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Friday, March 24, 2023

Lillard's Loyalty

The Portland Trail Blazers are on pace for their third sub-.500 season in the past four years, and their fluky run to the 2019 Western Conference Finals is a distant memory. Damian Lillard is having the most statistically productive individual season of his career, posting a career high in scoring (32.2 ppg) while also matching his career high in field goal percentage (.463) and exceeding his career averages in both assists and rebounds. As long as Lillard shines while the Trail Blazers struggle, there will be speculation about whether the undersized 32 year old guard will decide that he wants out and whether the franchise will decide that a rebuild is necessary.

Lillard has consistently stated that he will never leave Portland. In a December 10, 2019 The Players Tribune article titled "Loyalty Over Everything," Lillard declared his permanent commitment to the city and the team while also snapping back at the notion that his logo shots are low percentage attempts:

I'm saying, you think you know how deep this goes, but you have no idea. When I say that I will never, ever switch up on the city of Portland, I mean what I say. When I say that I will never, ever switch up on this organization, I mean what I say.

They might switch up on me. That's business. That's basketball. But I will never switch up on the city. I don't want it easy. I'm drawn to the struggle. When I came here, we hadn't won a playoff series since 2000. You had so many injuries to franchise guys like Brandon Roy and Greg Oden over the years, and it's so tough to come back from that. Even going way back, you had All-Stars like Clyde Drexler and Bill Walton who didn't choose to end their careers as a Blazer.

Well, I'm going to be that. I'm going to carry that. I'm going to bring a ring to this city or go down swinging...

I ain't turning my back on the city, because the city has been riding with me since Day One. 

I'm not for the fake or the pretend. Too much of that going around these days. I'm for the authentic. It's the same as it was when we were sleeping four-to-a-motel-room with the Rebels. I'm trying to win with my people. Everything I ever experienced, every chapter of it, the good and the bad and the grimy, that's what made me.

That's what's so funny to me, when people want to talk to me about the buzzer-beater against OKC, or the one against Houston--like, "That’s a bad shot."

You think I was improvising? You think I was panicking? You think I didn't know exactly what I was doing?

We didn't grow up playing in a lab, bruh. We didn't grow up getting boxes of shoes in the mail. We didn't grow up with a trainer and a video team. That shot is 20 years old. I've been making it since 2001 on a milk crate on Beverly Ave.

A 37-footer, it's not for everybody, I know.

But you know what? This story is not for everybody, either.

Here is my take on Lillard's logo shot to eliminate the Oklahoma City Thunder in the 2019 playoffs:

Lillard averaged 33.0 ppg, 6.0 apg and 4.4 rpg in the first round, with .461/.481/.846 shooting splits. He ended the series in dramatic fashion with a game-winning shot from well beyond the three point line. There has been a lot of discussion about whether or not that was a good shot but this is simple: when a team gets the ball with more than 10 seconds left in a tie game and ends up shooting the ball from nearly 40 feet, that is not a good shot and it is certainly not an optimal shot, unless one is saying that the coaching staff and players are so inept that they cannot run a play to generate a high percentage shot in that time frame against that particular team.

Much has been made about Lillard practicing that shot and having shot a good percentage on a small sample size of those shots; does that mean if a player practices half court shots and shoots a high percentage on a small number of them then he should deliberately aim to shoot a half court shot with a playoff game on the line? Get out of here. Lillard demonstrated a lot of confidence and a lot a skill and he deserves credit for his play throughout the series--more so than for just hitting one shot--but by no means was that a good shot or an optimal shot in that situation.
Here is my take on Lillard's logo shots in general, written after his Trail Blazers lost 4-2 to the Denver Nuggets in the first round of the 2021 playoffs:

