The writing was on the wall long before a few weeks ago, when Joe Cronin forecasted inevitable change for the Portland Trail Blazers during his introductory press conference as the team's interim general manager.
Remember, Portland never discussed hoisting the Larry O'Brien Trophy, winning the West or even advancing to the Conference Finals at Media Day back in September. Damian Lillard's pre-game address to the Moda Center crowd before a loss to the Sacramento Kings in the season opener further tempered expectations for the Blazers in 2021-22, too.
The Blazers obviously didn't come into this season resigned to the likely realities of a roster that fell far below championship-caliber. Sure, they expressed an excited willingness to grow and adapt over the regular season as a rookie head coach learns on the fly and new pieces integrate to one of the league's longest-standing cores.
Ben Simmons isn't the only trade target for Portland. @ArmstrongWinter looks at three more players the Blazers must pursue before February 10th #RipCityhttps://t.co/i3yEKiTwIm
— Blazers Nation (@BlazersNationCP) December 10, 2021
But Portland's hesitance to dream big was telling regardless, especially in wake of an offseason that laid bare what Lillard and the most entrenched teammates had to know deep down.
The Blazers were never going to compete at the top of the Western Conference let alone win a title as currently constructed. That's never been more obvious as the regular season creeps toward its halfway point, with Portland stuck in the mud at 13-22, sitting above only the lowly New Orleans Pelicans and tanking Houston Rockets and Oklahoma City Thunder in the standings.
Even as CJ McCollum nears his return from a collapsed right lung and the Blazers get closer to full-strength after a wave of positive tests for coronavirus, a much-needed reprieve from losing is hardly guaranteed.
Lillard is sitting out Monday's tilt with the Atlanta Hawks to manage his abdominal tendinopathy, just like he did the first two weeks of December. His absence shouldn't be surprising. Lillard admitted in November, amid career-worst struggles, that he'd be dealing with effects of the injury all season long. It was always naïve to assume Dame would be able to sustain the peak form he reached shortly after returning from his time on the sideline. Chronic pain from nagging injuries doesn't just vanish over the course of the 82-game grind.
Only Lillard knows for sure how his body feels and where his head is as his team continues to tumble down the standings. After he reiterated his long-term commitment to Rip City, though, Lillard's injury status and Portland's ongoing state of flux makes one drastic question regarding the season's remainder worth submitting.
Would the Blazers consider shutting Lillard down for surgery on his midsection and tanking their way into a lottery pick?
That approach, to be clear, goes against pretty much everything for which Lillard stands. Maybe the Blazers' run of eight consecutive playoffs berths, the longest active streak in the NBA, is a feat he wants to further. Lillard recently began downplaying the need to win a championship before his career is finished, and he clearly takes immense pride in being Portland's leader—even with almost half the roster in health-and-safety protocols, replaced by part-time G-League call-ups.
This is what leadership is all about. 🗣 @Dame_Lillard #NBACallUp pic.twitter.com/e597TEUgGX
— NBA G League (@nbagleague) December 31, 2021
Firmly on the downside of his prime at 31, though, Lillard is also already lamenting wasted opportunities due to injury.
“I’m ready to be playing in the prime of my career at 100 percent,” he said after a November 15th win over the Toronto Raptors, “and it’s frustrating to not be able to do that over the last three, four years.”
Surgery on his midsection may not be the cure-all Lillard needs to play through his early-30s pain-free. But he has been working to strengthen and protect his core every summer for the better part of a half-decade. As he prepares to miss his seventh game this season, it's more than fair to doubt whether Portland will be able to climb from its depths back to a top-six seed—above the play-in tournament—if Lillard is forced to sit out more games or even if his play simply vacillates between All-NBA norms and early-season labors.
Another crucial factor for the Blazers' decision-making brain trust: Their first-round pick in the upcoming NBA draft will go to the Chicago Bulls if it falls outside the lottery. Rather than fighting like hell over the season's second half only to rise for a spot in the play-in, getting a late lottery selection at best, wouldn't Portland be better off tumbling further down the standings for the rare chance to draft a blue-chip prospect?
The answer is obvious in a vacuum, but it can't be separated from Lillard's will to win nor what tanking might mean for the trade value of the Blazers' available incumbents. The whole league knows Cronin wants to make multiple moves before the deadline–but pointedly playing for lottery balls would ensure Portland enters trade discussions from a position of even greater weakness.
The Blazers' belief in their ability for a late-season run to the playoffs could be steeled by the schedule, too. Portland's played the league's toughest slate of games to date, according to Power Rankings Guru, and has the second-easiest strength of schedule remaining. Its longtime penchant for late-season turnarounds during the Lillard-McCollum era can't be discounted, either.
But even if that trend again comes to pass once Portland is finally healthy or makes a couple significant roster tweaks, it wouldn't change the long-term outlook for this team. The best version of the Blazers is still going only as far as Lillard takes them, and the nature of his injury could render more realistic ambitions of postseason triumphs moot at pretty much any time. His longevity is paramount to Portland.
2021 hasn't gone so well for the Blazers, so here's hoping for a better 2022. @ArmstrongWinter has some New Year's Resolutions.https://t.co/PQKx2Lo9BT
— Blazers Nation (@BlazersNationCP) December 31, 2021
Seeing the forest through the trees isn't always easy, but the Blazers' dire straits at least allow them a clear-eyed sense of the most prudent means to proceed from here. If lasting success and a puncher's chance at contention is the ultimate goal, Portland's best path forward is obvious. Nothing would extend Lillard's prime more than a completely clean bill of health going forward and playing with a cost-controlled high-lottery pick who could evolve into stardom as he ages out of it.
Tanking is a tough pill to swallow for even the most forward-thinking franchises, though. The Blazers' current nadir, unfortunately, could leave them so starved for success that even a more fleeting immediate taste of it proves impossible to pass up.