Oh man, I can’t wait for Twitter to slam me for the headline. “Damian Lillard? He’s great! MVP candidate!”
Settle down, Beavis.
What we’re asking here is, as is normally the case when we’re talking MVP-candidate-level players, whether Lillard is truly worthy of that kind of consideration. If we were writing about, say, Evan Turner, we’d be asking if he was a waste of money and establishing he was good if he wasn’t. (He is.)
As on the show from which this series’ premise shamelessly cribs, you have to remember what the “myth” is before it being busted or confirmed becomes relevant.
With me so far? Good. Here’s the question to be answered.
Is Damian Lillard indisputably the best player on his own team?
Which means we’re also going to be talking about C.J. McCollum.
The Counting Stats
Lillard is averaging 26.8 points per game and taking 19.3 shots to get them.
An old saw in basketball is if you’re scoring three points for every two shots you take, you’re having one heck of a game; Lillard is averaging 1.39 points per shot. That’s rock solid, especially for a guard; this isn’t some center taking all his shots under the basket and drawing fouls.
Lillard is hitting 44.1 percent of his shots, a roughly league average 36.7 percent of his threes, and putting up a career-best eFG% of .522 and True Shooting of .595 (also boosted by his improvement to 91.7 percent at the free throw line.)
This makes Lillard one of the best scorers in the league.
He’s also averaging 8.8 assists per 100 possessions, his second-best career rate. On a per-game basis, he’s at 6.5, also good for second in his six NBA seasons.
Steals? 1.1, second-best. Blocks? 0.4, tops. Rebounds? 4.5, third, and considering Portland has Jusuf Nurkic patrolling the paint now, rebounding is far less Lillard’s responsibility than it was previously.
The guy’s putting up outstanding counting stats. So do those translate to…
The Advanced Stats
Lillard’s PER has risen every single year he’s been in the league and now sits at 25.0.
He’s still a terrible defender, but not as horrid as he once was (minus-0.9 Defensive BPM, which is actually his second-best number of his career.)
Other advanced stats? .223 WS/48 (superstar level), 8.9 Offensive Win Shares, a 6.5 overall BPM, and a VORP of 5.3, best he’s ever been.
Sometimes it’s easy to miss the forest for the trees, since Lillard has so many games where he shoots around 40 percent and looks like he’s just getting points by chucking up lots of shots.
When you look inside the numbers, however, you realize he’s a sneaky efficient scorer. If he improves his three-point stroke closer to 40 percent, he basically becomes James Harden or Stephen Curry in terms of shooting.
McCollum, for purposes of answering the question asked at the top, has a slash line of .451/.410/.837. He’s got a .516 eFG% and a .546 TS%. 21.8 points per game and nowhere near the auxiliary counting stats Lillard has.
McCollum also has just a 17.6 PER and .119 WS/48.
In other words, not only is Lillard a far better player, he actually manages to make McCollum look so much better than he is (because of the counting stats that being the second scoring option allows) that without looking at the numbers you might even think to ask the question of whether Lillard is overrated.
He’s not overrated. He genuinely belongs somewhere between third and fifth (behind the obvious James Harden/LeBron James combo at 1-2 and in a three-man list including some combination of Anthony Davis, Victor Oladipo, Giannis Antetokounmpo, and whoever else is leading a team to the playoffs with superstar play) on an MVP ballot.
So yes. The question is as ridiculous as your knee-jerk reaction led you to believe. But that’s what analytics are for. Sometimes you need proof. Here’s your proof. This one’s Confirmed.