The 31-40 Portland Trail Blazers are the No. 13 seed in the NBA Western Conference, having lost eight of their last 10 games and potentially a fighting chance at the play-in tournament. In the midst of a disappointing campaign, rumors have circulated that the franchise may shut down Damian Lillard for the rest of the regular season.
ESPN analyst Stephen A. Smith has not been known to hold his tongue, and spoke candidly on ‘First Take’ about Lillard’s potential shutdown as well as his greater vexation with Lillard’s loyalty to the franchise:
.@stephenasmith says Damian Lillard should've left Portland years ago— First Take (@FirstTake) March 21, 2023
"Damian Lillard is one of the great, great guards this game has ever seen. ... He's given this organization everything he's had. It hasn't worked. ... He should've BEEN left that organization." pic.twitter.com/xWkG6i2rd4
Much can be extracted from Smith’s soundbite, but nothing better than him saying, “They [Portland] just don’t have it.” Smith is right. The Trail Blazers do not have a championship-caliber roster.
The numbers say that the Blazers are an above average team on offense and subpar team on defense. But the eye test has screamed careless turnovers, failure to consistently contest three-pointers, poor rim protection and even poorer perimeter defense.
Admittedly, inopportune injuries have robbed Portland of making a final run down the stretch of the regular season but they have not looked like a team that can seriously get out of the first round of the playoffs for months, even at full strength. Shutting down Lillard may be wise.
The 32-year-old has battled nagging infirmities throughout the year — chiefly a calf injury that caused him to miss 12 of Portland’s first 23 games. Playing Lillard opens the door for re-aggravation or worse.
Smith also said that “the Portland Trail Blazers are just not the place to be.” Lillard has incessantly stated his unwavering loyalty to the city of Portland and the Blazers organization. His departure for greener pastures is highly unlikely, as he doubled-down on these sentiments in a recent appearance on JJ Redick’s ‘Old Man and the Three’ podcast.
Blazers management ought to feel compelled to reciprocating loyalty to Lillard by building a contending team around the 2023 All-Star. Acquiring Jerami Grant was the first step. Above all else, they must re-tool the center position and bring in taller and versatile defensive big men in the offseason. A standout perimeter defender with length is needed in their starting core and a pass-first point guard to relieve Dame will put the finishing touches on a serious contender.