(Editor's note: Please welcome new Blazer's Edge contributor Ashley Williams! This is her debut and first of many pieces for us.)
It's time to start considering Portland guard Damian Lillard for the NBA's 2016 Most Valuable Player award.
Before the facts to support that statement are laid out, it is necessary to truly define what the MVP is supposed to be. But that can be difficult to accomplish.
To some, the MVP should be awarded to the player whose statistical performance is above and beyond any other player in the league during the regular season.
To others, it is the best player on a title-contending team.
Some choose to look at the player who has move elevated his team to unexpected heights.
Lillard and the Trail Blazers certainly fall into that last category. They are classic NBA overachievers.
Many didn't expect Portland to win 30 games this season. But the Blazers used the underdog label as fuel to become the surprise team of the season.
Following a loss at Boston Wednesday night, Portland is 33-29 and in seventh place in the Western Conference.
"I came out at Media Day and said ‘We’re gonna be a lot better than people think,’" Lillard told nba.com recently.
And the Blazers are better than most predicted. None of the team's success would be possible without Lillard, and it's not only about his numbers. It's also about his leadership.
The Blazers came into this season having lost four out of their five starters from last season. Lillard is the only true returning starter on a young team.
Lillard, in his fourth season in the league, is fifth in the NBA in scoring at a career-high 25.3 points per game, trailing Stephen Curry (30.7), James Harden (28.7), Kevin Durant (27.9) and DeMarcus Cousins (27.1), all of whom were named 2016 NBA All-Stars.
Despite raising his scoring average, Lillard has managed to keep his team involved with a career-high 6.8 assists per game.
And despite his amazing season, Lillard was left off the Western Conference All-Star team last month, something that didn't sit well with him.
"I don't think there is much else I can do," Lillard told reporters soon after being left off the team.
Since that day, Lillard has been on a torrid pace, elevating his team to playoff contention after an 11-20 start.
The 25-year-old guard delivers on a nightly basis whatever his team needs to win. Scoring. Passing. But most of all, leadership.
Before the season began, Lillard organized team functions to help bring a squad of young, inexperienced players together. That chemistry building has paid off on the court.
"I think we're ahead of where we were expected," Lillard told Oregonian reporter Joe Freeman recently. "I think we're in a good spot. We're still competing for a playoff spot."
If the MVP race is rooted on personal stats, then Houston's Harden would have a strong case given his 28.5 points per game.
However, the Rockets are a huge disappointment at 30-31 despite having two superstars, including center Dwight Howard.
Harden finished second to Curry in the MVP voting last season. Lillard should receive more votes than Harden this season.
That is, if personal stats don't out-weigh a team's overall success.
Curry is an obvious front-runner due to Golden State's historic 54-5 record, and he leads the league in scoring.
But Curry is surrounded by two other All-Stars, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green.
While Curry is clearly his team's catalyst, he also has great supporting talent around him.
Lillard, on the other hand, entered the season with only two truly proven NBA regulars on the roster, veteran center Chris Kaman, relegated to the bench, and guard Gerald Henderson. The rest of the team mostly consists of young players saddled with more responsibility than they've ever faced in their careers.
Guards CJ McCollum and Allen Crabbe have surprised, giving Lillard scoring firepower to work with in the backcourt.
Still, the Blazers are in playoff contention mainly because of Lillard's presence.
Bill Walton is the only Trailblazers player to ever receive the MVP award, doing so in 1978, a year after the Blazers won their only NBA title in 1977. Walton also was named NBA Finals MVP that year.
Unlike Curry and the Warriors in 2016 and the Blazers and Walton 39 years ago, Lillard and his group likely won't contend for an NBA Championship. But that shouldn't exclude Lillard from garnering some MVP votes this spring.
He is clearly as valuable to his team as Curry is to the Warriors.
And the Blazers fans certainly make Lillard feel like an MVP on a nightly basis.
"The way the crowd showed that type of support and love and passion for me is going to make me want to do more," Lillard told CSNNW recently. "It is going to make me want to produce on the court and bring more to the team."
It's a pipe dream that Lillard would even be in the hunt for MVP. But nobody can deny that he certainly has had an MVP-caliber season.