Damian Lillard is '100 Percent Healthy'
Lillard detailed his rehab from January's abdominal surgery.
BEAVERTON, Ore.—It took Damian Lillard months to admit he wasn't right.
Last summer, while they were playing together in the Tokyo Olympics, Jrue Holiday saw every day how Lillard was laboring through practice drills and urged him to get the same abdominal surgery he had in 2019. But Lillard wanted to fight through to win a gold medal, and with his wedding already planned, having the surgery later in the summer wasn't an option, either.
Even when the 2021-22 season started, and Lillard got off to the worst start of his career while playing through the injury that had by his own admission been bothering him for upwards of three seasons, he resisted those around him like his longtime trainer, Phil Beckner, trying to convince him he wasn't himself.
"I wanted to show people that I could do it anyway," Lillard told reporters at his camp last week. "I could struggle for however many games, but I’ll show you what I can do anyway. Even when it’s not going well, I could make it go well. So that was my pride. That’s my natural disposition, how I go about stuff. But I just wasn’t healthy."
Finally, after a New Year's Eve loss to the Lakers in which Lillard shot 5-of-15 from the field and 1-of-8 from three-point range, he couldn't deny any longer what Beckner and others were telling him.
"[Beckner] had told me before that night, and I was like, ‘I’m gonna show him, too,’" Lillard said. "And now that I’m here, I’m looking back at that same situation thinking, ‘I should have heard him out.’ But I wasn’t taking in what he was saying to me. ‘He’s trying to save me from not playing my best,’ is how I was looking at it. But I wasn’t taking in that he was like, ‘Dame, trust me, I’ve known you a long time and looked at you close for a long time.’ I damn near tuned out what he was saying and made him a part of the other group of people saying, ‘What’s going on?’
"When I look back on it, he could see what I couldn’t see."
It didn't hurt that the Blazers at that point were spiraling, off to a 12-22 start to the season, with CJ McCollum also out with a collapsed lung and first-year head coach Chauncey Billups struggling to adapt to a new role, while the organization was picking up the pieces of the fallout from team president Neil Olshey's firing earlier that month after an investigation into his workplace conduct. For both Lillard and the Blazers, it was time for a reset.
"It's crazy because I didn't think I would say this," Lillard says with the benefit of hindsight. "But it was exactly what I needed."
When Lillard underwent the surgery in mid-January, he says the doctors were shocked he was playing at all, let alone at a near-MVP level for years, with the injury.
"I didn't even realize how bad it was," Lillard said. "I had been dealing with it for four-and-a-half years, and it would get worse and worse, but I was still able to have 50 on a night and I could still move kind of well. And it would be after the game that I'd go home and there would be a bulge, like a baseball was under there. That type of swelling. And by the time I would wake up, it would go down, and the next day it would do it again. I was just fighting through it."
After the surgery, Lillard worked with Beckner and others to put together a comprehensive plan of rehab, physical therapy and agility training. He also got to finally take some time off, which he hadn't had since the summer of 2019, going directly from the 2020 bubble into the COVID-compressed 2020-21 season into the Olympics into last season with a shortened offseason. He says the mental break was just as important as the physical recovery.
"I feel 100 percent healthy," Lillard said. "I got a break from playing and going out there knowing I didn't feel good, and the burden of, 'We have to win. I have to perform well.' That's a little bit stressful. So the last seven-and-a-half, almost eight months without having to think about none of those things, it kind of cleared my mind. Physically, I feel great."
At the time of the surgery, the Blazers didn't rule out his return later in the season depending on where the team was in the standings. But it was obvious they were headed for a teardown. McCollum, Robert Covington and Norman Powell went out the door at the deadline as interim (now full-time) general manager Joe Cronin set up for this summer's revamp that included last month's trade for another of Lillard's Olympic teammates, Jerami Grant.
The Blazers' roster makes more sense now around Lillard than it has in any of the years since the breakup of the LaMarcus Aldridge-Nicolas Batum-Wesley Matthews group in 2015. Lillard and Anfernee Simons are surrounded by strong, tough defenders who can guard multiple positions and hit open threes.
It's a good supporting cast, but not title-contender good. If they're going to take the step into the upper group of Western Conference elite, it's going to be because they have a healthy Damian Lillard again.
- I don't personally gamble on sports and you should absolutely not take betting advice from me, but the books are starting to release over/under win totals and the Blazers' number of 40.5 feels way low. Only once in their eight straight playoff appearances with Lillard did they finish below .500 (that being the COVID-shortened 2019-20 season), and one other time they finished 41-41. A healthy Lillard by himself is worth more wins than that, and their defense should be a lot better this season than it's been in years prior. I don't think they're close to the Golden State/Phoenix tier of Western Conference contenders, but on paper this is definitely at least a .500 regular-season team.
- Lillard's kids camp wrapped last week, but he's keeping busy with the launch of a new initiative called Formula Zero. More on that coming in this space later.
In case you missed it…
- For paid subscribers, I wrote about Lillard's youth camp (where he talked about his recovery from surgery above) coming back for the first time in three years.
- Also for paid subscribers, I broke down Joe Cronin's appearance on 1080 The Fan's Dirt & Sprague last week, which covered a lot of Blazers topics.
- Brandon Sprague, one half of the aforementioned Dirt & Sprague, joined me on the podcast on Friday to talk about Cronin's appearance on his show and his thoughts on the offseason.
- I joined my friend Seth Partnow's show on the Callin app to talk about the Blazers' offseason and future outlook. Seth is one of the smartest people in basketball media and it was a great conversation. Also, buy his book The Mid-Range Theory if you haven't already.