As the Portland Trail Blazers sink lower toward the bottom of the Western Conference standings, Lillard continues to deal with a case of lower abdominal tendinopathy that's had him in and out of the lineup and playing well below his All-NBA standard.
Lillard will not travel with the team on its upcoming six-game road trip, and he is expected to meet with a specialist this week to determine the next steps in managing the injury. Serious consideration has been given to Lillard taking significant time off to heal, effectively ending the Blazers' hopes at a playoff run.
"I think that's probably going to be the route that we go if he doesn't get some kind of relief there," Blazers coach Chauncey Billups said last week when asked directly about the possibility of shutting Lillard down for an extended period of time.
It's not only the likely path forward, it's also the logical one for both an ailing Lillard and a Blazers team that's looked utterly listless during the first half of a season defined by organizational turmoil.
Call it a gap year for Lillard, call it a one-year mini-rebuild for Blazers interim general manager Joe Cronin. It's what the Golden State Warriors did two years ago, letting Stephen Curry take some time off after breaking his hand early in the 2019-20 season, playing for a lottery pick and letting their young players develop without the pressure of having to win games. The next season, Curry came back in MVP form, and a year later, Golden State looks like the best team in the league again.
The Blazers at their best aren't in the same zip code as the Warriors, but Lillard has had a similarly unending workload over the past 24 months, as Curry did over repeated Finals runs. Portland played a playoff round in the bubble, which required superhuman performances from Lillard to even get there, followed by virtually no offseason as the NBA started Christmas week in the face of the ongoing pandemic. After losing in the first round of the playoffs to the Denver Nuggets last spring—another series in which he carried an outsized load on a deeply flawed roster—Lillard immediately went into Olympic mode and played with Team USA in Tokyo.
It's taken a toll on him physically. This much was obvious during the Olympics, when Lillard averaged 11.2 points per game and shot just 38.3 percent from the field. It has been even more apparent as he's gotten off to the worst start of his career this season, shooting 40.2 percent from the field and 32.4 percent from three-point range. Lillard said in November that the abdomen injury has been affecting him for "three and a half or four seasons."
Lillard's long-term health is the single most important factor in the Blazers' future plans. He's eligible for a two-year, $107 million extension this summer, and all indications are that he would sign it if Cronin (or whoever is running basketball operations by July) offered it to him. He's said repeatedly since the start of the season that he isn't looking to be traded, and that doesn't appear to be a route the team is considering, either. As hard as other front offices and some media outlets have been working to will him into a trade request, a Lillard-Blazers divorce isn't in the cards right now from either side.
Which makes it all the more important that this persistent abdomen issue be addressed now. Paying a 6'3” guard north of $50 million per year into his mid-30s is the kind of thing that will give salary-cap analysts nightmares; it becomes a lot more palatable if this injury is fully in the rear-view mirror. If that means shutting Lillard down for the rest of the season—a season in which the Blazers are currently nine games below .500 and in the best-case scenario might scrap their way through the play-in to get demolished by Phoenix or Golden State in the first round—that's a better approach than letting him limp through this year and continuing to have to manage this injury going forward.
Cronin will have other decisions to make before the Feb. 10 trade deadline, up to and including whether to trade Lillard's nine-year backcourt partner, CJ McCollum. Starting center Jusuf Nurkic and veteran forward Robert Covington are free agents at the end of the season, making them prime candidates to be moved in the next month. Portland owes its 2022 first-round pick to Chicago if it's outside the lottery; if the decision is made to shut down Lillard, they'll not only keep that pick, it also will have a chance to be very high. Maybe even high enough to draft a new co-star for Lillard.
Letting Lillard take time off to get right, trading their other veterans to get younger, letting Anfernee Simons and Nassir Little develop, losing enough games to get a high draft pick and coming back in the fall with a clean slate and a healthy franchise point guard ready to take a serious swing at a late-career run is the best outcome for both Lillard and the Blazers.
Sean Highkin covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. He is a graduate of the University of Oregon and lives in Portland. His work has been honored by the Pro Basketball Writers' Association. Follow him on Twitter, Instagram and in the B/R App.