The Maestro Damian Lillard made an effortless half-court three to win the All-Star Game and since he’s incredible and he hasn’t received much pub nor consideration for being a legit MVP candidate, let’s take a look at Portland’s blazing All-Star.
The Portland Trail Blazers have the 8th best winning percentage in the NBA. Bet you didn’t expect that. This, despite losing their starting front court (Jusuf Nurkic and Zach Collins) and their second best player, CJ McCollum (who will return eventually from a hairline fracture in his foot). Portland has one fewer win than the Milwaukee Bucks, who are led by two-time reigning MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo, and who haven’t lost three-fifths of their starting five to injury, in fact both Jrue Holiday and Khris Middleton are playing extremely well. Can Giannis really win a third MVP if his team doesn’t have the best overall record while remaining relatively healthy?
Meanwhile, Dame’s been flying star-solo for over a month now. Since CJ went out on January 16th, the Blazers have the seventh best winning percentage in the NBA. That’s all while the other MVPs (LeBron James, Joel Embiid, Giannis) have had at least most of their team around them. Anthony Davis last played on February 14th, and the Lakers are 3-6 since, so let’s consider that a positive kudos point to Dame over Bron, since the Lakers have had fewer absences of instrumental players than the Blazers (every team is dealing with COVID-19 and absences, so I don’t want to make it seem like some teams are “healthy” and at full strength unless they absolutely are). If the Lakers continue to slide without the Brow, then how can we anoint the King as MVP?
Joel Embiid’s MVP case is the strongest in certain ways, but in a Most Valuable sense, I still think Dame beats out the Process. Embiid plays with Ben Simmons, who is a legit Defensive Player of the Year candidate, and the Sixers have Tobias Harris, as well as Danny Green and sharpshooting Seth Curry. Dame’s been playing off of Robert Bob Covington, Carmelo Top 100 Anthony, Enes Kanter, and a collection of young players who nobody knows about yet (though maybe you know Anfernee Simons after last night’s dunk contest). What I mean by this is that Dame has less offensive firepower than Embiid does right now, and he’ll continue to feel the lack until CJ returns. (Portland will forever have less defense than Philadelphia, a legit point in Embiid’s favor.)
Does Lillard keeping the Blazers afloat (and, a top 10 team) mean more than Embiid and the Sixers rolling through the Eastern Conference? By the way, Portland’s beaten Philadelphia TWICE this season, and one of those games was without Dame! Embiid couldn’t defeat a Blazers team without Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum. Does that sound like an MVP to you? And, as we all know, the Eastern conference is the lesser of the two, so every Blazers victory in the West feels just a little bit tougher, and just a little bit more important.
Embiid has MVP numbers, though, no doubt he’s having a special season. But Dame’s numbers are also absolutely MVP worthy.
He’s currently third in scoring (29.8 points per game), behind Bradley Beal and Embiid, and he’s eighth in assists per game (a flat eight per game). Since CJ’s been out, though, the Blazers have the sixth best offensive rating as a team, and Dame’s averaging 31.1 PPG, 8.7 APG, he’s shooting 39% from 3 on nearly 12 deep shots per game, and he’s making 93% of his free throws. Out of everyone who takes at least four free throws per game, Lillard is second in free throw percentage, right behind Steph Curry. When Dame gets to the line, he makes it count.
It’s not just his threes, though, even though those are hella impressive. (Dame takes the second most threes per game, again, right after Steph.) Dame’s averaging 15+ drives per game, and he has the 7th best field goal percentage on those drives; he averages 2.8 trips to the line off those drives (better than James Harden); AND, he has THE BEST free throw percentage of all players who average at least one free throw off their drives. So, he drives a lot, he scores when he drives, and he gets fouls while driving, and he sinks those freebies at a better rate than anyone else in the league. His penetration efficiency (feel free to laugh, it’s fine) is as valuable as his outside lethality.
Oh yeah, and that thing known as Dame Time. Lillard’s been in 19 games that had clutch endings (under five minutes left, game’s within five points), and the Trail Blazers are 14-5 in those games. Is that good? Yes, it is literally the best for players who’ve been in that many clutch moments. Dame averages 5.5 points in those situations, best in the NBA. He’s sinking 58% of his clutch threes, and he’s hitting ONE HUNDRED PERCENT of his free throws. In clutch moments, when the game is on the line, and the pressure’s at the maximum, Lillard is perfect from the line. He’s the guy you want at the end of the game. What’s more valuable than that?
Maestro Lillard can kill you from deep outside, he can kill you by driving to the hoop, and he can kill you at the line, and he will kill you at the end of the game. If Dame can keep an undermanned Portland in the top of the West, in spite of all the absent Blazers and in spite of all the excellent Western teams, and he does that with an offense that just cannot be stopped, then why shouldn’t he be considered for MVP? Embiid has more help, in a weaker conference. LeBron’s Lakers have weakened while Dame’s Blazers continue to win. And, the Bucks have only ONE MORE WIN than the Trail Blazers!
There are a lot of different ways to think about the MVP. Does it mean best overall player? Does it mean best player on the best team? Does it mean that player had a special season? For this year, I’m choosing to think about the MVP in terms of actual value. I can’t think of a player who’s provided more to their team when that team needed it the most than Damian Lillard. Dame Time is right now.