Over the last three weeks, Portland Trail Blazers point guard Damian Lillard has been dealing with right leg issues, straining his hamstring on Dec 20th and subsequently missing Portland’s next five games. After coming back to play against the Cleveland Cavaliers and Atlanta Hawks, Lillard could be seen on the sidelines at various times working on his right calf with trainers. Just yesterday, he sat out against the San Antonio Spurs as a precautionary measure.
Heart is Great, But Legs Are Important Too
Always a gamer, Lillard sounded disappointed that he couldn’t go against San Antonio. Despite his protests, the Blazers need to make sure their all-star doesn’t suit up again until he’s totally healed, no matter how long it takes. I’m not a medical professional, but it didn’t come as any surprise that another part of Lillard’s leg started hurting after he came back from the hamstring injury. Soft-tissue injuries tend to linger. They only get better with rest and can cause further injuries due to overcompensation by other muscle groups.
Dame wants to be out there. That’s a positive trait for any professional athlete; especially for the leader and most talented offensive player on your team. Players take pride in not missing time and suiting up every single day. Lillard’s former teammate Wesley Matthews comes to mind as Exhibit A. But at a certain point, it’s up to the training staff and management to save Lillard from himself. It’s too easy for a muscle strain to turn into a chronic injury or even a tear after repeated use.
What’s To Gain?
What do the Blazers have to gain by having Lillard fight through injury this season? While I wouldn’t support it, I could understand keeping him active if the team were in the middle of a playoff series, or even battling for home-court advantage late in the season. But this is a .500 team with little potential upside and a small chance of making noise in the Western Conference this season.
While it might seem like a downer to sit Lillard for a few weeks until his body is completely healed, there are legitimate upsides. Shutting Lillard down could knock a few wins off of Portland’s total, but the team would have to get his 19 shots per game from somewhere. Supporting players who have disappointed this season might get a chance to step up. We’ve seen Evan Turner come alive of late. Moe Harkless has shown a pulse. Pat Connaughton has been a pleasant surprise. Any one of these players could grow as they pick up a bit of Lillard’s slack.
There’s also the improved draft position that comes with a worse record. I don’t advocate tanking, but if you don’t believe that the Blazers are going anywhere this season (I don’t) and that their best player needs some time to get healthy (I do), a slightly better pick in a deep draft is a nice side-effect of doing the smart thing.
Finally, there’s the Shabazz Napier situation. Napier, who’s been solid this year, is a free agent at the end of the season and is set to get paid well above what the Blazers can afford. Because of this, Napier is one of the few legitimate trade pieces that Portland has. If a contender is looking for a point guard for a playoff push, resting Lillard gets Napier a chance to showcase his skills at exactly the right time.
All Signs Say Sit
Blazer fans would be up in arms if Lillard suffered a major injury that altered the course of his career and could have been proactively avoided. The team can manufacture benefits to not playing him easier than they can produce a replacement if he plays injured and something goes wrong. Waiting for full health is best for him and, as such, is the best course of action for the Blazers.
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