The All-Star Break is here and due to an unfortunate groin injury, the Trail Blazers’ presence at the event is limited to musical performance from Damian Lillard . Here are series of questions that loom for the Blazers prior to their return to the court on Feb. 21.
The topic of this post focuses on health, the playoff race and the balance between those two items. Specifically, how will the Blazers manage Lillard’s workload and Jusuf Nurkic’s eventual return the floor.
The current state of the race for the final spot in the Western Conference:
- Thunder | Current Playoff Seed: Six | Record: 33-22
- Mavericks | Current Playoff Seed: Seven | Record: 33-22
- Grizzlies | Current Playoff Seed: Eight | Record: 28-26
- Blazers | Current Playoff Seed: N/A | Record: 25-31
- Spurs | Current Playoff Seed: N/A | Record: 23-31
- Pelicans | Current Playoff Seed: N/A | Record: 23-32
Regardless of a home-friendly schedule that Robert Flom outlined on Friday, the Blazers face an uphill battle into contention. Compounding the pitfalls on that cumbersome trek: the prize is a likely date with the Los Angeles Lakers. The postseason is the postseason no matter what seed you claim and Lillard’s competitive drive is clearly undeterred by a potential date with a powerhouse.
Lillard’s unreal output is crucial to the Blazers’ hopes of claiming a playoff bid. Currently, the former Weber State star’s usage percentage sits at 30.6 percent. The only times that percentage was higher: the year immediately following LaMarcus Aldridge’s departure and the 2016-17 season. The 2016-17 season takes center stage, as that campaign also required a late-season run to squeak into the playoffs. Usage aside, Lillard’s minutes average through 54 outings sits at a career-high 37 per game.
The All-Star Game could not have come at a better time for Lillard and the Blazers. The lull between contests should facilitate an effective rehabilitation period for Lillard’s groin. Even with some much-needed rest, Lillard’s workload isn’t headed for a clear-cut reprieve. If anything, getting Nurkic back up to speed in two-man pick-and-roll sequences has the potential to place even more weight on top of Lillard’s shoulders.
Given Lillard’s drive to win and make it to the postseason, even as an eight seed, will define the final third of the Blazers’ season. A pair of young-and-talented squads that bookend the Spurs and Blazers in the standings could place Portland in a precarious situation. If the Grizzlies continue to expand their cushion, will the Blazers prioritize rest and lottery placement in the final stretch? If the Blazers shift the emphasis of the season, could they get Lillard to agree?
This is a loaded thought exercise that balances several different factors. Can the Blazers complete a playoff push? If they do, what toll will it take on the franchise’s pillars? If they fail to keep pace in the race for the eighth seed, will the Blazers emphasize rest and recovery? Tell us your thoughts in the comments below.