Entering His Ninth Season, Lillard Considers MVP "Definitely A Real Possibility.”

by Casey Holdahl
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For the most part, Trail Blazers point guard Damian Lillard has earned the respect of both his fellow NBA players and the media who cover the league. Sure, earlier in his career, Lillard might not have gotten the credit that he deserved, which seems a bit odd to say about a player who won Rookie of the Year by unanimous vote. But despite that, it still was not hard to find Lillard’s accomplishments being overlooked or diminished, especially when it was time to vote for things like spots on the All-Star or All-NBA teams.

But that has not been the case recently. In the last seasons he’s been named first team All-NBA once, second team twice and has gone from being a borderline All-Star to an All-Star lock. You can quibble about where Lillard ranks among the NBA’s elite, but there is no serious debate challenging whether he is, in fact, elite.

And with that designation comes the possibility of winning Most Valuable Player, something Lillard set as a goal for himself a few seasons back. While he’s nowhere near the frontrunner when it comes to MVP predictions, he’s at least mentioned as a candidate from the start of the season rather than after he goes on some kind of historic scoring run.

“Maybe because I had a good run in the bubble and I had a good run before I hurt my groin last year,” said Lillard about why he was getting more preseason MVP buzz this year than in any other. “I heard a lot of the talk about we were done and we wouldn’t make the playoffs. In Cleveland, after we lost in Cleveland last season I told (Jason) Quick, he was like ‘Dame, this was a bad loss, you still think y’all gonna make it? Another tough loss and you keep saying y’all gonna make it.’ Add I was like ‘Yeah, we gonna make it. Just watch.’”

Which they did. With the eyes of the entire NBA watching, Lillard averaged 37.6 points on 50 percent shooting from the field and 44 percent shooting from three, 9.6 assists, 4.3 rebounds and 1.4 steals in 41.7 minutes as the Trail Blazers made up a four-game deficit on the Grizzlies in the Orlando restart to qualify for the postseason for the seventh-straight season. Lillard was named the Most Valuable Player of the restart games for his effort which, along with his historic run of performances at the end of January, seems to have resulted in his inclusion in the early 2020-21 MVP race.

For Lillard, playing at an MVP-level is as much about a mindset as it is preparation. Most in the NBA can handle the latter, but it’s the former that often separates the good from the great.

“It’s just a place that you go to mentally,” said Lillard. “You do the work away from the floor as far as getting your reps in and taking care of your body, making sure that you just in a solid place mentally. And I know that I’m capable of doing that.”

Of course, simply playing well as in individual isn’t enough to be in the MVP conversation, let alone with the award itself. It’s an unwritten requirement for MVP that a player is on a good-to-great team, so the additions of Robert Covington and Derrick Jones Jr. and the return of Jusuf Nurkić bolster Portland’s chances of finishing in the top of the West, and thus Lillard’s chances of being considering for MVP.

“I think, in my opinion, I feel like I’ve had a few MVP-level seasons, I just think with those seasons, you’ve got to be winning,” said Lillard. “I think the two years that we were a three-seed back-to-back years, I thought I had big years, it was just that guys on one and two seed teams had big years as well. That was that.

“But I feel like if we’re a winning team and we in that top two, top three, then I think it’s definitely a real possibility.”

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