Basketball

Red Hot: Damian Lillard’s MVP Case

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Damian Lillard celebrates after burying the 40-foot game winner in the 2021 NBA All Star Game.

On Sunday’s NBA All Star Game, Damian Lillard scored 32 points on 11/20 shooting, along with 2 rebounds and an assist in 20 minutes off the bench. He sunk 8 of his 16 three point attempts and hit 3/5 30 foot shots, including 2/2 from 40 feet. One of these half court shots came at the end of Damian Lillard’s personal 11 point run (on perfect shooting!) to close out the All Star Game, and was the game winning shot.

On a stage filled with the best talent, Lillard put the world on notice and would have probably ended up with the All Star MVP if Giannis Antetokounmpo didn’t score 35 points on 16/16 shooting.

While the All-Star Game doesn’t count influence Damian Lillard’s MVP case, it’s a great way to build momentum and see where a player stands in comparison to his competition around the league. Clearly, Lillard has been in or near that top 5 realm this year and it’s impossible to leave him off a top 10 list.

With the injury-blitzed Blazers holding onto a 21-14 record and 5th seed due to his heroics, let’s take a look at Damian Lillard’s MVP case.

Raw Statistics

Dame has recorded blistering numbers this year. He’s averaging 29.8 points, 4.3 rebounds, and 8 assists per game, along with 1.1 steals and 0.2 blocks. He’s recorded 44.5/38.4/93.3 splits and a red-hot 61.8% true shooting (a measure of a players efficiency based on points scored and shots + free throws attempted).

He’s only taking 20.8 field goals and 7.5 free throws a game and only turns the ball over 3.3 times per game.

To go along with this, he has a .212 Win Shares/48, which is an estimate of how much a player’s raw stats contribute to wins.

Clearly, Damian Lillard’s MVP case is backed by the numbers. What about his impact?

Impact Metrics

According to most impact metrics (measures of how many points better a team is with a player on and off), Dame is one of the worst defenders in the NBA. While this might seem off-putting at first, defensive advanced stats are by far the most imperfect advanced statistics, and some even come with warnings of inaccuracy (such as dBPM on basketball reference).

Based on stats like d-LEBRON, d-RAPTOR, d-CraftedPM, d-RPM, and d-BPM (the Backpicks’ version), Lillard’s defense is quite low; however, his teammates, such as Gary Trent Jr. (a known plus defender) and Anfernee Simons, record similar or even worse marks in many of these stats, and Robert Covington and Derrick Jones Jr. are recording lowered stats in comparison to their career stats.

Given that the Blazers rank 28th in defense, it’s fair to assume the defensive issues are far overstated, and don’t match up with the eye test. Dame’s defense has been a liability at times, but never enough to actually hurt the team due to his position as a point guard, where the vast majority of one’s impact comes as an offensive general. (It’s worth noting that Lillard’s dFG% are around 39% FG and 29% 3PT, meaning he’s been quite solid on the ball).

Moving on to offensive impact metrics (which have far more reliable results due to how much more data is tracked), Lillard is having a season for the ages. He leads the NBA in o-LEBRON at 5.8, is 2nd in o-CraftedPM at 6.3, is 3rd in o-RAPTOR at 8.4, is 2nd in o-RPM at 6.9, and is 3rd in BackPicks’ o-BPM at 4.5. He has a 1.4 ScoreVal, which is an estimate of how valuable a player’s scoring is to their team, which puts him at 16th in the NBA. While this is still an elite mark, it doesn’t completely add up (this stat has Zion Williamson leading the league).

As a playmaker, Damian Lillard has been incredibly underrated. He’s 4th in the NBA in PlayVal (an estimate of how important a player’s playmaking is) at 2.3 and 3rd in Box Creation at a mind boggling 17.1 (a measure of how many shots a player creates for his team per game). He has a great 7.8 passer rating, a stat that taxes players for being short. These stats are indicative of how truly phenomenal his passing and scoring gravity have been in terms of playmaking for the Portland Trail Blazers.

It’s worth noting that Lillard only has an 8% cTOV, which is a measure of turnovers adjusted to a player’s offensive load (Lillard’s load is 3rd in the NBA at 57.6, indicating that he’s been carrying his team night in and night out).

