By Matt Citak
When considering the top players in the NBA, a few guys usually come to mind. LeBron James and James Harden currently lead the MVP race, with both enjoying spectacular seasons. Not far behind James and Harden are Kevin Durant, Anthony Davis, Steph Curry, and Russell Westbrook, all of whom put up stellar performances on a nightly basis.
But one elite player tends to get left out of the conversation, even though he has been nothing short of amazing over the last two and a half seasons.
Damian Lillard, despite averaging over 25.0 points per game since the start of the 2015-16 season, continues to be one of the most overlooked players in the NBA.
Lillard’s career could not have started off on a better note. Drafted sixth overall in the 2012 NBA Draft by the Trail Blazers, the former Weber State Wildcat averaged 19.0 points and 6.5 assists per game on his way to being named NBA Rookie of the Year. The Oakland, California native followed that up by averaging over 20.0 points per game in the next two seasons, while making the All-Star Game twice and being named All-NBA Third Team in 2014.
But since the start of the 2015-16 season, the 6-foot-3 guard has not received nearly as much recognition as he deserves.
Lillard averaged 25.1 points and 6.8 assists that season, yet somehow was not named an All-Star. He was named All-NBA Second Team at the end of the season, though it did not make up for the All-Star snub. Lillard went into the 2016-17 season with a chip on his shoulder, and boy did he put on a show last year. The Portland point guard had his best offensive season since entering the league, averaging a career-best 27.0 points on 44.4 percent shooting from the field and 37.0 percent shooting from the three-point line. Lillard added 5.9 assists and 4.9 rebounds to his season stats. Yet all of this was not enough to receive any praise from the league. The point guard failed to make the All-Star Game or any of the All-NBA teams, despite enjoying his strongest season.
That brings us to this year.
Lillard is in the midst of yet another outstanding season. The 27-year-old has season averages of 26.8 points, 6.4 assists, 4.5 rebounds, and 1.0 steals per game, while shooting a career-high 44.8 percent from the field, 90.5 percent from the free-throw line, and a solid 37.8 percent from long range. Lillard was rewarded for his play by making his first All-Star Game in three years, but that didn’t stop the haters from saying he didn’t deserve the honor.
All around the league, people questioned whether or not Lillard should have made the team. After the All-Star reserves were originally announced, but before Paul George was named to the All-Star Game as an injury replacement, Russell Westbrook went as far as to strongly imply that his teammate deserved the honor over Lillard.
That is nothing new for Lillard, who has consistently been overlooked for years. But the time to overlook Lillard, one of the game’s premier talents, is over. The point guard has elevated himself up to the level of the NBA’s most elite talent with this season’s performance.
Let’s look at Portland’s current eight-game winning streak. During that stretch, Lillard has averaged just over 33 points and 5.8 assists per game on 47.1 percent shooting from the field and 41.8 percent shooting from the three-point line. His play has lifted the Trail Blazers into sole possession of third place in the Western Conference, one game ahead of the streaking New Orleans Pelicans.
Lillard’s dominance goes beyond his stats. A closer look at his late-game performance during Portland’s Monday night win over the Los Angeles Lakers is revealing.
Halfway through the fourth quarter, with Portland was down by 11, Lillard assisted on a C.J. McCollum basket. He followed with a pair of free throws on the next possession. The comeback was on, as Lillard completely took over the game.
The six-year NBA veteran would go on to drill a three-pointer on four consecutive possessions, providing the Trail Blazers with a lead that they would hold for the rest of the game. Lillard finished with 19 points in the fourth quarter alone and 39 points in total.
This is the type of Damian Lillard performance that we have grown accustomed to. However, Lillard had been playing on this level long before the recent winning streak.
Since January 1st, Lillard is averaging more points per game than Curry, Durant, and James. He has a higher field-goal percentage than Harden and Chris Paul. He has made more field goals than Harden, Durant, and Curry. And has made more three-pointers than Harden and Klay Thompson.
This is elite play from an elite player. And it is time to think of Lillard the way he deserves to be thought of — as not only one of the NBA’s best point guards, but also one of the league’s top overall players. Dare I say it, he’s even a potential sleeper pick for league MVP.
Matt Citak is a contributor for CBS Local Sports and a proud Vanderbilt alum. Follow him on Twitter.