Despite all of the attention that is paid to numbers/"analytics" in recent years, there is still a significant lack of understanding and discernment regarding which numbers are meaningful and how to interpret those numbers. To cite two examples, a lot of attention is paid to overall shooting efficiency and last second shots. Shooting efficiency matters, but it must be placed in context by understanding a player's role and skill set. A player who is very efficient on a small number of field goal attempts is not a franchise player, but a player whose numbers may not look efficient may still be a franchise player if he has the necessary skill set and mentality to control a game down the stretch because controlling a game down the stretch matters more than hitting last second shots; to some extent, last second shots are random events. Kobe Bryant's game-winning shot versus the Phoenix Suns during game four of the 2006 NBA playoffs is an exciting and oft-replayed highlight, but Bryant's ability to control a game down the stretch--which he displayed in many games in the NBA Finals and Conference Finals en route to winning five NBA titles--is more impressive and meaningful. Yes, you need the right skill set and mentality to make a buzzer beater, but it is easier to hit one shot than it is to take over a game for an extended period of time.

Lillard's "logo shots" are fun to watch, and he deserves credit for honing his craft to the extent that he is willing and able to make those shots--but Lillard is not consistently able to take over playoff games down the stretch for extended periods of time. Yes, if the game is close in the final seconds he can hit a "logo shot" to save his team, but late in a playoff series he is more likely to wear down than he is to take over. Lillard had a very productive series versus Denver, but--as often happens with smaller players--he wore down and he did not have much left in the tank late in game six with the outcome still up for grabs: he shot 1-9 from the field in the second half, including 1-5 in the fourth quarter. 

I respect Lillard's work ethic, his skill set, and his mentality of trying to win in Portland as opposed to going somewhere else to form a "super team." It is not disrespectful to Lillard to state the truth: an undersized player is not going to lead a team to an NBA title, especially when that undersized player relies on long jumpers for a team that is subpar defensively and cannot survive high variance shooting. Even if Lillard can make 40% of his "logo shots"--and he clearly cannot do that late in a series when he is worn down--that would still mean that 60% of the possessions during which he shoots those shots are empty possessions (not including a few offensive rebounds or defensive fouls). A poor defensive team cannot survive that many empty possessions.

The reason that I am revisiting what I wrote several years ago about Lillard is that the analysis proved to be correct: Lillard has not come close to leading Portland back to the Western Conference Finals, and his ability to hit a few logo shots has not translated into consistent team success in either the regular season or the playoffs. In short, when Lillard, a "stat guru," or anyone else asserts that Lillard's logo shots are good shots they are wrong, at least in terms of those shots being good shots in the context of long term team success; obviously, a particular shot that wins a game produced a good short term result, but that does not mean the shot was optimal even in that instance, and it is evident that a steady diet of such shots is not optimal (or sustainable, as noted above).

Although I disagree with Lillard about his logo shots, I admire his loyalty. Loyalty is a very important character trait, and one that seems to be disappearing not only in the NBA but in society in general. Lillard mentioned that the city and team believed in him from the start, and therefore he will remain loyal to Portland until the end. That is a refreshing perspective that stands in marked contrast to the attitude displayed by players like LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving, and James Harden who jump from team to team searching for greener pastures. Some people argue that because teams sometimes are not loyal the players should not be expected to be loyal, but Lillard understands that loyalty is not about how others treat you but how you treat others. As he wrote, "They might switch up on me. That's business." Lillard's character and his decisions are not swayed by what others have done or might do. So many people talk about "keeping it real," but there are few players in the NBA who keep it real to the extent that Lillard does. I still don't believe that he will lead Portland to a championship, but I respect his belief in himself, and I have even greater respect for his loyalty.

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posted by David Friedman @ 8:06 PM



At Monday, March 27, 2023 8:43:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Seems like Lillard finds Portland the best fit for his personal life and career. Is he really sacrificing anything? As the longtime face of the franchise, his "loyalty" will yield untold business and media opportunities (e.g., announcing) when he retires. Isnt that wisdom rather than true loyalty? While I agree that KD wimped out by leaving OKC for GSW, that doesn't mean all departures are weak. What's inherently admirable about Lillard's wanting to stay put, in a business relationship, where he will benefit from staying?


At Monday, March 27, 2023 12:21:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...


If Lillard left Portland, he could almost certainly make more money in endorsements. Also, if he teamed up with other stars a la LeBron and Durant then he would increase his chances for winning a championship.

