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How Close Is Damian Lillard To Becoming An MVP-Caliber Player?

Damian Lillard is now officially 2.5 years into his career, and he's come a long way. Has he reached the highest level just yet? And what does that mean, anyway?

Dame takes on D-Rose.
Dame takes on D-Rose.
Mike DiNovo-USA TODAY Sports

All right. This game is awfully gimmicky so I don't usually waste my time playing it, but this case warrants an exception. The comparison is pretty eye-opening.

Go ahead, guess which two players' seasons are encapsulated by the stat lines below:

Player A: 21.5 points per game, 6.3 assists per game, 4.6 rebounds per game, 1.5 steals per game, 36.3 minutes per game. Shoots 50.4 percent from two and 33.9 percent from three; effective field goal percentage of 50.6 percent. Gets to the line 5.3 times per game; shoots 86.1 percent. Usage rate: 26.6 percent.

Player B: 24.1 points per game, 7.4 assists per game, 3.9 rebounds per game, 1.0 steals per game, 37.4 minutes per game. Shoots 48.1 percent from two and 33.2 percent from three; effective field goal percentage of 48.1 percent. Gets to the line 6.6 times per game; shoots 85.8 percent. Usage rate: 32.2 percent.

So - judging from the gaudy point and assist totals, they both look like All-Star point guards. Player B has bigger counting stats, but that's because his team demanded those numbers from him - they used him for a ton of minutes and ran a ton of possessions through him offensively. Look at that usage gap - almost 6 percent more opportunities for Player B to score (and assist, and do everything else).

Player A, on the other hand, is more efficient. Better shooter from two, from three and from the free throw line. Puts up comparable numbers despite "forcing it" a lot less. Most intelligent basketball people, you ask them which of these two guys they'd rather have, they'd say Player A in a heartbeat.

All right then - time to name names?

Player A, as you can probably guess since this is a Trail Blazers blog, is Damian Lillard in 2015.

Player B is Derrick Rose in 2011, when it just so happened that he won MVP.

Seeing those two names and those two stat lines really makes you think. I'm not trying to overreact too hard here - this isn't to say Dame should consider himself robbed if he doesn't win the trophy this spring, nor is it to trash Rose for the unwarranted award he received four years ago. But it's just interesting. Rose was a fan (and media) favorite all season long in 2010-11, a prohibitive favorite for months to win MVP honors, whereas Lillard only barely made the All-Star team this season due to a flurry of timely injuries to rival players. Yet you compare the two players, and Lillard is totally better.

To me, this says two things.

  1. Individual honors in this league are incredibly fickle. You can have an incredible season as a player, but there will still be so many things beyond your control - the players around you, the coaching staff, the way your team uses you, the narrative arc surrounding your performance, the competition, and so on and so forth. If you want to be an All-Star, an MVP or what have you, playing well is only the half of it.
  2. These things are always going to be close. There are a lot of great players in the NBA, and the differences between them are always razor-thin. Take the above example - I'd definitely say Lillard's season is the "better" one, but man. They're both awesome. Hard to go wrong with either one.

For these very reasons, I try as a general rule not to focus too much on individual accolades. They definitely correlate with exceptional play, but there's a lot of noise that gets into the mix, and you always have to be careful saying, "This player's good because he's an All-Star" or "That player's not because he's not." It's always more satisfying to draw conclusions about the genuine substance of a guy's play than to oversimplify and obsess over awards and distinctions.

In other words - instead of asking, "Will this guy win MVP?" I prefer to go with "Is this guy at an MVP-caliber level?" The questions are similar, but the latter leaves a little bit more room for nuance.

So anyway. How close is Dame?

I'd argue that he's mighty close, and I'd say the No. 1 reason this is a real conversation is that Lillard has improved his versatility by leaps and bounds. Not to keep harping on this 2011 comparison, but check out the offensive performance that Rose parleyed into an MVP in the third year of his career, and then compare it to what Lillard's doing in his current year three. Here's Rose:

These shot charts, courtesy of the fantastic Austin Clemens, provide a great graphical representation of Rose's season-long shot selection by depicting both the volume and accuracy of his attempts. See all those colored circles on the court? The bigger the circle, the more shots he took from that spot on the floor; the redder the circle, the hotter he was, and the bluer, the colder. You can see that Rose's game in 2011 was comprised of a whole lot of drives to the rim, a whole lot of 3-point attempts from the left wing and a whole lot of other random stuff splashed around. In general, his efficiency as a shooter was average at times, a little worse at times.

