clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

Damian Lillard: Man on Fire Pursuing MVP Honors

New, comments

Damian Lillard is producing at an unreal level. Will it be enough to overcome the slow start from the Trail Blazers?

Portland Trail Blazers v Sacramento Kings Photo by Rocky Widner/NBAE via Getty Images

When I watch Damian Lillard this year, my thoughts drift to Man on Fire, a movie released in 2004 about a man who’s on fire. Denzel Washington plays a former marine-turned-body guard named Denzel (His character’s actually named John Creasy, but really it’s Denzel). His charge, Pita, helps the despondent Denzel rediscover his will to live.

Because it’s a movie, Denzel gets motivation to kick a little rear end. Because it’s a Hollywood movie, there are several explosions. Does Denzel look back at those explosions? No chance! He just strolls away in slow motion with a look that says, “I don’t have time to watch explosions because I’m a man on fire and there’s more stuff to explode!”

Check out the look Damian Lillard wore when he hit the series-winner against the Thunder last April.

Oklahoma City Thunder v Portland Trail Blazers - Game Five Photo by Steve Dykes/Getty Images

Pretty similar vibes, right? Sure, he’s looking back, but if Denzel’s “I’m a man on fire” swag could be manifested in human form, it’d look like Dame. The man lit a 37-foot fuse, waved goodbye as he detonated an entire franchise, and spent the next five months performing the equivalent of walking in slow-mo away from the inferno.

Lillard’s look says it all: “I wish the NBA had more time. Because now it’s Dame Time.”

Heating Up

Following the Blazers run to the Western Conference Finals, Lillard’s confidence and self-belief appeared to reach an all-time high. It seeped off the court and into the offseason, leading to what I’m affectionately calling The Summer of Dame Flexing on Everyone. He torched Russell Westbrook and cited his street cred in a wild interview with Chris Haynes, dropped a new rap album with two Lil Wayne features, and ethered the two MCs foolish enough to challenge him on the mic (Get out the way, yo. Get out the way, yo. Big Aristotle just got dropped).

On top of it, Lillard signed a four-year extension that will pay him $258,000,000 over the next six years — the largest guaranteed contract in league history. Then he used the ensuing publicity to reaffirm his commitment to Portland and dunk on superstars who flee for greener pastures at the first sign of adversity. Don’t look back, Mr. Dolla. Just blow stuff up and wave goodbye.

Anyone paying attention this summer could read the tea leaves. This season was about to be special. Famous for his icy-cool demeanor, Lillard now burned with the energy of a thousand Denzels walking away from a thousand explosions. He’d always been a star, but now he seemed primed to explode on the competition like a supernova.

Man on Fire

Damian Lillard has started the 2020 season on a scorched-Earth campaign. Without him, the Blazers might be 0-12, the season over before it ever began. Thanks to his heroics, the Blazers have managed to keep their head above water despite massive roster turnover and crippling injuries to crucial players.

While other stars take games off for load management, Lillard leads the league in minutes played. He’s scoring more than every player except James Harden with shooting splits that almost crack the hallowed 50/40/90 club. He ranks No. 13 in assists, with the best assist/turnover ratio of his career, despite passing to the likes of Anthony Tolliver, who’s shooting 25 percent on wide-open threes. While national pundits debate the merits of load management, Lillard continues to prove his merit by managing an increasingly heavy load.

Through 10 games, Lillard has already gifted the fans a season’s worth of memorable moments. Some that stick out:

  • When he broke the franchise record and dropped 60 points on Kyrie Irving and the Nets.
  • When he waltzed past Luka Dončić for the game winner, stripped the Mavericks on the following play, and convinced Terry Stotts to challenge the foul call to get it overturned.
  • When he prompted an all-time Kevin Calabro call by snatching the Smoothie King crown from De’Aaron Fox and showing him what real royalty looks like:
  • When he revisited the scene of the crime to reassert his dominion over OKC, scoring or assisting on 20 of the Blazers’ final 21 points:

At this point, Lillard delivers so consistently that I assume he’ll always come through. After he scored 19 straight points in the last four minutes against the Spurs to cut their 14-point lead to 3, it felt like a glitch in the matrix when he failed to equalize on three attempts. Damian’s made the magical so routine that miracles are the expectation, not the exception.

The Advanced Stats

All my longtime readers (hey, mom!) know that I fear and distrust advanced statistics, especially when they contradict what I know in my heart to be true. Sure, an algorithm can tell you what player performs better on paper, but have you ever seen a basketball game played on paper? Until metrics like VORP and GLORP account for the intangibles that lead to winning like heart, and hustle, and encouraging butt slaps, they’re just noise to me. This year, though, the algorithms love Lillard, so I guess they’re worth delving Into.

FiveThirtyEight, the flagship site for people who wish basketball felt more like accounting, developed a new metric this summer called RAPTOR. It combines on/off numbers with player tracking data to gauge a player’s impact on both ends of the floor, them it translate that impact into WAR (Wins Above Replacement). RAPTOR represents the pinnacle of qualitative player evaluation in the modern NBA, and it ranks Damian Lillard as the league’s most impactful player. Those of us fortunate enough to witness Lillard’s impact on this franchise over the past seven years already knew this, but it feels good to have it confirmed by math. RAPTOR also recognized a healthy Jusuf Nurkic as a top-10 defender, so it feels like a metric we can trust.

