NBA

The case for Damian Lillard – the real MVP?

By Sports Desk February 25, 2021

Of all the hotly debated topics of the sports world, perhaps none is harder to reach a conclusion on than what exactly constitutes an MVP.

Whether discussing NBA, NFL, NHL or MLB, there has never been a definitive answer on what someone needs to do to win a sport's most coveted individual award.  

Clearly, putting up impressive numbers is a must, that much is obvious. But can a player truly be an MVP for example if his team doesn't reach the playoffs? Or what if that player, regardless of statistics, is surrounded by all kinds of talent, should his chances then be diminished? And where does leadership come in? Shouldn't a candidate judged to be the best in the league be not only a scoring or offensive leader, but also a motivational force for his teammates to follow?  

This NBA season is bringing that debate back around, as several players have legitimate cases to take home the award.   

LeBron James, Nikola Jokic, Joel Embiid, Luka Doncic and Stephen Curry are all worthy of being named MVP, but another player is doing even more with less and is truly defining what it means to be most valuable: Damian Lillard.  

Lillard is a seven-time All-Star and has been voted first or second All-NBA four times but has never finished higher than fourth in MVP voting. Lillard is having the best of his nine NBA seasons while almost single-handedly pushing the Trail Blazers to the upper reaches of the Western Conference.  

It's far from just scoring a bunch of points, though the Blazers star is doing plenty of that. He ranks fourth in the NBA with 29.6 points per game and is eighth with 8.0 assists. His 124 three-pointers trail only Curry, and he is fourth in free throws made (211). Lillard is tied with Bradley Beal (18) for the most 30-point games this season and is tied for the league lead (Curry) with 14 games of 30 points and five three-pointers. 

Where Lillard really separates himself from the pack is his continued performances in late and close situations (defined as the last two minutes of games separated by four points or fewer).   

Lillard has always been electric in high-stakes spots but he has taken it to a new level this season. He leads the NBA in points (52), is tied for the lead in field goals made (15) and hasn't missed a free throw (17 for 17) in late and close situations. He's also 15 for 20 (62.5 percent) from the field and five for eight from three-point range.   

The only other players in double figures in field goals made in late and close situations are James and Zach LaVine. James, however, is 14 for 31 (45.2 percent) from the floor and LaVine is 15 for 35 (42.9). 

To further illustrate Lillard’s clutch play, he's made nine of 13 shots (69.2 percent) in the final minute of the fourth quarter or overtime and the score within four points. LaVine is the only other player with as many as nine field goals in that situation but he's nine for 23 (39.1 percent).  

During Portland's 6-1 surge from February 9-20, Lillard was sensational. He averaged 32.7 points and 9.6 assists while shooting 38.8 percent (33 for 85) from three-point range.  

He tallied at least 30 points and 10 assists in four consecutive games during that stretch, the second straight season he's done that. The only other players to accomplish that since 1985-86 are Michael Jordan, Russell Westbrook, James Harden and Doncic.  

In a 126-124 win at New Orleans on February 17, Lillard became just the third player since at least 1985-86 to record 43 points and 16 assists in a game, joining Harden (twice) and Trae Young. Lillard had 11 fourth-quarter points in that win, including a go-ahead three-point play with 16.5 seconds remaining.  

Three nights earlier in a 121-118 win at Dallas, Lillard drilled a tie-breaking 3-pointer with 32 seconds remaining for the last of his 34 points.  

It should be mentioned that the other starters in those games for Portland were Robert Covington (waived, traded three times), Derrick Jones Jr (undrafted, waived), Enes Kanter (waived, traded three times) and Gary Trent Jr. (second-round draft pick).   

Sure, the Blazers also had the promising Anfernee Simons in that game, and 54-year-old Carmelo Anthony (not his real age but he's been around a while).  

Lillard is without question doing remarkable things with a very pedestrian supporting cast. And Portland (18-13) is doing far more than just getting by, winning eight of 12 to move up to second in the Northwest Division and fifth in the super competitive Western Conference.  

One big reason for Portland's success is its record in close games and Lillard has everything to do with that. After going 18-21 last season in games decided by nine points or fewer, the Blazers are 11-5 (.688) this season. Only Philadelphia (.765) has a better winning percentage. 

Portland's rise is remarkably coming without starting guard CJ McCollum, who has been out since January 16 with a broken foot, and starting center Jusuf Nurkic, who suffered a broken wrist two days earlier.  

Since January 18, when the Blazers began playing without McCollum and Nurkic, Lillard ranks third in the NBA in points per game (31.2) and fifth in assists (9.0). He's also third in 3-pointers made (196) and sixth in free throws made (119).  

With McCollum and his 26.7 points per game on the sidelines, Lillard has needed to carry perhaps the greatest offensive load of any player, and that can be a challenging proposition for any point guard.   

Curry, for example, while also a point guard, has Draymond Green to facilitate the offense, leaving him free to look for ways to score. James for all his incredible exploits isn't solely responsible for making sure Anthony Davis (when healthy) gets his touches and Embiid has Ben Simmons to distribute and score. Even the mega-talented Doncic has 7-foot-3 Kristaps Porzingis to attract attention from opposing defenses.  

No team playing Portland this season has been too concerned with anyone on the floor other than Lillard, particularly now with McCollum out. Covington, Jones and Kanter are solid players but no team has ever installed a game plan designed to keep the ball out of their hands.  

Portland are 12.3 points per 100 possessions better when Lillard is on the floor. By comparison, the Lakers are 8.3 points better with James on the court and the Warriors score 9.9 more when Curry is in the game. 

While there clearly are other factors at play in these numbers, it's not difficult to make a case that no other player in the league is more valuable to their team than Lillard to the Blazers right now.  

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