Tom Thibodeau and Monty Williams Agree That Damian Lillard Is Improving Defensively
If you had to pick out once facet of Damian Lillard's game that needed to improve going into his second season, it would most likely be his defense.
One could counter that a rookie who played all 82 games, led the NBA in minutes played while alternating between being Portland's first and second option on offense could be forgiven for even regular defensive lapses, but that doesn't change the fact that the area in which Lillard has the largest room for growth is on the defensive end.
These are things that Lillard already knows. The Trail Blazers were one of the worst defensive teams in the NBA last season, and while there was plenty of blame to go around for that unfortunate distinction, Lillard is aware that, as a starting point guard, he's held to a different standard.
"As a team, the number one thing we need to get better at is defense," Lillard said during a May interview with SLAM magazine
, "and it's going to start with me."
And if his first few days at the Team USA mini-camp in Las Vegas are any indication, Lillard's goal of improving defensively is well underway. From hard closeouts on shooters like Dion Waiters
to stout, post-position-denying defense on Harrison Barnes
, Lillard has shown the capability to be a much better defender than he was during his rookie season. While some of that can be chalked up to playing alongside the best young players in the league in Las Vegas, Lillard deserves credit for taking it upon himself to put in the extra effort required to improve defensively.
"There was a point in the season where, when guys would draw contact, I would back off of them because I didn't want to pick up a foul," said Lillard. "Usually I would get a foul. At the end of the season, when I started to play a little more physical, they would let me play. So out here, I think I've had two good days defensively. (Tuesday) was a real good day for me defensively. That's something I'm challenging myself with. I know that, offensively, there's some things I need to improve on. But offensively, the game comes easy to me. Defense is how I'm going to get myself to the next level as a player."
Lillard has also benefitted from one-on-one coaching from some of basketball's most respected defensive minds while participating in the mini-camp, including Team USA assistant and Chicago Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau, who has praised both Lillard's performance on the defensive end.
"To me he had a terrific rookie season, said Thibodeau. "Love his demeanor. I think he's got the qualities that will allow him to continue to improve and develop (defensively). I think all of these players, as they move forward, they all learn from their experience. He's got a great body, he's got good feet. I think the more he concentrates (on defense), the better he's going to get at it. He's a very impressive player."
Thibodeau is also quick to point out that any struggles Lillard may have had on defense during his rookie season were to be expected.
"When a guys comes into the league there's a big adjustment," said Thibodeau. "You have to learn the league, you have to learn the team and you have to run your team. So there's a period of adjustment. The way he handled that was remarkable. He did a terrific job for (the Trail Blazers). He's done a lot of good things and I'm sure he's going to continue to do a lot of good things. He asks great questions, he works hard, he puts a lot into each and every day and he'll continue to improve."
Team USA assistant and New Orleans Pelicans head coach Monty Williams repeated Thibodeau's assertion that almost every young player has a period of adjustment when it comes to playing defense in the NBA, while also pointing out that, if a player is willing, as Lillard is, there's a relatively easy path to improvement.
"I think they've just got to watch more film and understand tenancies of other players," said Williams. "More importantly, make sure they know their system. There's such a trust factor when it comes to defense. Guys have to be able to buy-in and cover each others' backs, because in the NBA, you're going to get beat. But if five guys are playing on a string and they're connected then you have a chance.
"So I think for (Lillard) it's an easy deal because he wants to improve. And he's a high-level player, so I think that's going to help him speed the process up. And he's just got to watch film. You've got to know who you're playing against. He's playing the toughest position in the league right now. There's so many point guards that can really go and all of them can score. That's going to be a big deal, him getting better on that end of the floor. But more young guys struggle there."
Williams also says that wanting one of the few available roster spots on the national team is a motivating factor when it comes to Lillard's defensive improvements, as playing lockdown defense is nearly a requirement to make Team USA.
"That's who we are," said Williams of Team USA's dedication on the defensive side of the ball. "If you look at the history of Team USA, that's what they've been able to do is shut teams down defensively. Almost everybody can score in the world. The top teams, if you can defend, it gives you a chance to advance. If you can defend at an elite level and score, that's why they've been able to win so many gold medals."
There are few greater achievements than winning a gold medal while representing your country, and hopefully Lillard will one day have the opportunity to do so. But Lillard also has his mind on the Portland Trail Blazers making the playoffs this upcoming season, which, one could argue, is a more daunting task than Team USA winning a gold medal in Rio De Janerio come 2016. So hearing the reigning Rookie of the Year talk about what he plans on applying from the Team USA mini-camp to the 2013-14 NBA season is undoubtedly music to the ears of his coaches, teammates and fans in Portland.
"I've got to do it over and over," said Lillard of his defense in Las Vegas. "It can't be just one play. I'm trying to make a habit out of it so I can take it back to my team and make a difference defensively."