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Is it time for Damian Lillard to consider load management?

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Henry Abbott of True Hoop has an interesting proposal — strategically rest starters to prevent injuries and make room for young players in the rotation. Should the Trail Blazers try it?

Oklahoma City Thunder v Portland Trail Blazers - Game Five Photo by Steve Dykes/Getty Images

Damian Lillard has had his fair share of nagging injuries over the course of his career. Examples include: A groin injury and tweaked knee last season, a hamstring strain during the 2017-18 season, lingering plantar fasciitis during the 2015-16 season, at least a couple jammed fingers, etc.

Lillard often seems to gut through these injuries, only sitting out games when absolutely necessary. Despite that resilience, Dame made an interesting point about injury management in December, 2017 (emphasis mine):

It’s frustrating because I want to play. It’s not the first time I’ve had a little nagging injury. But I just feel like I should be smarter. Our previous two seasons, I feel like we’ve been in a worse position than we’re in right now. Even though 17-16 isn’t great, we’re in a better position than we have been in the past, where I felt more of a need to play through whatever and just get out there. Now I feel like there’s time. I think the team can get things done without me. I also think our record has us in a position where I can take the proper amount of time to make sure I’m healthy.

What stands out here is that Lillard seems open to the idea of taking as much time off as needed to get healthy, as long as the Blazers don’t tumble in the standings while he’s out. Unfortunately the team hasn’t always had that luxury — it’s hard to sit out games when Mario Hezonja is a major part of the rotation and Pau Gasol is in Spain, for example.

This season, however, might be different. The Blazers have tremendous frontcourt depth for the first time in recent memory and could presumably stay afloat even if their star player has to miss a week or two to tend to a strained hammy or dislocated finger. As a fan, one hopes that Lillard avails himself of that flexibility and does whatever it takes to be injury-free once the playoffs start.

What about strategically planning rest?

Henry Abbott of True Hoop would take injury management a step further. In a recent analysis, Abbott proposes that teams might consider planning strategic nights off in order to prevent nagging injures and also to ensure perfect health by playoff time. He cites Lillard’s 2020 playoffs as an example of the need for a more proactive rest policy:

But don’t forget what happened: as the Lakers’ defense clamped down in the playoffs, Lillard, who had made 17 of 30 against the Lakers in January (he finished with 48 points, 10 assists, and 9 rebounds) was, by Game 2 struggling to find 14 decent looks at the basket, and sank just six. Everything was cooked: timing, strength, decision-making. The Blazers were minus-29 with Lillard on the floor in that game, his worst mark of the season. When you’re that exhausted all kinds of things go wrong. Lillard dislocated a finger first, and then a few games later his right knee. He was on a plane home before the Blazers were even eliminated.

(Note that Abbott makes the implicit point that rest could prevent fatigue which could reduce the likelihood of the far-too-common late game injury.)

Abbott’s hypothesis that nagging injuries affect playoff performance is supported by quotes from players. Here’s Lillard in February 2017 explaining that an ankle injury would negatively affect his explosiveness for the rest of the season:

“When I did that I knew, even when I recovered from it, I knew it would be tough on me,” he said. “That’s one thing that I know it’s probably going to take until the summer for ... me to be completely explosive and how it was because I never turned it like that.”

Abbott’s solution? Planned games off for everyone on the team. Basically, give all of your players a fighting chance of being healthy when the postseason starts and each game REALLY counts.

He operationalizes this model by suggesting four games that Lillard could sit out in January, eliminating all travel and limiting Dame to no more than five games every 14 days.

What about Harry Giles?

An added benefit is that resting starters periodically would create rotation minutes for someone like Harry Giles, who might otherwise be squeezed out of the rotation. Here’s Henry again:

Tell Giles right now that if he stays ready, he’ll start a dozen games. Put them in the calendar. And then rest a starter for those games.

Imagine how fired up he’s going to be, how well he’s going to eat, how early he’ll show up for lifting sessions.

The team needs him. Jusuf Nurkic, the starting center, needs him. Nurkic and Giles can both afford to play harder. Nurk because he knows he’ll get some relief, and Giles because he won’t have the rotting feeling of never knowing when you’re going to play.

Then I’d do exactly the same thing all over the place: Simons, Trent Jr., Hood, Collins—the Blazers have won games with these players as starters before. This is how you get Lillard and his co-stars to the playoffs at their best.

Is this feasible?

Ironically, this plan may be least feasible for the player who arguably would benefit the most: Damian Lillard. It’s an open question whether or not the Blazers have the backcourt depth to weather scheduled nights off for Lillard or CJ McCollum. This plan would be contingent on Anfernee Simons making significant progress as a playmaker so that he could be relied upon to cover big minutes on a night where, for example, Dame sits out and CJ gets into foul trouble.

But, otherwise, the Blazers’ deep roster and the compressed offseason have made strategic rest an attractive possibility for the team. Hopefully, regardless of what strategy Portland chooses, they will be free of nagging injuries when the playoffs start.