Why Damian Lillard, Bucks face a bigger challenge than the Celtics

By | March 20, 2024

In the midst of “the most difficult transition of my life,” Damian Lillard continues to face his biggest on-court challenge yet.

The 33-year-old veteran will be held responsible for the outcome of this Milwaukee Bucks season, for better or worse, whether he deserves it or not. That’s what happens when a front office trades a core member of a recent championship roster for an eight-time All-Star. For them he is the face of change.

Everything from now on points to the Bucks being worse than last season. This time last year, they had the NBA’s best record, three games better than both the Boston Celtics and eventual champion Denver Nuggets. They now sit fifth, ten games worse than the Celtics and trailing a trio of Western Conference contenders.

Second place in the East isn’t that big of a hole in the grand scheme, but it’s small enough that one team adjustment could have meant all the difference, and a big chunk of that margin points to Lillard as the likely culprit.

The Bucks are shooting and taking care of the ball better as their offensive rating has increased from 113.6 (17th) last season to 118.8 (4th). We agree that Lillard played an important role in this.

But the Bucks are also worse in 3-point defense and defensive rebounding, as their defensive rating has dropped from 109.8 (3rd) to 115.4 (16th). They’ve changed coaches three times in the last 10 months – from Mike Budenholzer to Adrian Griffin, Joe Prunty and now Doc Rivers – and replaced several role players (most notably Grayson Allen for Malik Beasley), but no one should argue against Lillard would also play a role in this.

PHILADELPHIA, PENNSYLVANIA - FEBRUARY 25: Damian Lillard #0 of the Milwaukee Bucks watches during the third quarter against the Philadelphia 76ers at the Wells Fargo Center on February 25, 2024 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.  (Photo by Tim Nwachukwu/Getty Images)

Damian Lillard and the Bucks are looking up at the Celtics in the standings. (Photo by Tim Nwachukwu/Getty Images)

And you rarely hear a title team talk like them.

“I feel like for me this has been the hardest season I’ve played – not just physically, because I had the procedure done on my left knee at the end of June,” Giannis Antetokounmpo told The Athletic’s Sam Amick. “And I had to get back to myself. But emotionally and mentally it was exhausting. I’m not going to lie to you. It’s been extremely tough, from letting go of Coach Bud to having Coach Griff come in. is let go, then Coach Joe for three games, Coach Doc comes in, and then you have Dame. It’s been tough.”

It was harder than I thoughtRivers said of the job three weeks into his tenure.

It’s even more personal for Lillard, who opened up about a divorce filed three days after his trade with Milwaukee, telling Vincent Goodwill of Yahoo Sports, “It’s probably been the hardest transition of my life.”

As Antetokounmpo told Amick, “Hopefully I can get where I want to go step by step and help the team get where we want to go.” The same should go for Rivers and Lillard. There’s still time left in the regular season to get just before the playoffs, starting with Wednesday night’s showcase in Boston.

The Celtics nearly blew a 21-point lead to the Bucks in November and were handed a 33-point defeat by their rivals in January. Wednesday offers another look at the matchup and whether Boston’s big moves include acquiring Kristaps Porzingis And Jrue Holiday in the offseason outweighed Milwaukee’s big swing for Lillard. Unfortunately, that picture won’t be as clear as we would have liked, as Antetokounmpo is reportedly out with a hamstring injury.

The stats are overwhelmingly in Boston’s favor, as are other factors since Milwaukee’s 2021 title. The Celtics have won five playoff series against the Bucks over the past two seasons, including a second-round series between them in 2022 .Boston’s Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown have emerged as their NBA firsts surrounded by more talent than ever before. Meanwhile, Brook Lopez has entered his mid-30s and a series of injuries has left Khris Middleton looking up to an All-Star field he was once a member of.

Milwaukee’s defensive stats may be anomalous enough to swing back in its favor. The team’s defense has an admirable shot profile, forcing more mid-range jumpers than all but three teams, according to Cleaning the Glass. Opponents make up 44.9% of it. Only four teams allow a higher percentage from mid-range. How much of that has to do with the quality of those looks is hard to discern, but the NBA’s tracking data suggests the looks are no cleaner than last season, when the Bucks held opponents to the sixth-worst percentage among the league (41. 6%).

Still, Lillard will continue Milwaukee’s net rating drop from 3.8 last season to 3.3 this year until he proves otherwise. It may not seem like much, but if Boston has nearly doubled its net rating to a historically good 11.9, that margin is feels heavier. The front office sensed it and changed the course of the coach twice. You can hear in Antetokounmpo’s rant how difficult it has been to build championship chemistry with Lillard.

While Wednesday’s game against Boston may be another opportunity to demonstrate strength against the East’s elite, none of it will matter if Milwaukee fails to advance out of the second round again. It can’t get any worse than last season, when the Miami Heat intimidated the Bucks in a shocking five-game first round.

The chemistry may come with time, but Milwaukee is in a race against Lillard’s best to maximize its opportunity with Antetokounmpo, who gives his team a chance in any series but needs help to win four . Lillard’s 24.4 points per game are his fewest since 2015, not counting the season in which he required abdominal surgery. His free throws are down and his effective field goal percentage (51.2) is his lowest since 2016, when he was 25.

Lillard turns 34 in July, two years younger than Stephen Curry, who is the same age as Chris Paul was when he last made an All-NBA team while averaging 14.7 points per night for the Phoenix Suns. Point guards are lasting longer than ever before, but the Bucks have to ask themselves what the two sides of that coin are: Has Lillard fallen out of the All-NBA discussion due to his difficult transition or the start of a steady decline?

Lillard is under contract through the 2026-2027 season, when he is owed $58.6 million. In the same season, Antetokounmpo could opt out of the three-year, $186 million extension he signed in October. With little emerging talent and no first-round pick to trade until 2031, this could be Milwaukee’s fate in life.

Of course, it’s not such a bad fate to join. Lillard has taken advantage of the opportunity in the postseason, twice ending a series on his own. His clutch numbers – 36.7 points (66.4 TS%) per 36 minutes and +84 in 114.9 minutes – are encouraging enough to believe he can rise again, as long as he and Antetokounmpo can find the chemistry to take the games together to close.

Maybe Wednesday’s game against Boston will be the jolt Milwaukee needs to get through the rough and tumble part of this season. Or perhaps it will be yet another stumbling block on the way to a third straight playoff disappointment, with answers on the other end not coming easy for Lillard or the Bucks.

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