Kia Race To The MVP Ladder

Kia MVP Ladder: Simple math shows Damian Lillard is showcasing MVP-type game

All-Star guard has been on tear to power Portland's nine-game win streak

Sekou Smith

Sekou Smith

Connecting the statistical dots between a legitimate candidate for the Kia MVP and his team’s success doesn’t always require complex data analysis.

Sometimes it’s simple arithmetic, as is the case with Portland Trail Blazers All-Star point guard Damian Lillard.

It’s not that Lillard doesn’t have the analytics on his side. He does. He’s been on an absolute tear since Feb. 14, playing perhaps the best basketball of his career while averaging 33.1 points, 5.8 assists, 4.1 rebounds and 1.3 steals per game to push and shove his way into the MVP conversation in the final weeks of the race.

Lillard’s best and most compelling statement, however, might be the Trail Blazers’ rise from the pack in a crowded Western Conference playoff chase into the top three heading into Friday night’s win over the Golden State Warriors.

Lillard, an Oakland native, popped his hometown team for 44 points and eight assists in a 123-117 win on Valentine’s Day and the Trail Blazers haven’t lost since, rattling off nine straight to join a group of elite teams in the top four of the Western Conference standings — the Houston Rockets, Warriors and New Orleans Pelicans — that had combined for a mind-boggling 42 straight wins between them.

That the Trail Blazers are included in the group is remarkable, given their 2-4 start to February prior to that pivotal win over the Warriors.

But if you’ve watched Lillard work lately, maybe not.

“I said after I won Rookie of the Year, I said I think I can be MVP in this league,” Lillard told reporters earlier this week. “Being in the discussion, it’s an honor to be mentioned, but I don’t look at that and think `Oh they mentioned me in the MVP discussion.’ I feel that’s the level of player I can be.”

He’s scored 30 or more points five times during the streak, and had twice topped the 40-point mark. As always, he’s been at his best when it matters most, showing out regularly with games on the line.

“Damian Lillard is special,” Trail Blazers coach Terry Stotts said after Lillard scored 19 of his 39 points in the fourth quarter of Monday’s comeback win over the Los Angeles Lakers. “If it’s not obvious, I’ll say it.”

Lillard drained eight 3-pointers, one off his career-high, a night later in a win over New York that blew Knicks coach Jeff Hornacek away.

“The guy is playing fantastic,” Hornacek said. “He might be one of those guys you’ve got to start talking about that MVP, too, with the way he’s playing.”

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The top five in the Week 21 edition of the 2017-18 Kia Race to the MVP Ladder:

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1. James Harden, Houston Rockets

Last week: No. 1

Season stats: 30.9 points, 8.9 assists, 5.2 rebounds

Harden and the Rockets put their sterling 17-game win streak on the line tonight at Air Canada Centre (7:30 ET, NBA League Pass) in a best-on-best battle against the Toronto Raptors that is a must-watch. It’s the sort of marquee matchup that has brought out the very best of Harden this season. Even with his 3-point shooting numbers taking a slight dip since the All-Star break (.333 in the seven games since compared to .384 in the 50 games before) Harden continues to generate offense at will for himself and everyone else. It certainly helps to have another elite point guard in Chris Paul rolling with him. They’re averaging a shade under 50 points and 17 assists combined, which should come in handy with Toronto’s All-Star backcourt of DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry just as eager for tonight’s superstar matchup. The truth is the Rockets have been the undisputed best in the business for a while now (24-2 since Jan. 8th and a ridiculous 34-1 with Harden, Paul and Clint Capela in the lineup this season). It all starts and ends with Harden playing at a MVP-level from the the opening tip of opening night and all the way through to the finish.

2. LeBron James, Cleveland Cavaliers

Last week: No. 2

Season stats: 27.0 points, 9.0 assists, 8.4 rebounds

The Cavaliers finally knocked off a team with a .500 or better record Wednesday in Denver, thanks in large part to LeBron’s finishing kick (he scored Cleveland’s final nine points on 4-for-4 shooting). He finished with 39 points, 10 assists and eight rebounds, collecting his 24th game of the season with 30 or more points. There is a reason LeBron does not fear the competition in the Eastern Conference playoff field, not after seven straight seasons of smoking the competition when it matters most. No matter what the Toronto Raptors, Boston Celtics or any other team brings to the party, he knows he’s the most impactful player on the floor every single night. (There’s a reason fans in Philadelphia and Los Angeles have already ramped up their recruiting efforts in advance of this summer’s sure-to-be-crazy free-agent frenzy.) That said, LeBron still has some work to do fine-tuning things with the deadline additions (Larry Nance Jr. in the starting lineup now) and the eventual return of All-Star power forward Kevin Love at some point. There is still plenty of room for improvement and time to get it done.

