With the off-season surgeries of Brandon Roy, Channing Frye, Raef LaFrentz, and Casey Holdahl you can't help but ponder the likelihood of injuries affecting Portland's chances, at least in the near term. Unlike many people, I am fairly slow to bestow the label "injury prone" on anybody. For every Grant Hill who spends two-thirds of his career in traction there are five players who have one or two surgeries and come out none the worse for wear. Some of those procedures happen in the early career years. "Injury prone" is one of those labels usually applied by opposing fans to explain why a team that's better than theirs on paper won't succeed. Rarely does that prediction become reality over the long haul. Predicting injuries is not only macabre, it's a waste of time.
Since the topic is before us, however, it might be interesting to take a look at the players Portland could least afford to lose if the season is to be successful. We're not talking just a game or two on the sidelines here, but something that would sideline a player for a couple months or more. Who would the Blazers miss the most? Here's my top five.
1. Greg Oden
Granted, the team played without him last season and didn't do that badly. But "didn't do that badly" is the key phrase there. The Blazers are expecting more than so-so this year. Losing Oden would put them right back in the position of having to overachieve in order to find even reasonable success. He's going to alter so many facets of the game: defense, rebounding, low post play, drawing double teams, muscle flexing, threatening to destroy the rim. Joel Przybilla can replace a couple of those facets but he's nowhere near the force a healthy Oden would be. There are zero adjustments to be made to compensate for his absence. Nobody has another monster behemoth seven-footer in their back pocket. The Blazers would just have to make the best of it and hope he got back soon.
2. Brandon Roy
Some would argue Brandon should be number one on this list as he's the heart of the team. Although the Blazers would miss Roy like you'd miss your right thumb if you lost it there's a reasonable chance they could make up some of his production and influence off the bench. Rudy Fernandez could drive and shoot a little. Jerryd Bayless could slip over to the two-spot and score. Both they and Travis Outlaw would be willing to take shots with the game on the line. All three of them together don't equal one Roy, particularly since two are rookies, but the gap between their collective influence and Brandon's would be less than the gap between Joel Przybilla's and Greg Oden's.
3. Steve Blake
Most people would expect Lamarcus Aldridge here because of his talent. It's tempting, but Portland does have some guys who can man the power forward position off the bench this year, particularly assuming Oden is healthy. They have a bunch of possible point guard replacements as well: Bayless, Roy, Sergio Rodriguez. But Bayless is untested in that complex role, Roy may not be as good playing it full-time as he is in the fourth quarter, and Sergio may have a ways to go yet. Even if they could tag team their way through 48 minutes none of them is the tested veteran who can set people up with regularlity like Blake can. It would be a major adjustment not only for them but for the team. If we had one, proven NBA point guard coming off the bench (or starting with Blake coming off the bench) no point guard would register on this list. Ditto if we were two years down the road and knew that one of these other guys could man the helm. But until then we're vulnerable if Blake can't play.
4. Lamarcus Aldridge
Lamarcus' ability mandates that he be no lower than this. It's not like the team would fall apart without him but he's the third major headache for opponents...the guy that will make this team near impossible to defend. He may well end up being the leading scorer this year as opponents will likely choose to stop Oden low and stop Roy from driving, taking their chances with Lamarcus working for the jumper or turn-around. If Lamarcus were to go out Channing Frye would probably replace him immediately, but Channing has yet to prove he can come through every night even if given a steady diet of shots (which he'd surely get in that situation). Between Channing, Ike Diogu, and Travis Outlaw sliding back over to power forward the Blazers would be OK, but they'd rather have Lamarcus.
5. Travis Outlaw
Travis might have overtaken Lamarcus on this list had not Bayless and Fernandez shown a propensity for scoring and clutch play this summer. Doubtless they'll struggle to duplicate that in their rookie seasons, but they'd get the chance if Travis went down. He's still the main guy off the bench and an almost certain fourth-quarter player. The Blazers don't quite have a ready subsitute for a guy who can come in and score on almost anybody immediately. They'd need to replace his spark somehow. For a game or two his absence probably wouldn't show up too much, but over the long haul Portland would miss him.