Damian Lillard, Tom Hanks, and slumps

What to do when you miss 50 of your first 65 3-pointers

Facing measurably tough defense, Damian Lillard started the season in a shooting slump. In a rarity for a professional athlete, he opened up about it while it’s still happening. HARRY HOW/GETTY IMAGES

On Monday, the Smartless podcast posted an interview with Tom Hanks. Hanks had a story about his earliest days in Shakespearean theater, when a rehearsal was ruined by hungover actors, and in a weird way it made Hanks’ career. Hanks says the director started yelling:

He yelled at everybody. He said, Hey, Hey, Hey, Hey, Hey, we've got three weeks to get the show up on its feet. And you, people are not even trying for crying out loud. I can't do my job if you guys don't do your jobs. You guys have got to show up on time. You’ve got to know your lines and you've got to have an idea. I can't provide everything here. So let's take a break, mainline some coffee, chew it if you have to, right out of the jar, but come back here with some frigging energy. … I was 20 years old then. And that lesson really super stuck to me. … So all through all of these gigs that I had ...  that was always the thing that I thought the most important thing to do was show up on time, know your lines and have an idea in your pocket for sure. Bring it. That's that's all I did.

Hanks says that speech has been his focus ever since. Inside he thinks something like “show up ready to work” and the output was enough hits for five movie stars: Splash, Big, Sleepless in Seattle, Philadelphia, Forrest Gump, Apollo 13, Saving Private Ryan, Green Mile, and on and on.

It might feel like Tom Hanks never missed.

But in fact he has missed a ton. After Splash put him on the map 1984, he spent years making movies that David Thorpe loves but most people never saw, like Man with One Red Shoe, The Burbs, Volunteers, Nothing in Common, and Every Time we Say Goodbye.

Think of anyone who fits in your mind as the most habitually successful in their field. They have all had slumps. The question is when you are missing … should you change your approach? Or stick with it?

Late last season, ESPN’s Kirk Goldsberry made an exceptional video about Lillard’s shooting. The thesis, backed by data: Lillard’s the best very long distance shooter by far. No one else has ever taken 130 attempts from 30-plus feet, and Lillard made 54 of them. That’s 41.5 percent from almost halfcourt. It’s insane how good a shooter Lillard is. 

A few hours after Tom Hanks was on Smartless, Damian Lillard also talked into a microphone, after a disappointing loss to a depleted 76ers’ roster. Lillard did a rare thing for an NBA player: He talked at length about the experience of being in a slump while still in the slump

A career 37 percent 3-point shooter, Lillard has made only 15-of-65 this season, putting his team almost 30 points behind where they’d be if he’d hit at his normal clip. The Blazers are off to a dreary start in no small part because of those 50 misses. But if you’re Lillard, is it enough—from a player who has been excellent over 5,533 career attempts—to change … anything?

Seven lousy shooting games? Tom Hanks’ vehicle to legend status spun its tires for closer to seven movies. It would have been a cinch to change his hair, his agent, his platform … anything! Maybe his idea to show up knowing his lines, with an idea and energy, might have seemed like not enough. And maybe he did all that. But his story is that the whole time he just kept doing what that one director said to do. 

Lillard is, I’m sure, hearing from all kinds of people with ideas about how to get himself on track. He said he agrees with his coach about staying calm and “doing nothing crazy to search for a solution.” Lillard says that he understands others, who weren’t in the gym as he prepared, might think he needs to change things. But he knows how he worked, how well it has worked in the past.

“I did the same offseason work,” he says. “Trained a lot. I played during the summer, I played in the Olympics. When I think back on my honeymoon I was training. I actually came into this season in better shape than last season. It’s not a physical thing, I was ready physically and mentally.”

On Monday, Lillard made basically the same point Hanks did: Even when the preparation is right, the results don’t always come along. 

“I practice and show up, go through my routine, do everything to take care of my body, get my shots up, you know. I'm sharp with everything that I do,” Lillard says. 

To be sharp with everything you do is what Hanks’ director wanted from his repertory theater troupe. That’s how to be professional. Get the process right. Live with the outcome.

“Sometimes it's just failure is a part of it,” says Lillard. “Coming up short is a part of it. And I don't know what else to say other than I accept the failures.”

This is not Lillard’s first shooting slump. One of the worst shooting months of Lillard’s life was January 2019. He went 17 games without ever making 5 3s. There were multiple games in which he made just two of ten 3s, another against the Spurs when he missed all seven. Over an eight-game stretch he shot similarly to now, making 15 of 57 3s. 

A few months later, Lillard hit one of the most famous 3s in NBA history to eliminate the Thunder, on a night he finished 10 of 18 from behind the arc. The Blazers were on the playoff run of Lillard’s career-to-date, making it all the way to the Western Conference finals. In other words, things can turn around.

Everything Damian said makes sense to me


He gets it. Every player endures slumps. Every single one. In fact it’s almost an annual thing, even for elite shooters. 

Dame hit on the most important part of any recovery when he said “they feel good coming out of my hand.” That’s always my first question to a shooter I’m helping. If they don’t, only then do we start diagnosing. Otherwise I tend to look at shot selection, normally misses that feel good come from shooters taking difficult shots unnecessarily or uncharacteristically. Neither applies here, as Dame is one of the greatest long shot makers in history. The shots he’s missing now are in his wheelhouse.