And yet he won MVP!

Rose captured the honor that spring for a lot of reasons - one, the numbers were gaudy, two, the Bulls were the talk of the league with 62 wins, and three, the narrative was perfect and well-timed. Rose emerged as a quiet, humble superstar who stood in stark contrast to the post-"Decision" LeBron James.

But in terms of actual performance on the floor? Well, 2014-15 Lillard compares pretty favorably.

You can see the differences. The looks at the rim are a little better, the wing 3-point attempts are plentiful and more accurate, and even from the mid-range, he's got a few go-to spots on the floor that are redder than Meyers Leonard's shoes. In all of these respects, you're looking at a pretty big improvement even from last year, when Dame was already awesome.

You can appreciate Lillard's evolution by watching him attack opposing defenses in a variety of ways. Let's look first at a typical 3-point attempt:

This clip is short and sweet, but it's a perfect encapsulation of Lillard's improvement as a 3-point shooter this season (recent slump notwithstanding). With well over 1,000 career attempts in the NBA to his name, he's so confident with his long-distance shot now that he only needs a split-second of time and a few inches of separation to squeeze one off. Here, he's guarded by J.J. Barea, a pesky defender who loves to pick you up 45 feet from the basket and jab a hand in your face. The 2014-15 Lillard is undaunted - going right at him, then waiting for the LaMarcus Aldridge screen and shooting immediately when he has room.

Of course, Lillard's such a dangerous shooter in part because defenses also have to stay back on him, knowing he's a constant threat to drive. He's also become a better rim-attacking force this season, as you can see here:

An awesome play. After dishing to Wesley Matthews, Lillard streaks around the perimeter of the floor and loses his man, giving him free reign to drive into the paint. Waiting for him at the elbow is Derrick Favors, who's a huge dude with a knack for muscling people out of position. Lingering near the hoop is Rudy Gobert, who's statistically one of the very best rim-protecting players in the entire league.

Two years ago, Lillard would have driven here and either missed a layup or lost the ball completely. He uses his quickness to dart around Favors to the left, then uses a beautiful up-and-under move to dodge Gobert's massive, high-flying, shot-blocking arms. It's all over in the blink of an eye, and Dame finishes at the rim.

Now. When you've got the 3-point shot, and you can attack the paint too, you can basically act as a one-man spacing machine that forces defenses to spread out and defend both the rim and the perimeter. And when that happens, you're often left with a few gaps in the defense where you can sneak in for open shots. Case in point:

Pretty beautiful. This one occurs in transition, and it's basically a blur given the speed at which everything unfolds, but it's a perfect example of Lillard's innate ability to find space. He sizes up the play in one second - he figures out that Dennis Schroeder is guarding him but doesn't have the lateral quickness to stop him if he drives left, that Paul Millsap is behind Schroeder but staying further back, to cut off a potential drive, and that Jeff Teague is restricting Lillard's mid-range space but he's also cheating into the corner to close out if Nicolas Batum gets an open 3. So Lillard reads the defense, predicts that he can get an open shot from just beyond the left elbow, and goes for it. Swish.

All of the above demonstrates the range of Lillard's game in his third NBA season. This year he's shooting 60.3 percent from inside 5 feet, 43.8 percent from 15 to 19 and 33.9 percent from downtown, all relatively strong percentages on all relatively high volumes. He's doing it all.

Does this mean Lillard's a better MVP candidate than Rose ever was, that he deserves all the hardware, that it'll be a mockery and a sham if anyone but Dame wins MVP honors this spring? Nah. Really - that's not the point. I promise. It's hard to even have conversations like that about Lillard, given that it's not even clear whether he's the MVP of his own team. (Gun to my head, I might just say no.)

But that idea - that it's not even clear who's more valuable than whom - is exactly what I'm talking about. Pitting this guy against that guy and declaring that "There can be only one!" is ultimately pointless. What matters is that Damian Lillard has improved by leaps and bounds this season, vaulting himself into the elite group of the NBA's best players. How exactly he stacks up against that group is uncertain and ephemeral and totally a judgment call, but let's not worry about that just now. For the moment, let's all just appreciate that Dame is a better player now than he's ever been, and that he's absolutely deserving of a spot in Sunday night's showcase in New York City. It should be a good one.