Damian Lillard's Continued Clutch Play Puts Him in MVP Discussion

Damian Lillard has been owning the 4th quarter of late, and with the Blazers playing so well, it's time to consider him one of the NBA's elite.

The 2014-15 NBA season is nearing its midway point, and a handful of players are rising above the rest as serious candidates for league MVP honors.

In the most recent edition of our NBA MVP Watch, mainstay candidates like James Harden and Steph Curry have retained their elite status among award hopefuls, but Damian Lillard made an appearance, too, joining the company of some of the league's best.

As the the Portland Trail Blazers continue on their 60-win trajectory, Lillard’s consistent production makes him a legitimate part of the MVP debate.

Lillard and Portland ended the calendar year with all guns blazing, and 2015 hasn’t seemed to slow them one bit. Alongside the Atlanta Hawks, who have been on an absolute tear over the last month, the Blazers are exceeding all expectations and are currently among the leagues top-three winningest teams this year. The Blazers own the league’s second-best record and are only one of three teams with 30-plus wins. They sit second behind the the Golden State Warriors atop a ludicrous Western Conference and have been outproducing perennial favorites like the San Antonio Spurs, Los Angeles Clippers, and Oklahoma City Thunder.

Lillard himself is also playing at an all-NBA level and his recent streak of late-game offensive explosions has the basketball community raising a collective eyebrow. Lillard’s clutch performances have almost become routine and the young guard’s flair for the dramatic has almost single-handedly helped the Blazers become the league’s best 4th quarter team in terms of point differential. With Lillard on the floor in the 4th quarter, the Blazers have a plus-minus of +10.5 and shoot over 46% from the floor. With Lillard on the bench, the Blazer’s 4th quarter point differential plummets to -1.9.

Lillard’s ability to create open shots and attack the paint has made him quickly become one of the leagues most feared scorers. After watching him pour in 30-plus points and dominate the 4th quarter against my Los Angeles Lakers twice in just under a week, Lillard’s winning ways can no longer be understated. In a conference crammed with A-list point guard talent, Lillard has stepped up his game and firmly planted himself among the West’s elite.

And with the Blazers current success in the standings, there is a legitimate discussion about the third-year guard’s MVP resume. Lillard is top 15 in the league in points, assists, and three-pointers per game and top-five in total points, three-pointers, and field goals.

In other words, he scores a lot of points.

And he’s doing all this efficiently. We’re not seeing a Carmelo or Kobe-esque blind assault on the basket. When Lillard plays, he makes his team, a very good Blazers team, much better.

The Blazers, in terms of our nERD metric, are the fourth-best team in the NBA. Lillard’s individual nERD of 14.4 ranks sixth in the league, meaning he would add 14.4 wins over .500 to a team over the course of a year as a starter. Further, when Lillard is on the bench, per, the Blazers’ Offensive Rating drops from an impressive 105.8 to a paltry 96.4 and their shooting percentage falls nearly three percentage points.

While still not by any means a favorite for league MVP, Lillard’s play down the stretch and impact on his team’s success is certainly bolstering his case as the King of Crunch Time. In a conference as competitive as the West, every game matters, and what Lillard brings to the table as a cold-blooded killer in the clutch may be a magic bullet for the Blazers’ final place in the standings.

If that proves to be the case, an MVP consideration is certainly in the cards.