Not satisfied? Lillard also leads the league in Win Shares, Offensive Win Shares, and Offensive Box Plus/Minus. For you old-school Hollinger Heads, he’s third in PER behind Giannis Antetokounmpo and Kawhi Leonard.

The Leap

We’ll dive back into the numbers in a bit, but first let’s consider the leap Lillard took between this season and last. Every offseason, Lillard retools his game, turning weaknesses into strengths. Every year, he comes back a better and more complete player. This time, though? He returned from The Summer of Dame Flexing on Everyone a man on fire, rampaging through the early schedule in truly crazy fashion.

How crazy? To put it in the proper context, allow me to digress about another player who made a similar jump.

In 2015, Stephen Curry won the Finals and his first MVP. Despite climbing to the league’s summit, most people believed Curry had peaked as a player. How much could an MVP in thick of his prime without otherworldly athleticism be expected to improve? The year prior, he sunk 286 triples to break his own record for most threes in a season. By the time he won that first MVP, he’d already cemented himself as the game’s greatest shooter. He achieved that status by expanding the perceived limits of three-point volume and efficiency, especially when it came to unassisted triples off-the-dribble. At the time, it seemed fair to look at his numbers, which defied any historical precedent, and wonder — how much farther could he possibly push it?

Pretty far, it turns out! The following season, Curry obliterated his own record, drilling an unconscionable 402 threes. Before 2016, no one had eclipsed 300. In the process, he jumped his scoring average from 23.8 points per game to 30.1, recorded one of the best offensive seasons in league history, won an NBA-record 73 games, and almost single-handedly tore down the old NBA to make room for his new one. His unprecedented ability to dance with the ball into unassisted three-pointers effectively ended the careers of big men like Roy Hibbert and Al Jefferson, slow-footed centers whose style of post play and interior defense ruled the league for over six decades. A comet from the Cretaceous Era may have wiped out the dinosaurs, but it was the Curry Asteroid Shower of 2016 that killed the NBA’s lumbering giants.

Curry’s 2016 campaign proved such an incredible encore that he received serious consideration for Most Improved Player and won this second-straight MVP unanimously. No one following the NBA at the time will ever forget the sensation of watching him kick his game into a never-before-seen gear (And if they do, Warriors fans will happily remind them).

Here’s the thing, though. This offseason, Lillard made that same jump. I only included all that gushing over Steph to contextualize the historical significance of what we’re seeing from Dame (It was always about Dame, I promise!) Check out the year-over stats from their “leap” seasons. Note the spikes in 3PA and 3P%.

Curry:

Lillard:

Typically, volume and efficiency share an inverse relationship. The more shots you take, the less you can pick and choose high-efficiency ones. Add in increased attention from the defense, and it’s no surprise that players rarely see their shooting percentages rise with their shot attempts. Lillard and Curry flipped the script. Both players not only maintained their shooting splits with increased volume — they improved them. If you’re searching for the primary culprit for Lillard’s dramatic improvement, look no further than his 25 percent increase on three-point attempts with three percent better accuracy.

This kind of jump in performance never happens. Superstars aren’t supposed to suddenly improve by 30 percent midway through their career. When Curry did it in 2016, he re-wrote the record books. If Lillard maintains this level of production, that’s the historical context we should view his season through.

2020 Lillard vs. 2016 Curry

I never thought I’d see a point guard match Curry’s transcendent brilliance in 2016, but this version of Lillard appears intent on butting into the conversation. Although drawn from a much smaller size, Lillard’s output and impact over these past 10-games almost equals Curry’s during his 73-win tear.

After improving his scoring average by an astounding 7.2 points per game, Lillard’s outscoring 2016 Curry by almost three points. Their assists equal out, but Lillard keeps better care of the ball, impressive given how many more pick-and-rolls he runs. Big surprise, but Curry separates himself when it comes to three-point shooting. While Lillard’s enjoying the best blend of volume and accuracy of his career, Curry just operates on a different plane of existence behind the arc. The 6 percent gap in their three-point shooting may seem like a nominal difference, but when Curry launches more than 11 threes a game, it leads to a huge chasm in their scoring efficiency (63.3 eFG% vs 58.3 eFG%).

Another area of note — Lillard converts almost two more shots inside the arc per game than 2016 Curry with a higher field goal percentage. While that may not jump off the page, it represents the ultimate testament to the work Lillard puts in every offseason. For his first few years, he struggled to convert shots at the rim. Now, he creates more looks in the paint and finishes them at a higher rate than Curry at his peak.

Lest you think Curry a slouch in the paint on account of his own early-career struggles, here’s an excerpt from former Spurs VP of Strategic Research and ESPN analyst Kirk Goldsberry’s book, Sprawlball.