Lillard is displaying loyalty to the people--including the Portland fans--who embraced him before he became a big NBA star. I respect that far more than I respect the "grass is always greener on the other side" approach taken by LeBron, Durant, and others (including Harden and Irving, who have yet to make a single Finals appearance after they began their team-hopping).

At Tuesday, March 28, 2023 5:26:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Loyalty and Lillard's loyalty are great, but why does it matter? NBA front offices aren't loyal except for a rare occassion. It's business.

And true, no small players aren't leading teams to titles under normal circumstances. Thomas with DET is about the only instance for this, but his team was stacked and it was perfect timing with the BOS/LAL dynasties ending and CHI's dynasty not up to par yet. Thomas only made 3 all-NBA 1st teams during his career, none during his title runs. He had only 1 top-5 MVP finish, too. He was on the outskirts of his prime when DET won both titles.

But, at the same time, no player is leading POR to a title at any stage of Lillard's career. His cast has never been good enough.

Durant jumped ship too early I think, but I don't see him ever winning with OKC. His all-time status has greatly increased after winning 2 titles with GS, too, so it was a great decision for him. Though leaving GS was odd, and now it's hard to put him over Curry after Curry won another without Durant. Harden stayed loyal to HOU for 8 years, that's a long time. The way he handled leaving wasn't ideal, but I don't blame him or anyone else to jump from that sinking ship in 2021. HOU has been a complete disaster these last 3 seasons. Durant, Irving, and Harden never could all stay healthy with Brooklyn. All parties are probably glad that trial is over with.

Side note: I'm taking 40% 3-pt. shooting all day long. If that happened every game for a team, that'd be a great team.

At Tuesday, March 28, 2023 8:16:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...


Loyalty matters because it is an important character trait. As I mentioned above, whether or not teams are loyal is not the point. If you are a loyal person, then you are loyal regardless.

This thread is about Lillard, not Thomas, so I will not get into an extended discussion about Thomas here, but it is worth noting that Thomas made the All-NBA First Team three straight times, and then he ran smack into the dual primes of Pantheon players Magic Johnson and Michael Jordan. Also, Thomas sacrificed individual statistics--primarily scoring--for the benefit of the team. I would take him, without hesitation, over any of the "small" guards in the NBA today.

I agree that Lillard has not had a championship-level supporting cast for most, if not all, of his career. The point is that he refused to jump ship to chase rings or more money.

Durant's OKC team had a 3-1 lead versus the Warriors the season before he left. If I were Durant, no one could convince me that OKC is not beating GS the next time that they face each other in the playoffs. To think otherwise is soft for a player of his caliber. Durant was the best player on two GS championship teams, but I would have preferred to watch him lead OKC to a title instead of joining a team that had already won a title.

Irving is purely a second option player for a championship level team. Harden is a second or third option player at best. Both of them are self-centered people who have proven to be lousy teammates. At least Irving showed that he can produce in clutch situations as the second option; Harden has yet to do that.

Who wouldn't take 40% three point shooting all day long? I'd also take 60% two point shooting all day long, and I would really take sub-.450 defensive field goal percentage all day long. Only the latter is sustainable on a team level, and--not coincidentally--the latter is also highly correlated with championship level success.

At Wednesday, March 29, 2023 11:05:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I disagree loyalty matters as far as the NBA is concerned. It is nice. And just because someone isn't loyal to a team doesn't make that person an unloyal person overall.

You mentioned small players leading teams to titles, so Thomas is relevant here. Sure, he was better than Lillard, but he also had much easier circumstances to win his titles.

Just because Durant was up 3-1 vs GS doesn't equate to future success. It's all speculation. Durant needed another future MVP coming off the bench during his lone Finals appearance with OKC. It ended up being a good choice for Durant to join GS, too.

At this stage of their careers, Harden/Irving are #2 options, Irving probably #3/4 as it looks like with the current disaster happening in DAL. Harden led multiple HOU teams to 50+ win seasons, even the best record in the league one year without any AS teammates. He was the best player in series vs GS before and usually had huge series vs them. Might want to re-check your facts. Westbrook has won 1 playoff series in 8 seasons now without Durant, and that was when he was #2 to Harden. He has never led his teams to even 1 50-win season.