3. Kevin Durant, Golden State Warriors

Last week: No. 3

Season stats: 25.9 points, 6.7 rebounds, 5.4 assists

Durant was at his MVP-best in the Warriors’ comeback win over the San Antonio Spurs Thursday night. He scored a game-high 37 points, including 14 straight down the stretch, to carry the Warriors back from an eight-point deficit in the fourth quarter. He shot 14-for-26 from the floor, 4-for-7 from deep and added 11 rebounds, four assists and four blocks on a night when Stephen Curry was lost for the night in the first quarter with another sprained ankle and both Andre Iguodala and David West were already out of the lineup nursing injuries. With Curry already ruled out for tonight’s matchup against a surging Portland team at the Moda Center, the Warriors will need much more of the same from Durant, who is averaging 39 points on .538 shooting this season vs. Portland. Durant’s well positioned to make a late-season push in this race, but the Warriors have more pressing matters trying to catch the Houston Rockets in the race for No. 1 in the Western Conference.

4. DeMar DeRozan, Toronto Raptors

Last week: No. 6

Season stats: 26.7 points, 6.4 assists, 5.3 rebounds

DeRozan put on a show (42 points, six assists) in Wednesday’s win against Detroit, the Raptors’ sixth straight win and the All-Star’s fourth 40-point game of the season. DeRozan is averaging 25 points on .510 shooting during that streak, which is on the line tonight at Air Canada Centre with the Houston Rockets (17 straight wins of their own) visiting for a showdown between the league’s top two teams in the standings. The Raptors have won 13 of their last 14 games, and continue to thrive when DeRozan has it going offensively (they are 13-2 this season when he scores 30 or more points). And yet it was his playmaking, as well his scoring prowess, that helped the Raptors become the first team in the league to clinch a playoff berth with that win over the Pistons. His final assist in that game came when he drove in, collapsed the defense and found Fred VanVleet on the baseline for what turned out to be the game-winning jumper. His trust in his teammates, regardless of their status, is one of the key ingredients in the Raptors’ success. Coach Dwane Casey’s revamping of the offense wouldn’t have been possible without a complete buy in from both members (Kyle Lowry, of course, being the other) of his All-Star backcourt. And it’s clear that they are all in.

5. Anthony Davis, New Orleans Pelicans

Last week: No. 5

Season stats: 28.1 points, 11.1 rebounds, 2.3 blocks

A tender left ankle will do what no team in the league has been able to for the last month: slow Davis down. He’s listed as doubtful for tonight’s critical showdown against the Washington Wizards. (They’re all critical, though, when seemingly every team in the Western Conference is on a winning streak.) Prior to going down in the third quarter of Wednesday’s win over Sacramento, Davis was averaging 37.7 points, 14.6 rebounds, 2.9 blocks and 2.9 steals while playing a 39.3 minutes. As impressive as Davis has been offensively during the Pelicans’ nine-game win streak, he’s been equally if not perhaps even more impressive since the All-Star break as a the two-way monster he’s always been, when healthy. His 13.4 rebounds, 3.4 blocks and 2.6 steals show off the click-every-box abilities of the man who can legitimately claim the title of the “best big man” in basketball. The Pelicans’ current 10-game win-streak has served as the ultimate confirmation of exactly where Davis belongs in the pecking order of the league’s uber elite.

The next five:

6. Damian Lillard, Portland Trail Blazers

7. Stephen Curry, Golden State Warriors

8. Kyrie Irving, Boston Celtics

9. Russell Westbrook, Oklahoma City Thunder

10. Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks

And five more: LaMarcus Aldridge, San Antonio Spurs; Bradley Beal, Washington Wizards; Joel Embiid, Philadelphia 76ers; Nikola Jokic, Denver Nuggets; Victor Oladipo, Indiana Pacers

Next up?

An inside look at Derrick Rose from an Eastern Conference executive:

“I have no idea if there is any of that magic left in his body. But if anyone can get it out of him, if anybody can push Derrick in all the right ways, it’s [Minnesota coach Tom Thibodeau]. Their bond has always been strong. Thibs helped build Derrick into the MVP he was before his body betrayed him and all of his issues began. So they have that history, that connection. And Derrick trusts him. He trusts what Thibs will do with him for the remainder of what has been a trying season. And I have to admit, I want to see Derrick get one more shot to see if he can at least be a contributor on a solid, playoff team. He got robbed of that opportunity with the trade from Cleveland, which I didn’t think was a very good fit for him in the first place. He was never going to be an ideal fit alongside LeBron.

“Physically, he’s nowhere near the player he once was. We all see that. That’s had to be a hell of reality to face for someone who was on top of the world just a few years ago. Anyone hoping for or expecting some miracle revival from him is dreaming. I just don’t see it happening. Not this season. Not ever. He’s never going to be the player he was before his injuries. Because as much as people talk about Russell Westbrook being the most physically explosive point guard that they have seen, they are forgetting how crazy, off-the-charts Derrick was at his zenith. He was unreal. Now he has to dig in, carve out a role for himself in Minnesota the rest of the way and show us that he can contribute the way you need a veteran to in that situation. Finding a way to play meaningful minutes, even if they aren’t many, will go a long way. It’s going to tell us if there is a role for him beyond this season somewhere, in the right spot, where he’s maybe that veteran backup point guard you need.”

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Sekou Smith is a veteran NBA reporter and NBA TV analyst. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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