Damian Lillard has been making a case to be this year’s MVP.
When the season began, it seemed like the Portland Trail Blazers were primed for a major step back. After coming off consecutive playoff appearances, including a trip to the Western Conference Semifinals, the Blazers had a major overhaul in the offseason. Four starters, including then four-time all-star LaMarcus Aldridge, had left the team in the offseason via trade and free-agency. The only remaining starter was youngster Damian Lillard.
Fast-forward to March, and the Trail Blazers are in prime playoff position. They currently occupy the seventh seed in the Western Conference and are within striking distance of the Dallas Mavericks for the sixth seed. Since the turn of the calendar year, they have been even better. From the middle of January to the end of February, the Blazers went on a stretch that saw them win 15 out of 18 games, including a 32-point victory over conference-leader Golden State Warriors. A big reason why is the lone remaining starter from a year ago: Damian Lillard.
To date, Lillard is averaging 25.8 points, 4.2 rebounds, and 6.9 assists per game. He is currently fifth in the league in scoring and eighth in assists per game. He is one of three players who is top five in points per game and top ten in assists per game in the league. The other two? Steph Curry and James Harden, last year’s league MVP and MVP-runner up, respectively. Lillard’s traditional stats are not the only numbers suggesting he should be in the mix for the MVP award.
The Trail Blazers are extremely dependent on Lillard for their offensive production. The usage rate statistic highlights this; Lillard has a usage rate of 34%, which is sixth in the league. Perhaps even more exemplifying of Blazer’s dependence on Lillard is his performance in wins versus loses. Lillard averages four more points per game in victories versus loses (27 points versus 23 points). He also shoots eight percent higher from the field in these games. This means that when Lillard is performing well, it’s more likely that the Trail Blazers will be as well.
To help strengthen his MVP candidate case, one should look to his box-score plus minus and his win shares. He has a box score plus minus of 4.9 and has the eighth-highest offensive win shares in the league at 6.5. This means that the Blazers perform significantly better when he is on the floor and that his offensive performance has been a big reason why the Blazers have been winning games. Lillard has elevated his game since the break though, and his team is benefiting from it.
In 2016, when the Western-Conference All-Stars were announced, many believed that Lillard was the biggest snub in the league. Since the break, he has been on a tear. He has been averaging 33.6 points on 49% shooting from the field and 43% from deep. He has even scored 50 points twice in that stretch, joining Steph Curry as the only other player to do so in that eight-game stretch. Lillard’s elevated play since the All-Star break has been a huge reason why the Blazers were able to win six out of their first seven games after the break and take control of the seventh spot in the Western Conference playoff picture.
Lillard may also be the closest player we have to Steph Curry in the league today. One of Curry’s defining characteristics is his ability to combine volume and efficiency when it comes to the three-point shot. Lillard is able to do this, albeit not to same standards as Curry. Lillard is shooting 38% from long range on the season while averaging eight attempts a game. Although, on face value, 38% isn’t an overwhelming number by any standard, when considering that many of his attempts come off the dribble, this is an impressive number.
NBA TV (@NBATV) March 7, 2016
With LaMarcus Aldridge now playing for the San Antonio Spurs, Damian Lillard has elevated his game. He has put the inexperienced Trail Blazers on his back and has led them to the middle of the Western Conference playoff picture. Despite being the a snub for the Western Conference All-Star team this year, Lillard’s play has earned him the right to be in the MVP conversation for the 2015-2016 season.
*Statistics courtesy of espn.com and basketball-reference.com
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