You mentioned hypothetical 40% 3-pt. shooting. Don't shift the argument. If your hypothetical situation actually happened, that team is winning.

At Wednesday, March 29, 2023 2:41:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...


It's OK to disagree. My experience is that people who are loyal (or disloyal) in one respect tend to be loyal (or disloyal) in other respects. Character is character.

I fail to see how your biased and slanted take on Thomas' career is relevant to this article's take on Lillard's career. Thomas' circumstances do not refute my assertion that undersized players such as Lillard are unlikely to lead a team to an NBA title.

Obviously, any comment about what may happen or what might have happened is speculation. There is a difference between informed speculation and uninformed speculation. Also, I made it clear that I am stating my preference, more as a basketball fan than as an analyst: I would prefer to see star players fight through adversity with their original team as opposed to jumping ship to form super teams.

I have made it clear many times that I respect that players have a right to play out their contracts and then go elsewhere. As a fan, I also have a right to be disappointed by some decisions that players have made.

Harden has always been a number two or number three option in terms of leading a team to a title. I don't look at how many points a player scores in the regular season to determine if that player is a legit number one option on a championship team.

I am not sure what Westbrook has to do with this conversation.

Back to Harden, I am quite familiar with the "facts" about his career: http://20secondtimeout.blogspot.com/2021/10/playing-basketball-is-much-harder-for.html

What argument did I "shift"? I stated that even if Lillard hit 40 % of his logo threes (not all threes) that would still be a low percentage shot on a team level--resulting in empty possessions 60% of the time--and that a poor defensive team could not survive that style of play in the playoffs. I stand by the validity of that assertion, and Lillard's career to this point is evidence that I am right. Some people are very impressed by shot charts and by Lillard's shooting percentage on logo shots. I am not impressed by those things in terms of them correlating with or causing team success.

I don't have the numbers in front of me, but I believe that at one point Lillard was hitting more than .400 on his logo shots. His team did not end up "winning," contrary to your belief.

At Thursday, March 30, 2023 9:33:00 AM, Blogger beep said...

There is no causation between shooting percentage of a particular player and winning. There is too many different aspects to winning as you point out many times.

While I agree "logo" shots are not good play most of the time, it is generally better for a player to make a shot he feels confident/comfortable with, especially with game on the line and good opportunity.

At Thursday, March 30, 2023 10:07:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...


To some extent I agree that it is beneficial for a player to take shots he feels comfortable taking but--as I noted in the article--there is something wrong if a team gets the ball with 10 seconds left and the best shot that the team can create is a 37 foot jump shot. That is not a recipe for sustained success.

At Friday, March 31, 2023 4:14:00 PM, Anonymous TR said...

I like Lillard's game and his character stands out among the likes of LeBron, Durant, Harden, Irving, etc. It's hard not to.

But I think that objectively speaking — not when your comparison is those four jerks — it's easy to be "loyal" when you're being paid a supermax contract.

Has Lillard ever offered to take a pay cut? Not that I'm aware of. Does his contract hamper Portland's ability to build around him? Yes, it does.

Lillard's game doesn't match his contract. I wonder if he misses CJ McCollum.

At Friday, March 31, 2023 4:22:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...


Did Portland ever ask him to take a pay cut? More specifically, did Portland ever approach Lillard with a concrete plan involving him taking a pay cut so that the team could make a particular move that would tangibly improve the team?

I can't blame Lillard for taking whatever deal is offered to him, especially if there is a not a specific, tangible way for him to sacrifice money to win.

I agree with you that Lillard's game does not match his contract, but that is the fault of the team (or the overall market).

Keeping McCollum would not have made Portland a legit championship contender. The only way for Lillard to win a title would be to play alongside a top five player who is 6-6 or bigger; those are the players who lead teams to titles, while guys like Lillard can be excellent second or third options on championship teams.


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