As the Portland Trail Blazers have surged up the standings in the second half of the season, Damian Lillard’s name has been mentioned more and more frequently as a candidate for NBA MVP. And why shouldn’t he be? Lillard has set the NBA on fire, averaging 29 points per game over the months of February and March, draining deep three-point shots off the dribble that nobody in the NBA but Steph Curry would have much a chance of making. He is playing incredible basketball, with clutch-time heroics in the 4th quarter being particularly noteworthy. It truly has been Dame-Time in Portland for the past two months. Has this late-season push been enough to legitimately vault Lillard into the MVP race? Here’s a look at his stats compared to a handful of the other MVP candidates this season.
Damian Lillard: 26.8 points, 4.5 rebounds, 6.5 assists, 1.1 steals, 0.4 blocks, and 2.9 turnovers in 36.6 minutes per game over 67 games played. Shooting 44.1/36.7/91.7 for a TS% of 0.595. Has a WS/48 of 0.224, BPM of 6.6, RPM of 4.78, and a Net Differential Rating of 9.1 (4.9 on, -4.2 off).
James Harden: 30.7 points, 5.4 rebounds, 8.7 assists, 1.8 steals, 0.7 blocks, and 4.3 turnovers in 35.5 minutes per game over 66 games played. Shooting 44.8/36.7/86.4 for a TS% of 0.619. Has a WS/48 of 0.294, BPM of 11.0, RPM of 7.03, and a Net Differential Rating of 3.5 (10.5 on, 7.0 off).
LeBron James: 27.4 points, 8.6 rebounds, 9.1 assists, 1.5 steals, 0.9 blocks, and 4.2 turnovers in 37.1 minutes per game over 74 games played. Shooting 54.8/36.2/72.6 for a TS% of 0.623. Has a WS/48 of 0.220, BPM of 9.7, RPM of 4.08, and a Net Differential Rating of -2.1 (0.2 on, 2.3 off).
Anthony Davis: 28.3 points, 11.1 rebounds, 2.3 assists, 1.5 steals, 2.5 blocks, and 2.2 turnovers in 36.4 minutes per game over 68 games played. Shooting 53.9/34.2/83.4 for a TS% of 0.617. Has a WS/48 of 0.242, BPM of 5.3, RPM of 5.11, and a Net Differential Rating of 9.5 (4.1 on, -5.4 off).
Giannis Antetokounmpo: 27.2 points, 10.0 rebounds, 4.8 assists, 1.5 steals, 1.5 blocks, and 2.9 turnovers in 37.0 minutes over 69 games played. Shooting 53.3/31.3/75.9 for a TS% of 0.602. Has a WS/48 of 0.216, BPM of 6.2, RPM of 5.18, and a Net Differential Rating of 12.3 (4.3 on, -8.0 off).
At first glance, one thing becomes immediately clear: James Harden should win MVP this year. His basic box score stats are absurd, his advanced stats are ridiculous, and he’s the best player on the team with the best record. Harden won’t win this MVP unanimously (too many people don’t like his game), but he probably should. In a year where several great players are putting up career-best stats, Harden stands out. There’s really no excuse for him not winning it. But after Harden, how does Lillard stand up to the rest of the competition?
At face level, Dame seems to be trailing the pack a bit. He scores the least amount of points on the worst efficiency of any of these players, although that’s to be expected due to his position. Smaller players generally have worse efficiency than bigger players at the same level. Similarly, he’s behind in rebounding due to size. Those stats matter: rebounds and efficient scoring are important, and larger players being generally better at them is one reason that it’s tough for teams to go deep in the playoffs with a small guard as their best player.
The length and size of Anthony Davis and Giannis Antetokounmpo also make them far more impactful defensive players, as both are candidates for the All-Defense Teams in addition to All-NBA. Lillard has significantly improved his defense this year, but he just can’t do what those two are able to do on that end. His defense and consistent effort, does, however, push him ahead of LeBron James, who has slacked mightily in that area for much of this season.
Lillard really stands out in advanced statistics. He has the second-highest Win Shares of the quartet (albeit only slightly ahead of Giannis and LeBron), second highest BPM (Box Plus/Minus), and is third in RPM (ESPN’s Real Plus/Minus). Those stats are all calculated differently, but each suggests that Dame is in the same tier as the other three. The final stat might be the most interesting, though. If one takes “Most Valuable” to mean “how much does a player improve their team”, looking at the Net Rating of the team with them on versus off seems like a good way to measure that impact. Here, again, Dame shines, outpacing both James and Harden significantly. He is incredibly valuable to the Blazers, and that value is reflected in how much worse the team is with him off the court compared to with him on it. There are confounding variables of course: quality of the players replacing the stars, the overall strength of the team (hurts Harden and LeBron for different reasons), and the influence of other players via lineups/rotations. Still, Damian clearly has a similar overall impact to his team as the other stars do to theirs.
This isn’t a complete list of MVP candidates, of course. Joel Embiid, DeMar DeRozan, Kevin Durant, and LaMarcus Aldridge are just a few other players who also have a claim to a share of the MVP voting. Nor are statistics the only thing that should be considered in the MVP race; narrative and off-court issues matter as well. LeBron sulking for much of the month of January and watching half of his teammates getting shipped off in trades is a real negative against him. The Bucks’ struggles, for all of Giannis’ greatness, will play a factor. Lillard’s steady leadership in guiding the Blazers to a playoff seed (and likely homecourt advantage) is a mark in his favor.
In the end, I think Lillard should start being discussed in the 3-5 range for MVP, with Harden at 1, and Davis at 2. Dame is having a phenomenal season for a really good team, and a top five finish in the MVP race ought to be part of his well-earned reward.