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2020 First Team All-NBA: The Case For Damian Lillard

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Despite eight final regular season games to be played as part of the restart of the 2019-20 NBA season in Orlando, the NBA has stated that end-of-season awards will be based on players’ performances up to when the league shut down in early March. The All-NBA teams, which award the best players at each position for their play, are therefore ready to be weighed, judged and selected. When examining the two first-team guard spots, only three players stand out as legitimate candidates: James Harden, Luka Doncic, and the Trail Blazers’ own Damian Lillard.

Harden, Doncic and Lillard are the top three guards in PER (player efficiency rating), VORP (value over replacement player), box plus/minus, and win shares. Each of the trio is also in the top six in points per game (Lillard – 28.9; Harden – 34.4; Doncic – 28.7) and in the top ten in assists per game (Lillard – 7.8; Harden 7.4; Doncic – 8.7). Harden’s scoring proficiency and third-straight scoring title likely make him an unassailable first-team All-NBA selection, and the Mavericks’ offensive efficiency will likely sway voters to select Doncic over Lillard for the second first-team spot. A closer examination of Lillard’s accomplishments this year — and especially how much the Blazers’ team success is affected by his presence on the court — makes it clear that Lillard deserves the second first-team All-NBA slot. A dive into each of the player’s individual and team statistics reveal why.

Traditional Statistics: A Razor-Thin Case

When looking only at the traditional statistics for Lillard, Harden, and Doncic, it may ostensibly seem that Harden and Doncic have played slightly better than Lillard:

  • Lillard: 28.9 PPG; 4.3 REB; 7.8 AST
  • Harden: 34.4 PPG; 6.4 REB; 7.4 AST
  • Doncic: 28.7 PPG; 9.3 REB; 8.7 AST

These traditional stats, without any color, may make it hard to see how Lillard should be put above Doncic (or Harden). However, when looking at how each player arrived at their points and assists, we see that Lillard has out-performed both in terms of his ability to convert his own opportunities and in creating opportunities for his teammates.

The Best Net Opportunity Creator: Lillard

First, Lillard has the least amount of turnovers and the best assist-to-turnover ratio of the three:

  • Lillard: 2.9 TO; 2.70 AST/TO
  • Harden: 4.5 TO; 1.7 AST/TO
  • Doncic: 4.2 TO; 2.07 AST/TO

While Harden and Doncic have more total assists, they also have more turnovers (and lost possessions). For roughly every three assists that Lillard dishes out, he commits a turnover. Doncic is nearly a full assist behind Lillard for each turnover committed. Lillard’s lead in his assist-to-turnover ratio shows us what Blazers’ fans already know: Lillard knows how to dissect a defense while playing under control. Of the three, Lillard has done the best job of creating opportunities for his team while limiting lost possessions.

The Most Efficient Shooter: Lillard

Second, when looking at how each player scored their points, Lillard has been the best shooter:

  • Lillard: .457 FG%; .394 3P%; .888 FT%; .554 eFG%; 9.9 3PA
  • Harden: .435 FG%; .352 3P%; .861 FT%; .533 eFG%; 12.6 3PA
  • Doncic: .461 FG%; .318 3P%; .751 FT%; .531 eFG%; 9.1 3PA

Lillard touts the best three-point percentage, the best free-throw percentage, and the best effective field goal percentage of the three guards. Only Harden has taken more threes than Lillard, but Lillard is making 39% of his 9.9 threes-per-game. Doncic has attempted nearly as many threes per game at 9.1, but only made 31% of them, which puts him at 140th in the league for three-point percentage. As with assists, we see that Lillard has been the more efficient player than either Doncic or Harden.

Putting the traditional statistics in context, we see that Lillard’s case for first-team All-NBA is much closer than an initial, perfunctory analysis may suggest. Harden is a lock for the first team based on how efficient he is with his unmatched volume. Yet, when we compare Lillard to Doncic for the second first-team slot, we see that Lillard has scored more than Doncic, shot better and more efficiently than Doncic, and has a better assist-to-turnover ratio than Doncic.

Advanced Stats: Lillard Separates Himself From Doncic

Diving deeper, advanced metrics favor Lillard as the most valuable offensive guard this year. Based on the below chart, we see the separation between Lillard and Doncic (overall rankings in parenthesis):

  Dame Harden Luka
PER 26.2 (7) 28.4 (2) 27.7 (4)
OFF Rtg 125 (32) 120 (66) 116 (120th)
TS% .619 (21) .616 (24) .584 (67)
OWS 8.9 (1) 8.7 (2) 5.8 (8)
WS 9.6 (5) 11.5 (1) 8.1 (12)
OBPM 7.9 (1) 7.9 (1) 7.3 (4)
BPM 7.2 (9) 9.0 (2) 8.4 (6)
VORP 5.0 (6) 6.3 (1) 4.7 (7)

Stats via Basketball Reference

Doncic leads Lillard slightly in both PER (27.7 to 26.2) and box plus/minus (8.4 to 7.2). However, Lillard leads Doncic in every other category listed. Lillard has the higher offensive rating (125 to 116), true shooting percentage (.619 to .584), offensive win shares (8.9 to 5.8), win shares (9.6 to 8.1), offensive box plus/minus (7.9 to 7.3) and value over replacement (5.0 to 4.7). What do these stats tell us? Lillard has been a more accomplished and productive offensive player than Doncic. Although Doncic may have an edge on rebounding and defense, Lillard’s offensive production has been so stellar that it outweighs any argument that Doncic’s defense should vault him above Lillard. Lillard leads the league in both offensive box plus/minus and offensive win shares (Doncic is 4th and 8th). Lillard has shot better (true shooting), produced more points per possession (offensive rating), contributed to more wins (win shares), contributed to more wins by his offensive play (offensive win shares), and has a greater value to his team (VORP) than Doncic.

