Damian Lillard needs a reason to play. Love of the game isn’t enough in the middle of a pandemic.
Though the NBA appears set to resume play in July — likely at ESPN Wide World of Sports at the Walt Disney World Resort in Orlando — specifics for the season remain murky. It’s unclear whether the regular season will be completed, an abbreviated season would take place or the playoffs would kick off immediately.
If the Trail Blazers (29-37), currently sitting ninth in the Western Conference, have no path to the playoffs, their biggest star said he has no plans to play again this season.
“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 Yahoo Sports.
“But I’m not going to be participating. I’m telling you that right now. And you can put that [expletive] in there. 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 pr actice and I’ll be with my team. I’m going to do all that [expletive] and then I’m going to be sitting right on that bench during the games.”
Because of the unique nature of the suspended season, one potential option for resuming play includes a play-in tournament, which would give teams outside the top eight in each conference a chance to qualify for the postseason of a shortened season.
“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,” Lillard said.
Lillard, 29, has led the Blazers to the playoffs the past six seasons, including a personal-best run to the Western Conference Finals last season. Currently, the Blazers are 3.5 games behind the Ja Morant-led Grizzlies for the final playoff spot in the West.
Teams would receive millions in additional local TV money if they can get to the 70-game threshold, which would fulfill their regional television deals. In the unlikely event that a full 82-game schedule is completed, Lillard believes the Blazers would earn the right to face the first-place Lakers.
A play-in tournament could provide that intriguing series, too, he hopes.
“I just feel like that would be the matchup people want to see,” Lillard said. “And not to say nobody wants to see Memphis, because they’re in the eighth and they’ve been in the eighth spot for a while. They’ve earned that. You can’t take anything away from Memphis. They play hard, they’re exciting and they’ve got a lot of young talent. The Lakers would have their hands full playing against them. Memphis beat the Lakers this year. Memphis would have nothing to lose.
“I feel like both series could be a little bit hectic for the Lakers, but I think more so us, because of the experience and where we are in our careers. Not too long ago, we played them in L.A. and obviously I had a great game and we won a close one, and in the playoffs, I’m sure they would come up with some type of game plan to not allow that to happen. But I want to compete. That’s what we want.”