The Portland Trail Blazers are not doing well. Sitting 12-18 in a crowded Western Conference, the Blazers currently own the seventh-worst record in the league, 30 games into the season.
It’s still December, too soon to determine results. But it’s going to be incredibly difficult for the Blazers to elevate through the play-in picture and into the west’s top six with Coach Chauncey Billups still waiting to have his vision executed consistently.
On top of all this, the team’s leader and six-time All-Star Damian Lillard is struggling on the court as he battles an ongoing abdomen injury.
The injury is no secret, he’s been dealing with it for more than four years with the condition potentially exacerbated by Lillard’s stubborn mantra to play through the pain.
This season, the injury has come to a head, overtly impacting Lillard’s play and ultimately the Blazers’ performance. Yes, he put up 43 points last night in a less-than-convincing win against the Charlotte Hornets. Yes, there might have been a monster dunk in the third quarter. But there was also a lot of Lillard grimacing throughout the second half. Unfortunately, the man is human.
Something needs to give because he’s not going to be able to carry this team night in, night out while in pain. Below we discuss a subject that, for many Blazers fans, is considered taboo, ridiculous and nonsensical.
But what if Damian Lillard sat for as long as he needed, receiving whatever medical treatment required and did not return until he was 100 percent fit? Let’s be clear, this means he sits for weeks, months or even the entire season, whatever it takes.
Lillard would have to understand and completely buy into to this path because it’s clear he has the ultimate say on his health status.
While Lillard looks freer after a cortisone injection and a recent five-game break, it’s clear this is not a long-term solution. He’s pushed his body through pain for at least four NBA seasons and an Olympic campaign, when the only way to address it, is to address it.
This means the team would ultimately have to concede more ground and potentially the season. But from this decision, all kinds of possibilities come to the fore.
We know he’s 31 years old — 32 to start next season — but one could argue that much-needed rest could revitalize Lillard, setting him up for a more successful 2022-23 season.
While the short-term impact of Lillard sitting would see the Blazers continue to drop down the standings, the alternative, with Lillard pushing on, doesn’t seem to be all that better.
Anything resulting in the Blazers battling for the playoffs via the play-in this season doesn’t elicit much hope for the postseason. It’s a story we know all too well, a middling team with no real chance at contention.
We all heard Interim General Manager Joe Cronin talk about breaking through this team’s ceiling to become a real contender.
“The core challenge I think we’re facing is it’s extremely difficult to go from good to great. To take that next leap that extra whatever percent it is, five, 10. We’ve had a solid team for years, we had a ceiling, how do we burst through that ceiling in order to really compete, and when we say really compete we mean walk into the gym every night and have that swagger to know that we are one of the best teams in the league, we have a very realistic chance of winning this whole thing.”
Using that thinking, wouldn’t it be better to sit Lillard? The team could move CJ McCollum and other expiring contracts while bringing in assets, sink into the lottery and make this team cheaper, younger and better balanced.
Let’s have a look at some of the factors.
I’m not going to speculate on what the Blazers could yield in return for players like McCollum, Jusuf Nurkic and Robert Covington. Let’s just say Cronin should be able to bring in decent-enough players and assets to either move again in the offseason or remain with the team moving forward.
The Blazers may also need to part with one of Anfernee Simons, Nassir Little and picks to bring back a player of real substance. If that’s the price for a decent enough return, so be it. I, for one, am done with kicking the can down the road.
The 2022 Draft
Plummeting into the lottery for the first time in nine years could help this team in the short term. If the ping pong balls bounce the Blazers’ way, they could legitimately land a top four pick, to be used on NBA-ready prospects such as Chet Holmgren, Paolo Banchero or Jabari Smith.
Alternatively, that pick can be moved to a team in return for a real difference maker, a ready-made All-Star to pair with Damian Lillard.
Clearing the decks with the veterans mentioned above also opens up more opportunity for young players, who remain with the team after the deadline.
Along with any assets brought back in trades, the likes of Anfernee Simons, Nassir Little, Greg Brown III and Trendon Watford could see increased minutes, providing much-needed experience and potentially raising their respective trade values.
Damian’s future in Portland
The elephant in the room is Lillard himself. Lillard is a pragmatist, while he wants to win in Portland he knows that another season gone, is another season wasted in what is his diminishing prime.
I don’t know Damian, I’ve never met him and wouldn’t begin to anticipate what he is thinking but my honest guess is that if Cronin came to Lillard with a considered and sensible plan, he could potentially be brought on board. The plan would have to lay out step-by-step, the planned moves, the targeted players and the position the team expects to be in by October next year.
Much has been made about Lillard’s offseason and rumors he may be looking elsewhere. With Olshey now gone, so do Olshey’s ties and refusals to part with certain players. Ideally, the Olshey dismissal would have been nicer earlier, but you can only play the cards you’re dealt. With Cronin, or whoever ends up in the job, now might be the time to strike and break the frustrating, mediocre cycle we’ve all been through over the past decade.
This situation also helps Jody Allen’s hip pocket. If Portland stays above the tax this season, they’re almost certain to remain in repeater luxury tax territory next season. By sitting Lillard and moving some of those larger contracts, the Blazers receive some financial respite — depending on what comes back — opening up doors for the front office to make moves next summer.
I’m not suggesting the Blazers will have any real cap space, but at least they drop under the tax, helping the front office with potential deals in seven months time.
Just as an example, the Golden State Warriors sat Steph Curry during the COVID-interrupted 2019-20 season, allowing him to rest a broken left hand, potentially for longer than he needed to. The Warriors ended up with the worst record in the league that season, yielding them the second pick and James Wiseman in the 2020 draft. While the jury is out on Wiseman, this decision gave the franchise a chance to re-set, returning to contention this season, even with Klay Thompson still to return from injury.
I guess the one caveat here is that the Warriors have already enjoyed a great deal of success, so there may not have been the urgency to reach the pinnacle like there is for Lillard.
In a perfect world where Lillard was certain to remain in Portland beyond this season, sitting him should almost definitely be the plan. In-season deals won’t be enough to revive this season, so letting Lillard convalesce while sacrificing the playoffs could be the most prudent option for Joe Cronin if he the star point guard is prepared to put his feet up and return later this season or for the start of the 2022-23 campaign.
It’s unlikely this happens but it’s an important thought exercise. The Blazers, under Neil Olshey, followed a pretty predictable pattern — just keep retooling without succumbing to the lottery. It’s left them in mediocrity and playoff limbo.
This strategy has cost Damian Lillard a chance to really contend in his prime. The above suggestion might have been better executed two or three seasons ago, But who knows what impact serious rest will do to re-invigorate the franchise’s arguably greatest player?