The Whiteboard: Damian Lillard has entered the MVP conversation

Stephen Lew-USA TODAY Sports
Stephen Lew-USA TODAY Sports /

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So far in the 2020-21 NBA campaign, three names have dominated the MVP conversation: Joel Embiid, Nikola Jokic and LeBron James.

A fourth has crept into the picture in recent weeks, as Stephen Curry is putting up numbers on par with his unanimous MVP season back in 2015-16, fueling the Golden State Warriors’ turnaround in the process.

But a fifth name has officially entered the chat, because for the last few weeks, Damian Lillard has frozen everyone’s clocks on Lillard Time.

Winning six straight games and nine of their last 11, the Portland Trail Blazers now sit at 18-10, sporting the fourth-best record in the wild Western Conference and fifth-best record in the entire NBA. The fact that they’ve made this sudden surge up the standings despite CJ McCollum (15 games missed) and Jusuf Nurkic (16 games missed) being absent for most of the season is a testament to the incredible tear Dame is on.

Damian Lillard deserves MVP consideration

It’s not just some sudden hot streak, however; Lillard is averaging a cool 29.8 points, 7.7 assists and 4.4 rebounds per game this season — MVP-caliber numbers, if his team continues to put together wins. He’s shooting 45.1 percent from the floor and canning 38.4 percent of his 3s, which is no easy task for a guy who’s launching from deep — or even from the logo itself — 10.8 times per game.

Lillard’s 62.5 true-shooting percentage speaks to how deadly he’s been. In fact, only two players in NBA history have ever averaged at least 29 points and seven assists per game with a true-shooting percentage of at least 62 like Dame is doing right now: James Harden (last year), and Damian Lillard himself (also last year).

And that’s saying nothing of how downright inevitable he becomes in late-game situations.

Despite owning the NBA’s fifth-best record, Rip City sports the 13th-best point differential, which is usually a pretty good indicator of team success. So how are the Blazers stringing together so many wins with a meager plus-0.7 point differential? Because Dame simply won’t let his team lose in close games.

In “clutch” minutes, which defines as the final five minutes of any game where the score is within five points, Lillard is an absolute killer, leading the league with 82 points in only 57 crunch-time minutes — well ahead of second (Zach LaVine with 78 points in 69 clutch minutes) and third place (James Harden with 65 points in 60 minutes).

Dame is also shooting a blistering 63.2 percent from the floor and 10-for-17 (58.8 percent) from 3-point range in those situations. He’s tacked on 14 “clutch” assists (third in the NBA behind only Ricky Rubio’s 17 and Harden’s 16), is a plus-43 in those minutes and oh yeah, the Blazers are a staggering 12-3 in the 15 games where they’ve faced crunch-time.

So yeah, to say Damian Lillard is unstoppable in the clutch is an understatement at this point.

It’s no surprise a player like that has been instrumental to Portland’s success, but the on-court/off-court numbers are staggering. The Blazers boast a plus-4.9 Net Rating with Dame on the floor, but that number plummets to minus-9.7 whenever he sits. The defensive rating may improve from 115.1 points per 100 possessions to 112.7 whenever he’s out, but the offensive drop-off is so massive (120.0 O-rating to 103.0) that it hardly even matters.

When Rip City fell to 9-8 and started losing key contributors left and right, it felt like this team had reached its breaking point. Instead, Lillard broke the mold and started going scorched earth on opposing nets to not only keep his team afloat but actually improve their standing. Whether it was his game-winning triple against the Chicago Bulls, his go-ahead 3 in the final minute against the Dallas Mavericks or his 43 points (11 of which came in the fourth quarter), 16 assists and go-ahead 3-point play in a win over the New Orleans Pelicans, Lillard has been the definition of valuable.

Is he the most valuable player though? It’s difficult to say at this early juncture. His numbers don’t quite compare to what Embiid (29.7 PPG, 10.8 RPG, 3.1 APG, 1.3 SPG, 1.2 BPG, 54.0 FG%, 39.7 3P%),  Jokic (27.4 PPG, 11.1 RPG, 8.6 APG, 1.6 SPG, 57.0 FG%, 40.2 3P%) and LeBron (25.9 PPG, 8.2 RPG, 7.9 APG, 50.8 FG%, 37.2 3P%) are doing, and all but Jokic play for teams with better records.

But if Lillard keeps the Blazers on this torrid pace, the longer McCollum and Nurkic are out, the better his MVP case will look. His numbers aren’t far off from the league’s leading candidates, and if Curry is now joining the conversation while leading a 16-13 Golden State Warriors squad — even with the absurd numbers he’s putting up — then Lillard should be right there in the mix too.

If Portland can climb into one of those top-three spots in the West and Dame Time continues to dominate the clock late in games, we simply have to include Lillard in the MVP race.

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