Damian Lillard trade: How the Bucks have started to figure it out after a rough start to season

After the first 14 games of the season, the Damian Lillard experiment in Milwaukee has started to find its groove.

The Bucks have ridden a nice winning streak entering their game against the Celtics on Nov. 22, taking five in a row to bring their record up to 10-4.

Beneath the surface, there have been some rough patches that they’ve overcome to get to this point. Here’s what’s gone on with their slow start and how they’ve started to turn it around. 

MORE: Redrafting the 2020 NBA Draft: Warriors land Tyrese Haliburton

Damian Lillard is breaking out of his early slump

Lillard started off the year in brutal fashion. Through his first eight games, he was averaging 22.8 points on 37 percent shooting from the field and 27 percent from 3. 

Lillard was too good of a shooter to stay at those marks for long. He looks to have turned a corner in his last four games, all of which have been wins. During that stretch, he’s scored a much better 28.3 points on 44 percent shooting from the field and 43 percent from 3.

Part of that slow start may have been due to Lillard mentally acclimating to being on a team with another dominant player in Giannis Antetokounmpo. He spoke recently of how he’s been handling his new role in a better fashion. 

“What I’ve tried to do is find my way of just making sure I’m being aggressive so that three quarters don’t go by and I’m just kind of like stuck, and I’m not in a good rhythm, I’m not into the game. And I’m starting to find that,” Lillard told The Athletic’s Eric Nehm after the team’s win against the Mavs on Saturday. 

That fit between Lillard and Giannis hasn’t been perfect yet, but it is getting better. 

Damian Lillard-Giannis Antetokounmpo pick-and-roll is still working out the kinks 

The big expectation coming into the season was that the pick-and-roll between Lillard and Giannis would be unstoppable. They’ve had their moments, such as Giannis’ handoff to Lillard late in their game against the Knicks that set up a go-ahead 3. But for the first few weeks of the season, the team simply hasn’t gone to that option as much as expected.

When Giannis has tried screening for Lillard, the fit has looked awkward. He’s still getting acclimated as far as where to set those screens and how far to roll to set up the best passing angles with Lillard.  

When it has worked, it’s looked pretty. The team went to a simple pick-and-roll in one of their recent wins against the Mavericks early, although they largely abandoned it again during crunch time.  

That weapon still seems under-developed and underutilized to anybody that’s been watching them. 

“It’s still early, but they’re going to figure it out,” Griffin told Nehm. “They’ve been figuring it out.” 

MORE: How Dame and Giannis are taking a page out of the Nuggets’ playbook

Khris Middleton is still rounding into form

The Bucks were already a shallow team before they traded two rotation players in Grayson Allen and Jrue Holiday for Lillard. They have been even more short-handed because of how cautious they’ve been with Khris Middleton. He still isn’t playing in back-to-backs. And in the games he does play, he is under a minutes restriction that has kept his season average to under 20 minutes per game. 

That lack of depth, along with injuries to Jae Crowder and MarJon Beauchamp, has made Middleton even more vital than in previous years. The Bucks have been solid with the three of Middleton, Giannis, and Lillard on the floor together, sporting a +9.3 net rating in those lineups per PBP Stats. But they’re purposely restricting that group.

The Bucks know that their most important basketball is yet to come. Fans will have to wait until the end of the year in order to see them really firing on all cylinders.

Bucks are beginning to figure out their defensive issues

The Bucks were not defending well to start the year. Through their first nine games, their 116.5 defensive rating ranked 25th in the league, per NBA Stats. But a switch flipped during their current streak. Their defense has been a hair outside of the top 10 over the course of those five wins. 

Lillard received a ton of blame for that slow defensive start. He’s obviously nowhere near the defender that Jrue Holiday was, but the intense criticism of his defense was somewhat unwarranted. He has competed on defense. 

The Bucks also weren’t helped by new coach Adrian Griffin trying to change up a defensive scheme that had been working in years prior.

Brook Lopez has been fantastic over the past few years as a drop center, hanging back in the paint on ballscreens. Griffin had him playing higher up the floor to start the year, and the results were mostly disastrous. The Bucks have moved off that strategy, and their defense has been much better as a result. 

Play to your strengths, exhibit 37,295

(Guess when Milwaukee went back to Lopez playing mostly drop/centerfield) pic.twitter.com/7szsIx6GqU

— Anchorage Man (@SethPartnow) November 18, 2023

There are still concerns about the Bucks’ perimeter defense, as there should be. But they’re no longer hemorrhaging points as they were to start the season.

Overall, the Damian Lillard experience in Milwaukee has had a slower takeoff than many would have hoped. But the Bucks are slowly getting better with each game, and they’re still a very good team with a clear pathway to reach those championship expectations as they gain more familiarity with each other. 

Source : ESPN.com

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