All-Star guard Damian Lillard may have played his last game of the 2022-23 NBA season. With the Portland Trail Blazers sitting 3.5 games out of the race for the play-in tournament as of Saturday, the team is leaning toward shutting down Lillard for the remaining nine games of the regular season, according to Shams Charania of The Athletic.
Lillard, who is averaging a career-high 32.2 points per game this season, missed Portland's 124-96 loss to the Chicago Bulls on Friday due to a calf issue. According to Charania, the Blazers simply don't want to risk subjecting Lillard to further injury with the team unlikely to reach the postseason for the second consecutive year.
After re-tooling with the additions of Jerami Grant and Gary Payton II last offseason, Portland has largely disappointed en route to a 32-41 record, good for 13th out of 15 Western Conference teams. Despite Lillard's exploits, which have included games of 71 and 60 points, the Blazers' offense has failed to rekindle the prowess of when it finished No. 2 in the league two seasons ago. Meanwhile, the defense has remained porous, currently sitting at 27th in the league by allowing 117.3 points per 100 possessions.
Shutting down Lillard not only protects their superstar talent, but also allows the Blazers to increase their odds of landing a potentially franchise-changing prospect in Victor Wembanyama or Scoot Henderson during this summer's draft. Judging by the lineup they threw out in Friday night's massacre -- Ryan Arcidiacono, Shaedon Sharpe, Matisse Thybulle, Trendon Watford and Drew Eubanks -- the Blazers losing each of their final nine games seems like a realistic possibility.
Portland's inability to reach the postseason despite a transcendent offensive year from Lillard certainly raises questions about the future of the franchise. Grant and Anfernee Simons have put up decent numbers, but the Blazers have hardly been a playoff contender for most of the season, with a championship nowhere near the horizon.
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Trading away Payton and Josh Hart mid-season were indications that general manager Joe Cronin and the front office knew making significant noise this season was a pipe dream, and we'll have to see how they choose to rebuild in the future. Lillard has remained steadfast in his loyalty to Portland, but there has to come a point when the franchise seriously considers whether trading their superstar is the best path to eventual contention.