Damian Lillard out for at least 3 games; should Trail Blazers tank?

Damian Lillard, Portland Trail Blazers, trade deadline (Photo by Katelyn Mulcahy/Getty Images)
Damian Lillard, Portland Trail Blazers, trade deadline (Photo by Katelyn Mulcahy/Getty Images) /

The Portland Trail Blazers have been one of the NBA’s most disappointing teams this season. It might be time for them to give in to the inevitable.

This season has not gone how Damian Lillard and the Trail Blazers had hoped.

On December 1, the Portland Trail Blazers stood at 11-11 in a three-way tie for seventh in the Western conference — just a game behind Dallas in fourth.

Since then they are 3-11, the third worst mark in the league over that span behind Eastern doormats, the Orlando Magic and Detroit Pistons.

That is certainly not the company this team had expected to be keeping at the turn of the new year. Even factoring in the missed games from injury and the recent COVID outbreak doesn’t quite close the gap between where the Blazers are and where they were expected to be.

Damian Lillard, Portland Trail Blazers
Damian Lillard, Portland Trail Blazers (Photo by Katelyn Mulcahy/Getty Images) /

The Trail Blazers have a host of reasons to aim low for the remainder of 2022

Aside from the seeming impossibility of leapfrogging enough teams to be part of the playoff conversation this spring, the Blazers may be best served to move their sights from championship contention to the lottery.

Portland has more than $92 million — 78 percent of next year’s salary cap — committed to Damian Lillard, CJ McCollum, and Norman Powell in 2022-2023. Add in the guaranteed contracts of Larry Nance, Jr, Nassir Little, Greg Brown, and Andrew Nicholson, who the Blazers are still paying to play half a world away, and Portland will have less than $9 million in cap space and just six rostered players.

If they have any hope of retaining restricted free agent wunderkind Anfernee Simons, they’ll have to shed at least one of their biggest contracts. Lillard has been adamant that he wants to stay, and Powell has the longest deal of Portland’s top three, so McCollum is the one most likely to be dealt.

And Interim General Manager Joe Cronin shouldn’t stop there. The Blazers have a bevy of veterans with expiring contracts who will make attractive trade targets for teams actually still in contention. It’s time to aggressively seek deals for Robert Covington and Jusuf Nurkic, and use relative bargains Dennis Smith, Tony Snell, and Cody Zeller to sweeten some offers.

Related Story. How the Blazers can tank and retool in one year. light

Portland may have quietly taken the first step towards semi-intentional self-sabotage by “resting” announcing that Damian Lillard will be out at least the next three games and will have his lingering abdominal injury re-evaluated after the short hiatus.

Lillard wouldn’t need load management if he hadn’t been playing 36.4 minutes per game — most on the Blazers and the fifth-most in the league. But at this point Portland is probably better off having their superstar in street clothes than in uniform.

Shockingly, the Lillard-less Blazers took down Atlanta Monday night. The offense seemed to move more freely and Simons seized his opportunity to start and responded with a career-high 43 points and seven assists.

This brought calls to trade Lillard from the dumber corners of the internet. Those same fans will be clamoring for his return after Simons has a couple rough games in a row or Ben McLemore stops channeling Steph Curry.

Lillard and Nassir Little should be the only Blazer untouchables in 2022. Portland will forfeit its first round pick this year to Chicago unless it’s in the lottery, and that seemed unthinkable a couple of months ago.

But the Blazers are going nowhere good fast and should embrace the suck for the remainder of this season. It’s time to reconstruct the team around Lillard, Powell, and Little and try and generate some excitement for next year.

This one’s lost.

Next. A short review of Neil Olshey’s legacy with the Portland Trail Blazers. dark