If the Portland Trail Blazers ever wondered what an unfortunate but well-timed injury looks like, Damian Lillard’s abdominal issue is it. The team announced Thursday that the All-NBA guard underwent surgery to repair it, and he will be reevaluated in six weeks, with a six-to-eight week timetable to return. Six weeks would be late February, and if he indeed needs the full eight weeks, that puts his return somewhere in early March.
The news is a bummer for trade-thirsty NBA fans and media outlets everywhere, as hours of podcasts discussing possible destinations and gobs of Instagram photoshops with Lillard in jerseys other than Portland’s pinwheel are all for naught — at least until the offseason. It doesn’t mean Daryl Morey will stop calling/trying to prove he’s not completely botching the Ben Simmons situation, but the trade deadline is less than month away, and it’s hard to imagine anyone ponying up this year for an injured player coming back from this serious of a surgery who may not be able to meaningfully contribute to a title run.
Add in that he’s due $42 million, $45 million, and $48 million over the next three years, and it’s hard to find teams with contracts/players that Portland would be willing to take on in exchange for the best player in franchise history. So, my guess is you’re probably not going to see him traded this season, which appears to have a lot of downtime in store for a usually busy Dame Time.
He’s been one of the more durable players in the NBA, but he’s also been one of the most heavily used. He’s been in the top 10 in minutes per game seven of his 10 seasons in the league, and every year for the past six, including the No. 1 spot in 2019-20 (37.5 MPG). He’s never played less than 66 games in a season (until now) or less than 35 minutes per game in a season. For context, Steph Curry has only eclipsed 35 minutes per game three times in his 13 years in the league and has played less than 66 games four times.
Obviously, they’ve been in different situations, as Golden State is often able to rest guys due to blowouts and their place in the standings, but whether it was Terry Stotts’ inability to create offense without his best player, Neil Olshey’s inability to give Stotts players who can create offense when Lillard was on the bench, or Lillard remaining willing/healthy enough to be able to play all those minutes, he was going to hit a wall eventually and this was it.
Portland is currently 16-24, sitting at 10th in the West, a game ahead of Sacramento for the last play-in spot, and without its two best players — CJ McCollum also is sidelined recovering from a collapsed lung. I would say it’ll be hard to keep that position, but if the Kings, Spurs, and Pelicans can contend for a play-in spot with those rosters, the Blazers might have to actively tank to assure their place in the lottery, which would mean they keep their pick.
For Trail Blazers fans, myself included, it’s what we’ve been hoping for, because Lillard has not been himself this season after he wasn’t himself in the Olympics. The thought is this staves off a Lillard trade, hopefully gives the Blazers a high draft pick, and maybe allows a player like Anfernee Simons to blossom into a McCollum replacement or a trade asset with added playing time. For what it’s worth, Simons has averaged 28, 7 and 3 with 51-43-95 shooting splits over the past five games (3-2) albeit on nearly 37 minutes per game.
The best case scenario is Portland plays for the lottery and gets some luck in it, allowing whoever takes over at GM — be it interim Joe Cronin, who Lillard has endorsed, or otherwise — to flip those assets into players Lillard wants, further convincing him to stay, something HE HAS SAID HE WANTS TO DO MANY TIMES. This also gives new Blazers coach Chauncey Billups a full season to get his footing.
It’s similar to the Warriors’ lost year in 2019-20 when Curry got hurt, and they were able to rebuild on the fly instead of trying to do it with mid- to late-round picks. That said, if Lillard demands a trade, Portland at least has a head start, because they’re going to get all the perks of a lost season despite their best player remaining on the roster.
I literally told a buddy of mine last week that, “I hope Dame shuts it down this year, so he can get healthy, and Portland can better position itself to make much-needed roster changes.”
I didn’t say it quite so eloquently — it was probably more like “We suck, shut him the fuck down so we don’t lost our pick. Fuck Neil Olshey” — but regardless, I’m as happy as can be with this news. Prayers up, Dame. Get well soon. See you later this season or next … I hope.