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Lillard’s defense can go to another level with Heat, says legendary champion coach
With a potential franchise-altering trade in the works, what is Dame's hypothetical fit with the Heat?
The potential acquisition of Damian Lillard, one of the NBA’s 75 Greatest Players, would give a Miami Heat offense that can occasionally struggle to generate high-quality scoring opportunities the kind of shot in the arm that would provide them a better chance at winning an NBA championship.
The Heat ranked 25th in offensive rating (112.3), 25th in eFG (53%), and 21st in TS (57.4%) last NBA season, significantly contributing to why they had to eventually win a play-in game and then win the Eastern Conference as an 8th seed in the NBA Playoffs.
Their shooting numbers as a team improved when the postseason unfurled – thanks as well to Herculean efforts by superstar Jimmy Butler – but the prolonged inconsistency on the offensive side of the floor was a common issue in the regular season, leading to their drop from a 53-29 record the season before to 44-38.
The 33-year-old Lillard, who’s coming off a career year with the Portland Trail Blazers, averaged 32.2 points on 46.3% FG-37.1% 3PT (11.3 attempts)-91.4% FT shooting splits, plus 56.4% eFG and 64.5% TS.
From those numbers alone it’s justifiable why Miami’s game plan this offseason has centered around finding a deal to get Lillard in a Heat uniform – among other reasons – and why Portland seems reluctant to depart with one hell of a hooper who has a legitimate argument to be considered the franchise’s greatest icon.
Another interesting perspective to analyze when it comes to Lillard’s potential arrival in Miami is on the other side of the floor.
For as good as he is scoring the basketball, Lillard has faced challenges when it comes to defending opposing players. A major reason for that is his 6-foot-2 frame which makes it tough to contain larger attackers on switches and occasional pick-and-roll sequences.
According to NBA Stats, Lillard allowed 1 point per possession (44 total possessions) on 48.3% FG when he defended players in isolation last NBA season, ranking in the 35th percentile.
To be fair, Lillard fared better when guarding the ball handler in pick-and-roll: 0.75 points per possession (99 total possessions) on 38.4% FG, ranking in the 88th percentile.
From the perspective of 25-time Philippine Basketball Association champion head coach Tim Cone, who spent time with the Miami Heat as an assistant coach for their Las Vegas Summer League team in 2022, Lillard’s improvement on the defensive side under the tutelage of head coach Erik Spoelstra and his staff could be intriguing.
“With the team’s defensive philosophies that they have and the emphasis they have on defense, I think Dame's defense would go to another level,” the legendary tactician explained during a recent sit-down interview with this writer for Philippines-based media outlet Rappler when asked about Lillard’s hypothetical fit with the Heat.
“I think that's what people are [saying]: ‘Dame can’t play defense like Miami,’ but I think that's totally unfair. I think you can bring anybody in and get them to play defense if they're going to have a buy-in, and I'll tell you what: Spo will get a buy-in, his teammates will get a buy-in. I think Dame would be a great defensive player with them and they would figure it out.”
In Miami, Lillard would be surrounded with the best defenders he’s played with in Butler, Bam Adebayo (a perennial Defensive Player of the Year candidate), Caleb Martin, and Josh Richardson, among others.
Spo’s Heat teams tend to finish in the higher echelon of NBA defenses: they have ranked at least top 12 in defensive rating since the 2015-2016 NBA season. A big reason why is because of his staff’s creativity when it comes to containing other teams from scoring by utilizing multiple schemes: switching, zone, hedge, and drop, among others, even if it means shifting philosophies in the blink of an eye.
It’s harder to hide defensive liabilities against elite competition in deep stages of the postseason, but Miami has the tools – from players to coaches to ideologies – to curtail what he might lack defensively while capitalizing on the improvements he can provide on the offensive end.
Lillard’s scoring would have come in handy against a Denver team that stifled Miami’s offense at home to take a chokehold on the NBA Finals.
“I think [Dame] would go to a whole new level [in Miami],” said Cone, who shares a close bond with Spoelstra owing to their roots in the Philippines.
“I think it just the fact that Dame would be off the ball more, and I think that [with] Bam handling it a lot more and then Dame coming off screens and then having the other threats with Jimmy and Bam there will really take them to another [level].”
Cone also clarified that he does not have any inside intel on whether or not the trade will happen, but his best guess right now is that Portland will hold on to Lillard and try to pair him with Scoot Henderson, who the Trail Blazers selected third overall in the 2023 NBA Draft.
Cone also shared an interesting story of how Spoelstra nearly played professional basketball in the Philippines instead of joining the Miami Heat here.