Damian Lillard Deserves More Respect in MVP Race

There are a bunch of names in the NBA MVP race, but for some reason the Blazers’ star is always left out of the conversation.
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A lot of basketball is left to be played before a more accurate read on the MVP race can/should/will be made. But the sheer number of legitimate options makes all speculation about the chase worthwhile, even if several of the following names (or their teams) will eventually fade: Nikola Jokić, Joel Embiid, Kawhi Leonard, LeBron James, Steph Curry, Kevin Durant, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Luka Dončić and some Frankenstein-like amalgamation of Donovan Mitchell, Rudy Gobert, Mike Conley and (Charles Barkley’s favorite player) Jordan Clarkson.

All are incredible players having terrific seasons. But one name not included is Damian Lillard, a centripetal force who over the past few weeks has crept near the top of that crowd. True with every candidate, for Lillard to land on actual ballots his team will need to sustain its winning ways—which likely means holding home-court in the playoffs, stiff-arming the Nuggets, Suns and any other very good team that hasn’t missed two of its three best players for most of the season.

But right now, the elements of a valid MVP claim are vibrating. Lillard’s team is winning, his numbers are ludicrous, his best teammates are hurt, and the Blazers skydive with no parachute when he’s on the bench. He’s second in offensive real plus-minus, sixth in real plus-minus wins and first or second in every offensive RAPTOR measurement, producing on a level that’s almost universally aligned with what he did last year—as arguably the game’s most potent threat—in almost two fewer minutes per game.

And since CJ McCollum—who was playing the best basketball of his career—joined Jusuf Nurkić (and Zach Collins) on the sidelines about five weeks ago, Portland’s franchise point guard has only elevated his play. The Blazers are 10–7 since, with the NBA’s fourth-best offense, while Dame averages 31.6 points and 8.1 assists per game, making 38.4% of his 12 threes and 92.8% of the eight free-throws he attempts each night.

No player has averaged more seconds or dribbles per touch, and only Trae Young leads Lillard in time of possession. The load is humongous, routinely against defenses that spend every possession locked into whatever pick-and-roll coverage they feel can best muffle his pull-up three (which is launched at a league-high volume from telescope-necessary distances). All strategy is futile, though.

The assist totals from four of his last five games—12, 16, 10 and 11—reflect how fast he reacts to increasingly aggressive schemes. (Lillard’s 41.3 assist rate would be by far the highest of his career, as would his 33.9 usage rate.)

Players listed at 6' 2" aren’t supposed to see passes like this one, let alone make them with perfect timing and pinpoint accuracy while another human as large as Zion Williamson invades their personal space.

The Suns blew out the Blazers last night, but the passes Lillard made out of the pick-and-roll showed just how much of a focal point he was to Monty Williams’s entire defensive strategy. The ball flew at least 20 feet on most of his assists. Lillard was patient, never sped up—he looked like a quarterback refusing to get flustered by a pass rush, consistently hitting his tight end on a slant route after slant route.

Lillard leverages the attention his own range gets on drives to the basket, too. Vulnerable bigs who come up higher than they normally would to contest his pull-ups are constantly torched on blow-bys. His hesitation dribble belongs in Mortal Kombat.

Nobody splits traps more ruthlessly than he has this season, either. The margin for error when trying to contain him is too small to survive. Look at this stagger screen against the Knicks. Dame doesn’t even use both picks because Obi Toppin thinks being up at the three-point line should be enough of a deterrent. Nope!

For the entire season Lillard has, statistically, meant more to his team's offense than any other player to their own. When he plays, the Blazers have the best offense in the league and are more effective than the greatest attack in NBA history. When he sits, they score *whispers prayer* 18.4 fewer points per 100 possessions. (The impact here is about equal to what Curry had during his first season as Durant’s teammate, aka it’s historically impressive.)

Even more incredible is the fact that when Lillard rests, Portland leans hard into groups that are ostensibly all about offense. They’ll throw either Enes Kanter or Robert Covington at the five, with Gary Trent Jr., Anfernee Simons, Carmelo Anthony and Rodney Hood as viable to semi-viable scoring options. But still, more often than not, they struggle.

Some of these players can get their own shot, but none (except sometimes Trent) can do so efficiently. All are allergic to the free throw line and sharing the ball. Say what you want about Lillard’s lacking defense. For the purpose of this conversation, the magnitude of his force when Portland has the ball outweighs any drawbacks on the other end. ( When Lillard isn’t in the game, the Blazers defend about as well as the 20th-ranked Pistons.)

Where Lillard’s MVP case really congeals is also where he separates himself from the pack: crunch time. He taps his wrist, nods his head and impels thousands of fans to weep. Ask the Bulls, Mavericks or Pelicans how it feels to face this man in a close contest.

The Blazers are 12–4 in games where the score is within five points in the last five minutes, almost entirely because of one player. Lillard’s true shooting percentage in these situations is ... 82.7. To really capture how ridiculous this is, consider: LeBron James has been superb in the clutch this year, shooting 49.2% from the field and 39.3% from deep. He has 74 points in 78 minutes and the Lakers are +52 when he’s on the court. Incredible!

Then you look at Lillard, who’s shooting 61.5% from the floor, 58.8% from deep, and is an icy 24-for-24 from the charity stripe. Also: In 59 minutes, he has 82 points. Put another way, Lillard has scored eight more crunch-time points than LeBron while taking 22 fewer shots. This is a Twilight Zone episode. And in addition to being so devastating with games on the line, Portland also owns the league’s third-best first-quarter offense, aided by the fact that Lillard tends not to rest until the second quarter begins.

This exercise isn’t meant to be polemic and there’s no need to drag down every other candidate. Each name listed at the top of this article is worthy of applause. Instead, it’s a chance to properly frame Lillard’ growing mythology. We have literally never seen some of the stuff he's doing. His impact is clear. His value is obvious.

Remove the second and third best player for a month from any other MVP hopeful’s team (especially one in the Western Conference) and the results won’t be pretty, which makes sense. Teams, Portland included, are not built to weather that type of storm.

But thanks to Lillard’s nightly brilliance, the Blazers are only two games behind the Lakers, Clippers, and Suns, with home-court advantage as a legitimate possibility. If somehow they’re able to stay in the hunt with a winning record before Nurkić and McCollum return, Lillard’s MVP case will be as straightforward and clear as any other. There’s plenty of time for him (and Portland) to fall off, but betting on that to happen doesn’t feel very wise.