Portland Trail Blazers point guard Damian Lillard has been one of the NBA’s most durable players through the modern era. Prior to his abdominal surgery last January, the six-time All Star never missed more than nine games in a season, suiting up in every game through his first three campaigns.
But the seasoned veteran turned 32 in July and, while he appears to have rediscovered the burst he had prior to the abdomen injury, he’s been sidelined with a calf complaint for the past 10 days.
I’ve no doubt Blazer fandom had its collective heart in its mouth when Lillard limped off the court during the third quarter of the October 26 Moda Center loss to the Miami Heat.
Luckily, for Lillard and all of us, it was classed as a minor strain with the Blazers leader later claiming he would probably have returned to the court if it was a playoff game and not the sixth game of the regular season.
“It wasn’t nothing that I was overly concerned about, I just knew it wouldn’t make sense to push through in the fifth game of the season.”
“Honestly, if this was a playoff game, I would have played, it would have been tight and uncomfortable but I would have played.”
Sure, it’s entirely possible that Lillard didn’t realize the severity of the injury during his post-game media scrum, but maybe, just maybe, the star point guard has come to terms with the fact that his body might not be as resilient as it once was. And, if the Blazers are committed to not only making, but actually competing in the playoffs, he might need to take his rest where he can.
Through the Terry Stotts days, the given response to questions about lightening Lillard’s load was focused on giving him more off days around games. This was no doubt to ensure the series of mediocre teams, post LaMarcus Aldridge, a fighting chance at making the playoffs.
And physically, that probably worked fine for Lillard during his 20s. But as the years tick over, combined with the cumulation of a decade of NBA-level bumps, bruises and niggles, it’s pretty obvious that Lillard might need a little more maintenance and down time through the rigors of an 82-game NBA season.
Playing through injury
Part of the reason Lillard has grown his popular persona, is his determination to play through injury. As we all know now, the Portland star pushed through what became a worsening abdominal program over the past four years. Probably something he should have taken care of earlier but I’m never going to judge Damian Lillard’s judgement, even if it did force him to go under the knife mid season in January.
As mentioned earlier, the previous incarnations of this team really didn’t allow him to rest or take time off. Aside from CJ McCollum and a smattering of contributions from Jusuf Nurkic, there was little offensive help available to Lillard, exemplified by the 34-57 record the team has held since 2012 whenever Lillard was out of action.
I’m not suggesting the current Blazers squad is a world-beater, but with the additions of Jerami Grant, Justise Winslow and Josh Hart and the rise of Anfernee Simons over the past nine months, there’s been a lightening of Lillard’s load. The team obviously still feels Lillard’s absence but there are arguably more hands on deck to share the offensive load - see last night's underdog win against the Phoenix Suns in Arizona.
Hypothetically and conservatively, if Lillard was to play 70 games this regular season — he’s already missed three and potentially a fourth game later today — two play-in games and, let's say, a six-game playoff series, he’d be hitting the court 78 times.
Using his career average of 36 minutes a game, his total season minutes is likely to hit roughly 2,800. That’s a lot of diving to the rim, getting bumped and falling to the floor, it’s a lot of chasing opposition players through screens. There’s a fair bit of hoisting the ball from 30-plus feet out and with the way this team has increased it’s tempo, there’s a whole lot more involved aerobically.
I’m no sports scientist. But you’d have to imagine getting those minutes down by a couple of hundred, the man is going to be fresher. And while cutting his minutes in-game is all good and well, resting tactically selected games is going to be a lot more effective in getting Lillard the rest he needs.
Because if this team is going to do anything in the playoffs, you want your almost-33-year-old superstar to still have a little more juice in his body. Let’s also remember that just this summer, Lillard signed an extension that giving him a $63.2 million Player Option for the 2026-27 season when he’ll be 36, almost 37. Not that he hasn’t earned it, but the last thing the Blazers want is a former star, beaten down by injury, taking up a large part of the franchise’s salary cap when the likes of Simons and Sharpe — if they’re still on the roster — are hitting their respective strides.
When do you rest him?
Last Friday’s Houston Rockets blowout win was the perfect example of Lillard’s load management potential. And once the Blazers are through the tricky part of the season before the calendar turns to 2023, there are going be a lot of teams eyeing Victor Wembanyama, purposefully losing games to improve their lottery odds.
The freakish Frenchman might be one of the most sought after young talents the league has seen in decades, prompting franchises to deal away veterans and winning players for picks and poor play, much like the Blazers did last season.
For argument’s sake, let’s put the Utah Jazz, San Antonio Spurs, Oklahoma City Thunder, Houston Rockets, Detroit Pistons and Orlando Magic tentatively in this category. Of the Blazers’ last 27 games of the season, they play these teams seven times.
That’s seven games where the opponent may actively be trying to lose its way down the standings. So giving Lillard these games off, tests the roster’s depth and gives young players the chance to grow and take on responsibility on a team still trying to win.
It’s why we love him, but the man has pushed himself too hard for too long. He also has a Player Option worth north of $63 million at the age of 36. So it has to be in this team’s best short and long-term interests to keep Lillard’s body fresh and as injury-free as possible.
Even though the abdominal issue has been resolved, Lillard’s tenacious, frenetic style of play is always going to make him more exposed to injury whether they be niggles or complaints that keep him out for extended periods.
Perhaps he’s already come to the conclusion that he needs to be more tactical about the regular season. If so, great. If not, it’s something both he and the franchise need to discuss to ensure he’s contributing at the highest level for as long as is humanly, or Lillard-ly, possible.