He also understands the idea of process and what I like to call “the light switch.” In my 2017 book, Basketball is Jazz, I write about “The Scientist and the Artist.” The artist shoots with little care about anything but feelings. He may have a perfect stroke, he may not, but he doesn’t dwell on the mechanics. If he misses a few in a row he knows the made streak is coming. 

The scientist is the opposite. Every detail is calculated and measured. Every miss presents feedback, data, for a processor that will help dictate how the next shot is taken. These shooters are aware of everything, and they can get inside their heads too much when misses start to pile up. 

Once they start thinking too much about what should be an automatic motion, a train wreck can set in because one tiny adjustment can end up impacting all sorts of things in the shot. Shane Battier discussed this exact problem when dealing with a slump in the 2013 NBA Finals. He said he kept missing right and couldn’t fix the issue, so in that final game he just AIMED LEFT, and lucked into some makes. That’s not a good strategy.

Lillard sounds more like my “light switch” mentality. I tell players “when you flick the light switch on, does the switch care if the light actually came on? No. It did its job, opening up current from the power source to the bulb. That’s it. Maybe the bulb is out, maybe there is a broken circuit, or perhaps the power is out in the entire house. That’s not for the light switch to worry about. Opening or closing, the path that current can take is the only mission. 

I ask pro players questions like:

  • Were you open?

  • Were you in your shooting range? 

  • Did the time and score context suggest a 3? 

  • Did you put on a good stroke?

  • Did you start and end with balance? 

  • Did the shot feel like every other shot? 

If yes to everything, you did your job. Period. Never think about it again. Move on to the next play. 

If any of those answers is “no,” then we break down film. Lillard is saying everything feels right, and if his mind is at ease overall, I'd guess he is about to get really hot. He sounds like an artist (and he is a musician), so perhaps his mind is at ease, as he suggests. 

You may laugh, but much of my teaching is based on Mr. Miyagi from the original Karate Kid. He begins training Daniel with some sage advice: It is safe to walk on the right side of the road, it is safe to walk on the left side of the road, but walk in the middle? “GET SQUISHED, just like grape.” He’s letting Daniel know, either commit fully to his karate training, or not at all. 

I can’t help but think of that lesson when I watch Dame this year. This summer he said he wanted to see how things went this offseason before he decided on a future with the team, a “down the middle” commitment if ever there was one. Recently he said he’s all in with Chauncey Billups as his guy. 

Of course players are allowed to change their minds, there’s nothing wrong with a superstar like Lillard deciding to stay in Portland, no matter how average the team projects to be. 

Playing like Dame requires a computer-like brain. Pure gunners like Jordan Clarkson can shoot without a conscience, chucking up shots against any defense. They don’t face nearly the same level of defensive coverages that all-league players like Lillard see nightly. (If they did, they’d have far more turnovers and miss a lot more shots.) Lillard, I bet, has a brilliant mind that computes at lightning speeds possession after possession. It may look natural but I’m certain it’s not just feel, it’s cascading sets of decisions at super-high speeds. 

That same analytical mind knows his current roster can’t get much better as currently constructed, and it also knows that no superstar stays on an average team for his entire career. He’s done the math. The top 20 players in EPM on dunksandthrees.com have played for 43 teams--the 20 that initially drafted them plus 23 others. Only seven are still with the team that drafted them. Of them only one is, like Dame, over 30, and Stephen Curry has three titles and two MVPs in Golden State. Among players of his caliber, Dame is alone in sticking with a mediocre team.

For Lillard, the right side of the road is being fully committed to the Blazers no matter what, the left side is that he really wants to win a championship. The dreaded middle is to say the right things about Portland, while keeping an eye on other options. If I worked with Dame, I’d try to help him through this shooting slump with an honest conversation about how he really wants his future to go, because indecision can get you squished.

There are two far more simpler and plausible explanations for his iffy start.

He's getting to the line less, in part because of much-discussed changes in the way the game is being called. For one of the NBA’s shorter players, it’s harder to get easy buckets around the rim, and it’s much harder to get to the line. (He’s shooting 3.9 free throws per game, compared to 7.2 last season.) Believe me when I tell you that to shooters, it matters to see the ball go through the hoop. Less free throws, less made buckets, equals less positive vibes overall. That can absolutely affect shooters. 

Know what else can make shooting harder? Using a new ball! 

That's what Paul George thinks. There is no doubt players LOVED the old ball. 

Lillard carries the weight of these decisions with class. His comments this summer are known everywhere in the league. I’m sure he'd love nothing more than to close out all distractions the way we close out open tabs on our computers. But every time he enters a road arena, he needs to prepare for these kinds of chants. Or worse. 

Maybe it's a combination of things, maybe one issue more than the others, we will never know.  Tom Hanks said that movies are either zeros or ones, meaning they were hits or they weren’t. That’s where we are with Dame, on and off the court. He will either start making a bunch of 3s or he won’t. And he will either stay in Portland or head elsewhere. It’s hard to be in the middle.

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