Some of that recognition came recently from San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich, who along with a national TV audience watched the point guard light up his squad for 29 points last week.
“I think he’s a wonderful player,” said Popovich, who normally isn’t prone to effusive praise. “His skills are obvious, but I like his demeanor as much as I like his skills. He really plays within himself, he’s not afraid of contact and he really understands how to take advantage of situations.”
So is the race over? Not by a long shot.
Yes, Lillard has the inside track and a substantial lead. Unlike many rookies, he plays on a team that can talk about making the playoffs with a straight face. He tops all first-year players in minutes, scoring, assists and 3-pointers. And he has had a handful of “Wow!” moments.
But handing him the award right now as a fait accompli would be a mistake.
History shows that plenty of rookies have gotten off to quick starts and flamed out before the end of their first seasons. It also shows that playing on a bad team is not a detriment to winning the award. Even an injury doesn’t necessarily kill your chances.
In 1986, Patrick Ewing won despite playing just 50 games due to injury. Second was Xavier McDaniel, who had comparable numbers over 82 games. Third was Karl Malone, who averaged 15 points and nine boards for a playoff team.
In 1997, Allen Iverson won the award by leading Philadelphia to a 22-60 season while Stephon Marbury finished second as the starting point guard for playoff participant Minnesota.
In 1999, Sacramento’s Jason Williams had everyone believing he was the second coming of “Pistol” Pete Maravich. By season’s end, he was an afterthought to Toronto’s Vince Carter, who won the award even though the Kings made the playoffs and the Raptors didn’t.
In 2004, Carmelo Anthony averaged more points and rebounds per game than LeBron James and helped Denver make the postseason while Cleveland watched the playoffs. But James won the award.
In 2008, Milwaukee’s Brandon Jennings got off to a terrific start that included a 55-point game and piloted the Bucks to a playoff berth. He finished third in the voting behind Sacramento’s Tyreke Evans and Golden State’s Stephen Curry, both of whom played for lottery teams.
Yes, Lillard has the lead. But there’s a lot of season left to impress the voters.
On to the rankings.