Trail Blazers Pull the Plug on 2022-23 Season
Portland stopped delaying the inevitable in a loss to Chicago.
PORTLAND, Ore. — They dragged it out as long as possible. They did everything in their power to give Damian Lillard the chance to salvage a playoff run out of arguably the best year of his career. But on Friday, the Trail Blazers stopped delaying the inevitable.
Lillard and Jusuf Nurkic were late scratches in a loss to the Bulls. The team said Lillard's right calf that bothered him in November flared up again. Their starting lineup consisted of Ryan Arcidiacono, Shaedon Sharpe, Matisse Thybulle, Trendon Watford and Drew Eubanks. Keon Johnson played more than he has in months. Jabari Walker is back in the mix in a real way. Kevin Knox II is getting non-garbage time now.
It doesn't take a genius to figure out what's going on. The season is over.
At his pregame media availability, Chauncey Billups called Lillard "day-to-day."
"His calf has been all year, we've been worried about it," he said.
Everyone knows what time it is. Lillard said it himself on Sunday after the loss to the Clippers: "I think everybody in here is not crazy. … We've pretty much fallen out of the race for the 10th spot unless we win every game, if you really look at it truthfully."
Here's the good news: it's only going to be nine more games of this, as opposed to last season's nine weeks from the trade deadline to the end of the year.
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Those painful months last year featured a lot of lineups filled with players like Elijah Hughes, Keljin Blevins and Didi Louzada—guys not currently on NBA rosters. The talent level is a little higher this time around, and the players getting these extended reps might still be around next year. Sharpe appears to have been handed the keys to the offense with Lillard and Simons out, and if Knox and Johnson are going to show they're part of the future, this is the time.
Only two players on this team, Eubanks and Watford, actually played down the stretch of last season. For as rough as the losing was in the moment, those reps helped both of them solidify their positions for the following season. Nobody wants to be in that spot again, but at least it won't be as prolonged.
"I feel like last year, it was a longer period of time," Watford told me after the game. "It was since the All-Star break. Dame was hurt, everybody pretty much sat down. But now we've only got nine more games left. It's whatever. We're just trying to come out and compete. It's frustrating, obviously, not being in that position [to make a playoff push]. But it's just how it goes. This thing's a business, so we've got to make the right decisions for the future. The only thing we can do is compete and just play."
The losing the Blazers likely have in front of them over the next two weeks is a tough pill for Billups to swallow, too, after what he went through in his first season as a head coach. Last year, he liked to tell us he coached three different teams: the veteran-laden playoff hopefuls he started the season with, the in-between group after Lillard was shut down but before C.J. McCollum, Norm Powell and Robert Covington were traded, and the full-on youth movement after the deadline.
This year, the count is only two: the team that thought it had a chance at the playoffs and the team that knows it doesn't.
"Unfortunately, it's familiar," Billups said. "It's not the best. It's not the greatest. But it is what it is. Whoever's available, I'm gonna coach them and try to do the best I can to help them help us."
Except for the Spurs, every team the Blazers play the rest of the way has more to play for than they do. Oklahoma City and New Orleans come to Portland on back-to-back nights Sunday and Monday, both much more in the play-in race than Portland. Sacramento is fighting for positioning at the top of the Western Conference. Minnesota, Memphis, the Clippers and Golden State will all be playing past mid-April and have seeding to determine.
One thing for fans to remember during this stretch: organizations may tank, but players and coaches do not.
"I'm always gonna coach to win the game," Billups said.