# Nylon Calculus: Damian Lillard is thriving with a balanced game

Damian Lillard is off to a sensational start this season. Through eight games he’s averaged 32.8 points per game, a career-high by more than seven points and a mark second only to DeMar DeRozan this season. To go along with that scoring average, he’s posting career-highs in shooting percentage (inside the arc, from behind the 3-point line, and at the free throw line), rebounds, and free throw attempts per game.

His offensive efficiency and volume is up across the board and Lillard has been the driving force for Portland’s offense in a new way — literally by driving more. So far this season, Lillard is driving about three extra times per game — 12.6 per game, as opposed to 9.8 last season. He never had any trouble getting into the paint in the past but Lillard seems to have made it a focus this year to find more balance between attacking the rim and using the range on his jump shot to pick apart defenses.

As with any mode of offensive attack, usually doing something in greater quantity reduces efficiency. That has not been the case at all with Lillard’s dribble penetration. He’s shooting a career-high 72.7 percent on shots inside of two feet, also attempting them at the highest rate of his career. If you throw in the bump in his free throw rate — .494 this season, compared to .315 last year — you suddenly have one of the most efficient interior scorers in the league.

The graph below shows all players from this season and last who attempted at least 6.0 drives per game. They are charted by their drives per game and their average points per drive.

Obviously, there are a few outliers on the right side of the graph from early in this season, and we could probably assume that Lillard is a member of that group. Still, it’s remarkable to see, even for this small sample of the season, how he’s been able to drive so much more frequently and effectively. In case it isn’t clear on the draft, no one in this group is averaging more points per drive this season than Lillard.

Even if Lillard were to regress some on both measures — frequency and efficiency — he would still be on track to be one of the most effective penetrators in the league this season. Some regression should be expected but there are other factors at play. This is the second season with CJ McCollum and Lillard starting together and their chemistry clearly continues to grow. The addition of Evan Turner also means Lillard is able to spend a little less time as the primary creator on offense and getting opportunities to attack a defense that has already been moved and isn’t necessarily keyed in on him pounding the ball at the top of the key.

Lillard and his Portland Trail Blazers still have plenty of defensive holes they’ll need to plug if they want to be considered legitimate contenders in the Western Conference. Still, a little more balance has really elevated Lillard’s production and catapulted him into the MVP conversation. If he can keep this up, it could be a special year for both him and his team.