“Out of 50 players who attempted at least 350 shots within the eight feet of the rim during the 2014-2015 season, Curry ranked eighth in field goal percentage, converting a whopping 63 percent of those attempts. That number wasn’t just good for a guard -- it was a better rate than than Dwight Howard, Marc Gasol, or Blake Griffin. Curry went from being a soft perimeter specialist to a versatile terror able to blend volume and efficiency as well as any point guard on Earth”

Lillard has followed a similar trajectory, improving his finishing to the point of eclipsing his Bay Area counterpart. Like Curry, Dame turned a weakness into a strength, and now he’s reaping the rewards. His 57 percent shooting on two-pointers ranks seven percent higher than his previous best.

He’s settling for fewer fade-aways and floaters, opting instead to charge the rim and challenge the help defense. After seven years, he’s developed a full repertoire of tricks — like vicious sidesteps and unexpected launch points — to confound retreating big men and give him a sliver of space to sneak the ball in. All of Lillard’s small improvements and tweaks compound to produce big results. He started his career as one of the worst finishers in the league, and now he ranks No. 1 among point guards.

The fact that Lillard’s compiling similar stats to 2016 Curry becomes even more incredible when you factor in the team context. Steph played with two hall-of-famers who perfectly complimented his skillset, as well as high-caliber role players like Andre Iguodala and Shaun Livingston to fill in the gaps. Klay Thompson’s shooting and Draymond Green’s playmaking made it impossible for opposing defenses to throw the kitchen sink at him. Chef Curry could cook to his hearts delight.

Now look at the current Portland roster. For my money, this Blazers squad — with its myriad injuries, new additions, and ice-cold CJ McCollum — represents the worst supporting cast Lillard has ever been saddled with. Can you imagine how good his stats would look if he played alongside Thompson and Green rather than Mario Hezonja and Hassan Whiteside?

A few months back, I wrote about the absurd lengths opposing defenses go to slow Lillard down in the playoffs. Now we're seeing it in the regular season, as well. Rather than wait for a high screen, the Hawks doubled Lillard as soon as he crossed half court for the entire fourth quarter. And why wouldn’t they? Whiteside has shown zero ability to impact the offense unless he’s right under the hoop, and Hezonja has shown zero ability to make good plays (my faith in you remains strong, Mario, but wow, you are testing it, dude). When both Gary Trent Jr. and Anthony Tolliver are on the floor at the same time in the fourth quarter, what’s to stop a team from sending three defenders to stop Damian?

In the end it didn’t matter, of course. Lillard scooted around the hedges and duped the over-extended big men into silly fouls. Despite the double teams, he scored 30 points on efficient shooting to secure a Blazers win. He’s a man on fire now, and he burns brighter than any silly scheme the Hawks can throw at him.

For the first four Golden State games, Curry’s situation suddenly looked much closer to what Dame’s dealt with his entire career. With Thompson injured and the roster gutted, teams could ignore Steph’s teammates to load the defense against him. Many experts still predicted that Steph would transcend the terrible talent around him, lead the league in scoring, and drag his squad to the playoffs. Never happened. Curry failed to generate quality looks for himself or raise the play of his teammates. He put up pedestrian numbers — 20 points on 40 percent shooting — before breaking his hand during their fourth game.

How does this end?

In Man on Fire, Christopher Walken plays an old friend of Denzel’s named Christopher Walken (His character’s actually named Paul Rayburn, but really he’s named Christopher Walken). As Denzel rampages across Mexico City, a concerned Federal Agent talks with Christopher Walken about his old friend, the man who’s currently on fire.

The Agent tells Christopher Walken that a single man, even one on fire, can’t hope to bring down the opposition by himself. Christopher Walken tries to convey his friend’s capacity for destruction so the Agent (who’s unaware that Denzel somehow got a rocket launcher and can now create exponentially more explosions to walk away from) will understand the level of reckoning still to come. Christopher Walken explains, “A man can be an artist… in anything, food, whatever. It depends on how good he is at it. Denzel’s art is death. He’s about to paint his masterpiece.”

That quote describes Lillard’s 10-game tear pretty well, doesn’t it? Damian keeps pushing his metaphorically-lethal art to new heights through a maniacal dedication to rounding out his game. By continuing to grow and evolve at a point in his career when stars usually plateau, Lillard’s forcing us to reconsider the ceiling on his potential. Every time we think we’re seeing the best version of Dame, he blows it up and walks towards an even better one without looking back.

That’s the scary part. What if, like Denzel, this 10-game rampage is just the precursor, and Dame is still waiting in the wings with a rocket launcher to really start the destruction? What if, God forbid, he takes another leap next year? I never thought a player would approach 2016 Curry, but then Lillard started doing his best impression and forced me to reevaluate. What happens if he proves me wrong again?

It’s not inconceivable. Nurkic and Lillard developed some of the best pick-and-roll chemistry in the league last year. If Nurkic comes back at full-strength, he’ll bust the game wide open for Lillard with his monstrous screens and nimble-short rolls. Add in the possibility of a big trade and the further development of Portland’s talented youngsters, and soon Lillard may have a roster that can unlock his potential, rather than vice-versa.

As you marvel at Lillard’s artistry and genius this season, take a moment to wonder — what if he’s still waiting to paint his masterpiece?

Note: All stats, analysis and movie references are current through the first ten games