The second the Milwaukee Bucks swapped out Jrue Holiday for Damian Lillard, their bet was on the table: We believe that a one-way superstar has greater championship viability than a two-way All-Star. It’s a bet with implications that could stretch beyond Milwaukee.
Might Lillard be playing for the future merits of the Trae Young archetype?
You might say this archetype has already proven championship viable with the likes of Stephen Curry and Kyrie Irving. To that I would argue that Curry, in addition to being an actual pretty good defender, is one of one; nobody has ever been like him, and there’s a decent chance nobody ever will be. And Irving won his title alongside prime LeBron James. Another exception to the rule.
Other than that, these scoring-sensation point guards who can’t guard a lick do not win or even play for titles. Go look. You won’t find a single one, not even prime James Harden, that made it to an NBA Finals this century, and before that they didn’t really exist.
I haven’t heard many people talking about Lillard’s greater responsibility to an entire genre of players who are looking to him, whether they realize it or not, as their proof of concept, but think about it: If Lillard, on this team, with this much firepower and this much theoretical defensive cover, can’t win a title, then how can anyone really contend that Trae Young can?
We’ve always known, of course, that Lillard was a bad defender. But in Portland, where he long basked in the honeymoon glow of small-market loyalty, and where he benefited from the plethora of built-in excuses afforded him (Neil Olshey never gave him ay help!), he was never held accountable for the significant part of his defense, or lack thereof, played in that team never becoming a true contender.
It will be different in Milwaukee, where early returns have been shockingly bad. The Bucks, even with two DPOY-caliber defenders in Giannis Antetokounmpo and Brook Lopez, have been the worst defense in the league on a point-per-possession basis, according to Synergy, and the second-worst according to Cleaning the Glass, which filters out garbage time.
Now that I think about it, perhaps CTG should just disregard the Bucks’ defensive possessions altogether because the whole thing has been garbage. That’s not all on Lillard. Not even close.
Adrian Griffin has put in a defense that doesn’t mesh with his personnel, one that is on default scramble mode trying to generate chaos, which has worked if you fancy turnover total; last year the Bucks’ defense tallied just 11.8 turnovers per game, which ranked dead last. This season that number is up to 16.8, good enough for eighth league-wide.
But it’s also the reason the Bucks are in constant rotation, giving up open 3s and free lanes to the rim as they’re not, with the exception of Giannis, fast or athletic enough to play that style. Brook Lopez and Pat Connaughton and Bobby Portis and Malik Beasley, and certainly Lillard, cannot be tasked with running to double — which is necessary when you’re too willingly switching into mismatches — and then racing back to shooters without being exposed any number of ways. If Griffin thinks he’s still coaching the long, rangy Raptors guys, there could be a lot more turbulence in store for both him and the Bucks.
But the potentially grander issues with Griffin’s defensive system, and how unfit the Bucks are to deploy it, are another story. No system works if the best players aren’t committed, and at the moment, to suggest Lillard is uncommitted to playing defense would be an understatement. In reality, the guy is playing some of the laziest, flat-out worst defense of his career, and that is really saying something for a guy who has always been a pretty apathetic defender. It’s been borderline disgraceful at times.
After watching every Bucks defensive possession, I can tell you that finding a good, fully engaged-for-an-entire-possession Lillard clip was roughly akin to finding gold in the street. Finding a half-hearted one was, shall we say, less difficult.
I wound up cutting about 30 clips illustrating all manner of defensive malpractice, including but not limited to Dame getting hunted, and properly cooked, by the likes of Tyler Herro, Dennis Schroder and Dejounte Murray, dying on ball screens, losing shooters off ball, bailing on charge opportunities, fake hustling in the backcourt only to open up a runway for transition offense, and providing zero disruption as a trailing pick-and-roll defender. The latter, I suppose, can’t be held too much against a 6-foot-2 guy.
But what is most troubling is the effort stuff. Even if Lillard is physically limited as a defender, and even if Griffin’s system is a mess, he has to work harder than what I’m about to show you if he wants to actually compete for a championship rather than just talk about wanting and deserving the opportunity.
First up: Lillard gets beat down the court by Schroder even though he starts ahead of him, and proceeds to lazily poke and reach at the ball until Schroder goes around him. He gets lucky, as Schroder’s pass gets deflected and a bit of chaos ensues — all of which Lillard decides to just stand there watching instead of locating the wide-open corner shooter behind him. The way-too-late, fake-hustle closeout at the end is exactly worthless as Pascal Siakam sinks what is essentially wide-open corner 3.
If you don’t think that’s all that bad, I would disagree when we’re talking about a team and player with real title aspirations. But if you need worse, let’s keep it moving. Here is Lillard, after blowing a layup, offering some pointless, half-hearted denial deep in the backcourt that allows Schroder to race past him. Lillard is so concerned with this, that he jogs, barely, behind Schroder the entire length of the court, which forces Lopez up to stop him, which leaves Jakob Poetl free for a layup.
In keeping with the pointless backcourt gestures that gift wrap advantage transition possessions, here’s Lillard lazily lunging for a steal he has absolutely no chance of getting (Malachi Flynn already has the ball before Lillard goes to moves around him), thus triggering a break that put the Bucks a man down and an open corner 3, yet again, is the result.
Broke record alert! Here’s Dame, after committing a turnover, deciding to do some sort of jumping jack in front of Bogdan Bogdanovic rather than get back on defense. It leads to another advantage run out, but it results, initially, in a miss. Perhaps Lillard and the Bucks will get lucky? Nope. Because as the ball bounces around, Dejounte Murray is wide open for a second shot as you know who, after perhaps tying his shoe or something after the jumping-jack, comes dragging into the screen at quarter speed in just enough time to get a great view of Murray scoring.
One of the cardinal sins of modern defense is giving up a corner 3, particularly a short-corner 3. Here is Lillard, for whatever reason, just sort of standing behind Thomas Bryant, whom he would have no shot at effecting were he to receive the pass anyway, at the expense of just disregarding Kyle Lowry in the corner. The pass, of course, goes to Lowry, at which point Lillard closes out with the discipline of a high schooler, launching into the air and flying past Lowry as he steps in easily and delivers a pass back to Bryant. Easy bucket.
This last one is a real gem. Keep your eye on Lillard, who’s standing out above the 3-point line flat-footed calling for a kick-out pass, which instead goes to Malik Beasley. Watch Lillard as Beasley’s shot goes up. Also watch Jimmy Butler, who contests the shot and keeps right on going. Lillard, as the highest man and thus the first, and really only line of defense against this type of runout, doesn’t even move. Lowry throws a baseball pass to Butler, who dunks as Lillard is just getting into a leisure stroll across half-court.
This is a shameful effort, and I assure you there’s plenty more where this came from. Lillard has been awful defensively. He’s been pretty awful offensively, too, shooting under 30% from 3 and 40% overall. He had six points in a loss to the Hawks. He only took nine shots in a loss to the Raptors on Wednesday. But the offense will come. Or, if it doesn’t, the defense won’t matter anyway.
But assuming the superstar version of Lillard’s offense does eventually show up (can we get some more Dame/Giannis pick and rolls, please?), one of two things is going to have to happen, with regard to Dame and his lackluster defender, if the Bucks are going to be a serious title threat: He’s either going to have to get better, which starts with him actually trying, or the theory that small, bad defenders can be sufficiently covered for in a championship context will be proven true, in which case the Trae Youngs of the world will have more future viability than they might if Dame and the Bucks fall flat.