs to step up

This next point seems a bit obvious and a regular role of the help defender but a key to slowing down Lillard right now is having the help defense meet him in the middle of the lane to force him into a pull up jump shot or a runner.  Clearly, the help defender can’t shirk their role of rotating over to cut off Lillard’s dribble penetration but instead of meeting Lillard at the rim to challenge a layup attempt, the help defender should slide over earlier to force him into a runner or floater in the paint, which Lillard has yet to master.


Defenses can force Lillard to beat them with floaters until he shows the league he has the ability to make them on a regular basis. Synergy Sports ranks him below average for runners, while he is excellent at the rim. Defenders should slide over early to cut off Lillard in the middle of the paint and force a shot over them instead of trying for the block at the rim. Until Lillard masters the runner/floater, this could be a key way to lower his effectiveness.

Be aware in transition

For all his halfcourt offensive prowess and athletic ability, Lillard surprisingly struggled in transition last season. For being an elite offensive player elsehwhere, it seems a given that Lillard would be great in the open floor, with the space to carve up the defense. However, Synergy Sports has him at 1.04 PPP in transition, ranking in the 34th percentile, well below average.

The reason for this has to do mainly with his propensity to turn the ball over in transition, as Synergy Sports logged 13.9% of his transition possessions as ended with a turnover. Looking at the video, there are two ways that Lillard tends to turn the ball over.

First, he tries to go for the home run pass over the top to a streaking teammate. This pass has to be perfectly weighted or it will be tipped by a defender or go out of bounds. Secondly, he tries to thread the needle when it is minuscule, hoping for a highlight reel pass instead of making an easier pass. This either causes his passes to go out of bounds or allows defenders the ability to tip these pass to lead to steals.

Defenders should be more cognizant than usual of working to get deflections or steals when Lillard is handling the ball in transition. He often tries to make the more difficult instead of the easier pass, which leads to opportunities for the defense to stop these transition opportunities. Lillard will need to improve his decision making ability in transition to cut down on turnovers which will help improve the offense of the Blazers.

Lillard is almost a lock to see some improvement from his rookie season to his second year in the league. While he does, it is likely he will improve some of the deficiencies highlighted in this video, taking away the possible advantage the defense can find when guarding him. Until he shows this improvement, these three tips could provide the start to a blueprint to slowing down Lillard.

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Written by Joshua Riddell

September 18, 2013 at 2:37 am

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