Damian Lillard has made a compelling MVP case as Portland has held steady in the West without two of its best players.
In an NBA season marked by so much uncertainty, the most successful teams are, largely, the ones best suited to handle adversity. A year like this rewards teams with the cohesion to stave off cold spells, the depth to weather multiple extended absences, or, in rare cases, a star player capable of keeping a team alive almost on his own. It’s in this third category that we find the Portland Trail Blazers, who boast the fifth-best record in the Western Conference and a certified MVP candidate in Damian Lillard.
Losing CJ McCollum and Jusuf Nurkić to prolonged injuries early in the season could have spelled disaster for the Blazers, who, without adequate depth and secondary scoring around Lillard, seemed bound to sink in a tightly-packed Western Conference without two of its best players. But now, nine weeks after McCollum fractured his left foot and Nurkić broke his right wrist, the Blazers sit just three wins behind the Lakers, Clippers, and Suns, and have won at nearly the same rate since McCollum’s injury (59.1 percent) as they did before it (61.5 percent). What should have been a catastrophic turn proved only a slight hiccup.
Damian Lillard has taken his game, and the Trail Blazers, to another level
That sort of resilience is a theme of Lillard’s nine-year tenure in Portland. The Blazers haven’t missed the playoffs since 2014, even as they’ve sustained myriad injuries and inconsistencies along the way. Every season, Lillard raises his level of play out of necessity, steadying the team through one unfortunate situation after the next. To watch him navigate adversity is to witness the full force of human determination at work; his team may lose, but never because Lillard himself wasn’t equal to the challenge. This season, he’s playing arguably the best basketball of his life at a time when his team most needs it. One of just five players with a usage and assist rate over 35 percent, Lillard is shouldering the heaviest playmaking burden of his career without sacrificing the pristine scoring efficiency or mistake avoidance that makes him one of the surest offensive spearheads in the NBA.
The Blazers annually post one of the league’s best offenses with Lillard on the floor and crater with him off; this season has fit that theme to the extreme. They’re scoring 121 points per 100 possessions with Lillard on the court and just 105.8 when he rests — a disparity roughly equal to that between the Nets and the Wolves. Even in McCollum’s absence, the Blazers have managed a top-six offense in the league. Those marks come with a significant tradeoff on the other end of the floor, and Lillard doesn’t exactly shore up Portland’s defense. But his offensive contributions far outweigh Portland’s defensive limitations, and it’s hard to pin poor team defense on a point guard with unremarkable defensive personnel around him.
The Blazers reimagined their lineup in the offseason, adding rangy wings to help fill in the defensive gaps around Lillard and McCollum. But now, absent McCollum’s scoring artistry or Nurkić’s connectivity in the pick-and-roll, Lillard is Portland’s only reliable offensive creator, and even he admits to wondering what might be different with a healthy roster around him. “You always see moments where they can help the team and impact the game,” Lillard told Jason Quick of The Athletic. “Even when we were winning, those weren’t running-away wins. Those were down-to-the-wire wins, so even in those games, it was like, man, it would have been good to have those guys out there.”
Bit players like Gary Trent, Derrick Jones, Robert Covington, and Enes Kanter have stepped up admirably in recent weeks, but still leave plenty to be desired. Lillard’s ability to absorb more responsibility has kept teammates within their depth without sinking the star point guard. He’s one of the most efficient isolation and pick-and-roll scorers in the NBA, and perhaps the league’s preeminent pull-up shooter. As soon as he crosses halfcourt, Lillard must be accounted for, which has a warping effect on whatever defense has the misfortune of trying to stop him. Conventional schemes don’t apply to players who can just as easily pull up from beyond 35 feet or zip all the way to the rim. To pull a defense out of shape with the threat of a shot is one thing, but it takes a greater understanding of that gravity to fully leverage it against an opponent:
Plays like those are a simple but understated part of Lillard’s game. Where many elite scorers might attempt a risker pass or be reluctant to give the ball up, Lillard accepts the advantage given to him. He may not fire lasers across the court like the league’s taller playmakers, but Lillard nearly always makes the right decision in these situations, and it’s here that his gradual year-to-year improvement stands out. Not only does Lillard force teams to guard him beyond previously reasonable distances, he’s developed counters for every coverage that might stop him. If he isn’t making a difficult play himself, he’s creating an easier one for his teammates. Corral him with a trap, and he lets his teammates play four-on-three. Chase him with a plodding giant, and Lillard will attack his outside hip and turn the corner. Drop that big man back, and Lillard’s rising up for 3:
Lillard may not scare opponents without the ball in the same way Stephen Curry does, but the makeup of Portland’s roster doesn’t allow him much time to spot up or cut, and his heavy on-ball workload gives him more direct influence over the offense than off-ball superstars like Curry. For a team that so often finds itself in tight late-game situations, that sort of authorship comes in handy. The Blazers have arguably had the NBA’s best clutch offense this season, and Lillard is having one of the best clutch scoring seasons in NBA history. The man with multiple series-ending buzzer-beaters in his career owns a cartoonish 84.8 percent true shooting percentage (not a typo) in clutch time this year while assisting on 47 percent of his teammates’ buckets in those situations. Lillard’s late-game heroics have helped Portland outperform its point differential by the third-largest margin in the league and stay afloat in a cramped playoff race. If there isn’t a place in the MVP conversation for a player with that kind of résumé, our criteria may warrant reconsideration.
McCollum and Nurkić will likely be back on the floor in a few weeks, and Portland will finally have the full complement around Lillard that it envisioned at the start of the season. After staying above water for so long without a full team, the Blazers can reasonably expect to contend for home-court advantage with one. If Damian Lillard can carry a team with so little around him, what might he do with an easier workload and more talent to work with? If he’s unguardable in the most adverse of circumstances, what pain might he inflict on the rest of the league next to a co-star who demands a defense’s full attention? The Blazers will find the answers soon and discover what it all means for the fate of their season.