In terms of impact to his team, the Blazers record a -10.97 net rating with Lillard off, and a +1.44 net rating with Lillard on, good for a +12.41 swing (comparable to MVP Westbrook and 2018-19 MVP Giannis, and higher than 2019-2020 MVP Giannis and 2017-18 MVP Harden).

With Lillard on, the Blazers command an NBA all-time best offensive rating of 119.83, and fall to 104.82 with him off. The defense goes from 118.39 with Lillard on to 115.79 with him off, showing that the defense barely improves when Dame sits, and further showing that his defense is not a detriment.

In short, the impact metrics support Damian Lillard’s MVP campaign very well, an important step in garnering votes for the award.

The X-Factor

Every MVP has an X-Factor that sets them above the rest of the league. Players like Giannis, Curry, and Harden had an incredible record that saw them seeded 1st in their conferences. Westbrook had his incredible triple double run. Durant had all-time scoring efficiency and volume.

What’s the X-Factor for Damian Lillard’s MVP shot? One word.

Clutch.

Lillard is arguably having the most clutch season in NBA history.

He has scored 104 points in the clutch (1 shy of 1st place, held by Zach LaVine) and is 1st in clutch points per game regardless of how one defines clutch (the most common definition is when trailing or leading by 5 points with 5 minutes left in a game). He’s also made the most clutch 3s this year.

He’s shooting an absolutely phenomenal near 85% true shooting in the clutch (the next closest is Harden at about 73%), and is shooting over 70% from the field and from 3, with 100% shooting from the line. Given his efficiency, he also leads in clutch eFG% (a measure of efficiency weighting 3s more).

He’s recorded the most go ahead and game tying shots, the most game winners, and has the best current record in the clutch.

Put that together, and he leads in clutch points per game, 3 pointers, FG%, 3PT%, FT%, TS%, eFG%, go ahead/game tying shots, game winners, and record, while being top 2 in points scored despite the Blazers missing 2 games due to COVID protocols and missing a game himself due to an abdominal strain.

“Dame Time” is a real thing, and it strikes fear into every single defense in the NBA. Whether Lillard is shooting well or not, he always shows up in the clutch. For example, he was 3/13 from the field vs the Warriors early this march, before going 4/4 in the clutch and draining the game winning 3 pointer.

Bleacher Report highlights Lillard’s clutch time play against the rival Golden State Warriors and Stephen Curry.

He did a similar thing vs the Oklahoma City Thunder, where he had only 19 points on 8/21 shooting and 8 assists before the clutch, and then hitting 4 3s and assisting on 2 threes (and thereby accounting for all 18 points scored) without committing a turnover or missing a shot to put away the game and finish with 31 points and 10 assists.

Damian Lillard’s highlights vs the Oklahoma City Thunder via House of Highlights

If the MVP truly means “Most Valuable Player”, Damian Lillard’s MVP campaign should be massively bolstered by his clutch time performances.

Where Does Lillard Stand?

Given his numbers, impact, scoring, playmaking, clutch time play, and success, one can argue that Damian Lillard’s MVP Case is stronger than anyone else’s.

However, if I were to make a list, it would go something like this:

  1. Joel Embiid
  2. Nikola Jokic
  3. Damian Lillard
  4. LeBron James
  5. Stephen Curry

Embiid has the 76ers at the 1st seed in the East while putting up MVP-worthy numbers of his own. Jokic has had a slight numbers advantage on Lillard with a marginally worse record. LeBron’s Lakers have disappointed without Anthony Davis, and Stephen Curry has put up similar numbers to Lillard while sitting at the 9th seed; however, given the strength of the MVP candidates, and that there is half a season’s worth of games remaining, this could very well shake up.

Whether he wins MVP or not, Dame’s on pace for an All-NBA first team appearance, and as C.J. McCollum and Jusuf Nurkic return, the Blazers should only grow stronger, along with Damian Lillard’s MVP run.

To read more about Dame Lillard, check out this piece by Taku Zvobgo!


For more information on the Blazers and your favorite teams, follow me on twitter @Prime_Dame_Time and check out OvertimeHeroics.net.

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Vivan is a high school senior and aspiring computer scientist/engineer, with a passion for watching sports, especially the Portland Trail Blazers, and analyzing film and numbers.