The Portland Trail Blazers are among the teams on the playoff bubble who could be on the outside looking in if the season returns in late July.
While the league and the players union negotiate the plans to return, Damian Lillard made clear Tuesday that he is not interested in returning to the floor if the Blazers have no shot at reaching the playoffs.
“If we come back and they’re just like, ‘We’re adding a few games to finish the regular season,’ and they’re throwing us out there for meaningless games and we don’t have a true opportunity to get into the playoffs, I’m going to be with my team because I’m a part of the team,” Lillard told Chris Haynes of Yahoo Sports over the phone. “But I’m not going to be participating. I’m telling you that right now. And you can put that in there.”
The Blazers — currently the No. 9 seed in the West standings, 3.5 games behind the eighth-seed Memphis Grizzlies — expected that the returns of starting center Jusuf Nurkic (from compound fractures of his left tibia) and starting power forward Zach Collins (from left shoulder surgery) would help fuel their playoff push over the final stretch of the regular season. But if the season returns for only a limited number of games before the playoffs, then the Blazers would face long odds to make the postseason.
“If we come back and I don’t have an opportunity to make the playoffs, I will show up to work, I’ll be at practice and I’ll be with my team. I’m going to do all that and then I’m going to be sitting right on that bench during the games,” Lillard told Yahoo Sports. “If they come back and say it’s something like a tournament, play-in style, between the No. 7 and No. 12 seeds, if we’re playing for playoff spots, then I think that’s perfect.
“It would suck not to get in the playoffs because our thing was, we had fought ourselves back into position to get a spot,” the 29-year-old guard continued. “We had our starting center and starting power forward coming back, so we had a lot to look forward to and for a great reason. Now, they’re healthy and have extra time to train and rehab while everybody’s rusty. So now, they won’t be coming back as the only rusty players. And if everybody’s rusty, we can come in here and beat everybody. I do feel like if we do come back and our mind is right, we can beat anyone.
“It’s going to be hard to get going with no fans, you’ve been off all this time and some people are just ready for summer like, ‘I haven’t played in a long time and the season is basically over to me. Do I really care like I cared before?’ It’s going to be a lot of those factors going on and that presents a lot of room for a team to [overperform]. Like, really mess around and knock some teams off and then, ‘Oh, they’re in the Western Conference finals.’ It’s room for that with this situation. So the fact that it’s possible and we wouldn’t get an opportunity at that, that’s weak to me. I ain’t getting no younger.”
The league reportedly hopes to issue guidelines about a return to play before June 1, according to ESPN. Many options reportedly are still under consideration.
“Right now, I’m just in a space where I want to come back and play. And if we start playing, I’ll be ready to play. But if the league says it’s only taking playoff teams, then I’m off to a head start in my summer training. I’ll be pissed off because I feel like they basically stopped the season and went straight into the playoffs. We’re chasing the team with the toughest schedule in the league and we’re in ninth place. That would be weak, but it is what it is.”
Prior to the hiatus, Lillard was having a career-best season with averages of 28.9 points and 7.8 assists over 58 games.