Team Value: Lillard Has The Largest Effect On His Team’s Success

The most compelling evidence for Lillard’s first-team vote is to look at the on/off numbers for the Rockets, Mavericks, and Blazers and their respective stars. When comparing Lillard’s on/off numbers to Harden and Doncic, we are able to give each player’s individual stats more context. In context, the superior offensive production of Lillard becomes clear. The Blazers are a worse team than the Mavericks or the Rockets, yet Lillard has been outperforming Doncic individually. Moreover, Lillard’s presence on the floor for the Blazers means much more than Harden to the Rockets or Doncic to the Mavericks.

On/Off (team) Blazers Rockets Mavericks
Off Rtg (on) 114.4 113.8 117
Off Rtg (off) 105.5 109.5 112.1
Difference 8.9 4.3 4.9
Net Rtg (on) 1.3 5.6 6.2
Net Rtg (off) -7.1 0.0 5.0
Difference 8.4 5.6 1.2

 

Doncic Has Enjoyed A Better System

As a baseline, here is each team’s net rating when the three stars are off the court:

  • Blazers: -7.1
  • Rockets: 0.0
  • Mavericks: 5.0

The Blazers have played very poorly without Lillard, losing 7.1 points per 100 possessions. The Rockets are even per 100 possessions without Harden. When Doncic sits, though, the Mavericks net rating remains quite high at 5.0, which would be the 6th best rating. Put simply: Doncic’s surrounding team and system play very well in his absence. The Mavericks play very well with and without Doncic. The same is not true for the Blazers, they cannot survive without Lillard, but they win when he plays.

Lillard’s Presence Makes The Difference

When each of the stars plays, their team improves. When examining net rating, we see how big of an improvement each star makes on his team. The Mavericks improve very slightly when Doncic plays: a 1.2 jump (5.0 to 6.2). Doncic takes the efficient machine that is the Mavericks offense and makes it slightly more efficient. The Rockets improve by a much larger margin: 5.6 (0.0 to 5.6). The Blazers improve by an enormous 8.4 (-7.1 to 1.3), going from negative to positive under Lillard’s play.

When looking at offensive production, we see again that Lillard affects his team performance the most. The Blazers improve to an offensive rating of 114.4 (a gain of 8.9) when Lillard is on the court. The Rockets improve by a margin of 4.3 and the Mavericks improve by a margin of 4.9. Though the Mavericks currently hold the best offensive rating of any team in the league, the Mavericks offense when Doncic sits is still a respectable 112.1. His offensive success can be attributed, in part, to a very successful system. Meanwhile, the Blazers’ success, though limited this year due to numerous injuries is entirely attributable to Lillard’s play.

Best Single-Game Performances: Lillard Has The Edge

While Doncic has been consistent and has notched multiple triple-doubles this season, Doncic’s best games this year do not reach the heights of Lillard’s best games. Doncic has scored 42 points twice this year. Lillard has seven games of at least 42, including games of 61, 60, 51, and 50. Adding four 50-point games to his resume also moved Lillard up to tenth all-time for most 50-point games.

Lillard also became the first player in NBA history to average 45+ points and 10+ assists over a six-game stretch. During that stretch, Lillard scored a total of 293 points, which tied him with Kobe Bryant for the second-most points in the last 20 seasons over that number of games. During the run, Lillard shot a blistering 54.8% from the field, 57% from the three-point line, and 92.3% from the foul line.

When examining who should make the All-NBA first team — a reward for the best play over the course of a single season — a player’s best single-game performances should factor into the decision. When examining Lillard’s season, the brilliance of Lillard’s best single-game performance and his historic run through January proves that Lillard is deserving of a first-team All-NBA vote.

Lillard Deserves A First-Team All-NBA Vote

Lillard has been in a unique position this year. At first glance, a 29-37 record and current No. 9 seed in the West may not seem like a “success.” Yet, when considering the Blazers’ plight — losing three starters from last year’s 53-win team — Lillard’s ability to keep the team afloat has been downright extraordinary. We saw what happened when Lillard was hurt for eight games: the Blazers lost 6 of those games. Lillard has not only excelled individually, but has navigated the team through rough seas to put them within striking distance of the playoffs. Harden, Doncic, and Lillard have all had impressive seasons. All three will make an All-NBA team (whether first or second team). However, when examining Lillard’s transcendent individual offensive play and his immense value to his team’s success, he deserves a first-team All-NBA vote.

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