Damian Lillard: Future MVP in the making

Damian Lillard is the leading scorer in the NBA in the second half of games. He's also one of the hottest players in the league right now and it's time to start talking M-V-P.

Damian Lillard is playing like a possessed man as of late. He's established himself as a veteran leader for the Portland Trail Blazers, he's a force to be reckoned with in the Western Conference and with Lillard playing as dominant as he's ever played in his career—in the words of Birdman, it's time to throw some "respeck" on his name, it's time to talk MVP. 

To further make the case for Lillard as the NBA's next MVP, it's as much important to examine the most-recent events as much as we need to know where he's come from. Early on in Lillard's career, he was noted for his unpolished/raw athletic ability as a scorer, but his defense or lack thereof represented a glaring disappointment in his game that we couldn't stop talking about.

In five seasons prior, Lillard averaged a defensive rating of 110—you fast forward to Dame's best season yet in 2017-18 and that number with over 20 games left is now at 109. While the offense has never been much of a criticism in Lillard's game, a recent climb in that aspect is also noticeable. For the last five years, Lillard has averaged an offensive rating of 113 and with 57 games left Lillard has outdone himself yet again, sitting at 118. Across the board, Lillard is averaging 26.6 points per game, 6.5 assists, four rebounds, an effective field goal percentage of 52.7 and a 3-point clip of 37 percent, tops for his six-year career.

Playing with a sense of urgency in 2018 and accepting the challenge, Lillard has positioned himself in the "elite" conversation with some of the best today and more importantly, greats of NBA's past. As the leading scorer in the second half of games averaging 14.5 points, shooting 43.9 percent from the field and over 90 percent from the charity stripe(90.8), Lillard has seemingly "arrived."

So, why is Lillard not receiving as much praise as counterparts LeBron James, Anthony Davis and the favorite to win, James Harden?

Arguably one of the first things to look at is the market that Lillard plays in and the East coast bias that Lillard is up against. Having to play in the latest slot on most nights, 10:30 p.m. ET, the lack of exposure has proven to be a disadvantage for Lillard's brand. The casual NBA fan and the East coast media are fighting the Sandman or deep into R.E.M. sleep by the time Lillard is doing his best work(in the second half).

There's also the fact that Lillard, much like Kawhi Leonard is a closed-mouthed/reserved superstar(unless he's snubbed as an All-Star) and lets his game do most of the talking, staying tucked away behind guys like LeBron, Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant and Harden—all who represent in any way, shape or form, faces of the NBA. While this is not a slight aimed at Lillard, it's not going to help him get noticed in a superstar-driven league like the NBA which does its best to showcase the individual efforts of its top players.

Lillard is also in the Portland market competing against the bright lights of Hollywood and this is as much a gift as it is a curse for someone with the marketability potential that Lillard possesses. With that being said, outside of LeBron James, Lillard has the weakest supporting cast in terms of roster talent, something that makes it tough to get noticed and with that comes the toughest task among the aforementioned who are planning for a deep postseason run. 

All of these factors are reasonable factors as to why Lillard is so underrated, but as of right now, nobody is doing it better than Dame and across #NBATwitter households there is no player more associated with must-see TV. On any given night, you can watch an NBA matchup accompanied by a vaulted lineup of stars, but there are none more prolific than Damian Lillard over his last 10 games. Averaging a league-best 8.9 points per contest in the fourth quarter, and shooting 47.4 percent from behind the arc in the fourth, including an impressive four-straight in a matchup against the Lakers on Monday night.

The only question from here is who's gonna stop the new "Agent 0" in the fourth?

 

The answer is indeed, Lillard himself—with a clutch factor present for years, a tangible growth that more should be talking about and undeniable numbers that don't lie, Lillard represents a fringe candidate with nothing to lose and everything to gain playing with house money.With a killer instinct representative of Kobe Bryant, Allen Iverson, and Michael Jordan—the only person capable of stopping "Big Game Dame" in takeover mode is . . . "Big Game Dame."

With 24 games left in the season and riding an eight-game winning streak, the ceiling for Portland is likely the No. 3 spot and the floor is anywhere from No. 4 to No. 6, but as for Damian Lillard, there are no limitations to what he can accomplish and if this level of play continues, then James Harden might as well expect to be robbed of yet another coveted MVP trophy—it just might be "Dame Time."

Stats—courtesy of NBA.com advanced metrics.

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