MVP Rankings » It Is Damian Lillard's Time

by Casey Holdahl
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At this point, there's no argument against Damian Lillard being the 2020-21 Most Valuable Player. You can make arguments, and strong ones at that, for other players, as most do in the latest edition of MVP Power Rankings, but there is no legitimate claim to be made that the 6-3 guard in his ninth season out of Weber State hasn't done everything he possibly could through the first two-thirds of the season to be consider the league's most valuable player.

His team is winning -- Portland is currently in fifth and are just a half game out of fourth and 1.5 games out of third -- his statistics are ridiculous -- he’s second in points (29.8) and free throw percentage (94 percent), third in three-pointers made (4.2), sixth in PER (29.04) and offensive rating (119.2) and ninth in assists (7.8) -- he kept Portland afloat despite a significant number of injuries to players in the starting lineup, he's the most clutch player in the league and is so feared as soon as he steps across halfcourt that teams are going to historic lengths to limit his effectiveness. And even that doesn't stop him.

So while "valuable" is certainly a nebulous term that means different things to different people, it is difficult to think of a team that would suffer more without their best player than the Trail Blazers would without Lillard. That alone might not be enough to win MVP -- after all, that's been true for at least the last five seasons -- but with the wins and the stats, not to mention the leadership, durability and importance to the community, Damian Lillard has as good of a case as anyone, and a lot better case than others, to win the the Maurice Podoloff Trophy at the end of the season. 

Luckily, it seems like the national media has taken notice, also a requirement to win MVP, this time around. Most of the rankings have Lillard behind Nikola Jokic for the top spot, though he's No. 1 in at least one ranking and has steadily been moving up in the others. 

• Michael C. Wright of NBA.com has Damian Lillard at No. 2 on his "Kia MVP Ladder" rankings this week, one spot better than last week...

The NBA’s second-leading scorer, Lillard continues to fight through various nagging injuries to lead a surging Portland squad that sits at sixth in the Western Conference. The Blazers enter tonight’s showdown against Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Milwaukee Bucks (10 ET, NBA TV) riding a four-game win streak with Lillard averaging 25.7 ppg in the three outings he played during the streak. Lillard scorched the Detroit Pistons from deep on Wednesday, hitting 5 of 7 to finish with 33 points. What is scarier is Lillard believes the Trail Blazers, which have battled through a slew of injuries this season, are finally whole again and “trending upwards.”

Wright has Lillard behind Denver's Nikola Jokic at No. 1 and ahead of Brooklyn's James Harden at No. 3. 

• Chris B. Haynes at Yahoo! Sports has Lillard in the top spot on his weekly "NBA MVP Watch" rankings, also a one-spot improvement over last week...

The Portland Trail Blazers’ franchise guard earns the top spot. His durability (even though he’s dealing with a litany of injuries), his unmatched clutch prowess, his load carrying and his leadership have kept the Trail Blazers in playoff contention while their second- and third-best players were sidelined for significant portions of the season. The Norman Powell deal should help Portland climb the standings, and if so, Lillard could snag the franchise’s first MVP award since Bill Walton received the honor 43 years ago.

Haynes has Lillard ahead of Nikola Jokic at No. 2. 

• Brad Botkin at CBS Sports also has Lillard at No. 2 in his lateast (and rather detailed) MVP rankings...

I will state again: I believe Jokic has been a better player than Lillard this season. Slightly. But what Lillard has done in keeping the Blazers in the thick of the Western Conference playoff race despite CJ McCollum and Jusuf Nurkic missing extended time, not to mention Zach Collins missing the whole season, has been remarkable.

Lillard's clutch prowess has been well chronicled, and for good reason. The Blazers are a net-negative team this season (-0.7 point differential), but they are 29-18 entering Thursday because they are plus-82 in Lillard's clutch minutes. They have as thin a margin between winning and losing as any team in the league. So thin, in fact, that you wonder how long these last-minute Lillard heroics are sustainable.

But so far, they have been. And until that changes, Lillard is a certified superhero making routine work of rescuing his friends from seemingly certain death. He did it again last Thursday to the Miami Heat, getting fouled on a 3-pointer inside the final second with the score tied. He hit all three free throws for a 125-122 Portland win. For the season, Lillard leads the league with 135 total clutch points on 56 percent shooting, including 44 percent from 3 and 100 percent (43 for 43) from the free-throw line, and those numbers, gaudy as they appear, have actually declined of late amid a short shooting skid for Lillard.

Now that Lillard has McCollum and Nurkic back in the lineup, he's operating on a level playing field with Jokic. The Blazers added Norman Powell at the trade deadline. The Nuggets added Aaron Gordon. Whoever does more with the hand they've been dealt from here on out, in my mind, becomes the rightful MVP.

As you probably picked up, Botkin has Lillard behind Nikola Jokic at No. 1 and ahead of James Harden at No. 3. 

• Sam Amick at The Athletic has Dame at No. 3 in his latest MVP race ranking, one spot better than in the most recent ranking...

Even with all the setbacks — losing C.J. McCollum, Jusuf Nurkic and Zach Collins chief among them — Lillard is putting together one of his most special seasons yet because his Blazers simply won’t back down. We’ve known for years now that his defiant and dynamic spirit is contagious, and this season has been no different. His leadership doesn’t show up on those stat lines above.

Now here comes the fun part for Lillard & Co.: McCollum returned recently from the fractured foot suffered on Jan. 14 and instantly got back to his old hoops tricks, and Nurkic is now three games into his return from the right wrist fracture that sidelined him on Jan. 14. Portland, in other words, is in prime position to make a surge while aiding Lillard’s MVP campaign in the process.

Amick has Lillard behind Giannis Antetokounmpo at No. 2 -- and Nikola Jokic at No. 1 -- and ahead of Philadelphia's Joel Embiid at No. 3. 

• Apparently one MVP ranking isn't enough for The Athletic, as Zach Harper also has an MVP ranking, and his has Lillard at No. 2 this week...

Lillard has a real shot at winning this award. He’s only missed a couple of games, and the Blazers are right on Denver’s tails in the standings in the West. If Lillard keeps up this play the rest of the season, it’s hard not to make him top two in the voting. Because so many players on top teams have struggled to stay healthy in this chaotic season, availability becomes so important. Lillard and Jokic have excelled in this category. They have excelled in keeping their teams going. And they have excelled in putting up brilliant numbers. It may come down to whether the Blazers catch/pass Denver by season’s end.

As you can probably surmise even if you don't have a subscription, Harper has Lillard behind Nikola Jokic at No. 1 and ahead of Joel Embiid at No. 3. 

• Finally, the super computers over at Basketball Reference have Damian Lillard at fourth with a 4.0 percent chance of winning MVP in their NBA MVP Award Tracker, which "ranks candidates based on a model built using previous voting results." Lillard is behind Giannis Antetokounmpo at No. 3 with 10.5 percent and ahead of Kawhi Leonard at No. 4 with a 3.5 percent chance. Nikola Jokic is far and away the favorite with a 48.3 percent probability to win MVP. 

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