There's no way to sugar-coat the news that came out of the Portland Trail Blazers camp yesterday. An MRI revealed a torn ligament in the thumb of All-Star forward LaMarcus Aldridge, sustained while defending DeMarcus Cousins in Portland's victory over the Sacramento Kings last Sunday. Aldridge is expected to miss 6-8 weeks after undergoing surgery to repair the tear.
Coupled with injuries to Robin Lopez, Joel Freeland, and potentially Nicolas Batum, Aldridge's extended absence is enough to inject fear--and few gallons of sadness--into the hearts of the most stalwart Blazers fan. How will the team cope with their new reality?
The first, and fairest, answer is that they won't. All season long we've been admiring Aldridge's stunning performances and how they've transformed this team. It's time to stop and acknowledge explicitly. His impact goes well beyond 23 points and 10 rebounds a game. Aldridge is the hub of Portland's offense. He's been the extra gear for their defense and rebounding as well. He's the leader of this squad, the veteran dealing the cards as the Blazers play their way to a 60-win clip. Everything the franchise has needed, he's given. Statisticians are going to argue with me, but I maintain it nevertheless: his influence is far more significant than it was 3 seasons ago, or really at any point in his career. He has proven himself not just a great scorer, not just a great player, but a winner.
The Blazers cannot replace that. They can fill in for some of the stats. They can hope to coax great evenings out of young players. They can ride Damian Lillard and Wesley Matthews, flexing their backcourt muscle in Aldridge's absence. It won't be the same. Not much has been secure--no rebounds, few shots, only scattered quarters--since LaMarcus left the floor. Up to this point that sense of security, predictable excellence, led the Blazers to their lofty perch in the conference. It won't be back until #12 is. This isn't a prediction of doom; the Blazers can and will win games without Aldridge. It's an acknowledgment of who LaMarcus is, how far he's come, and what he means to this team.
That said, the Blazers can't just sit around saying, "We wish LaMarcus was here...sad face!" They'll need to adjust, and here's how they'll do it.
Ride It Out
A 30-11 record after 41 games can serve a couple of purposes. It can propel you to ultra-elite status if held through the rest of the season. Failing that, a super-hot start all but guarantees you'll make the playoffs even if you slump. The Blazers established one heck of a credit line in the first half of the season. If they have to draw on it now, so be it.
Aldridge is only gone for 6-8 weeks. He'll be back for the end of the year and the playoffs. Today Portland's record stands at 31-13. Let's say LaMarcus misses a full 8 weeks and 26 games. If the Blazers go 9-17 during that stretch--one heck of a fall from grace--they'll still emerge with a 40-30 mark to build on down the stretch. Even in the West, that's a playoff platform.
Because the conference is so stacked, seeding means less this year than it would in most. If the Blazers finished with 60 wins and got a Top 3 seed in the bracket, you might be confident in their first round matchup. On the other hand, maybe not. Oklahoma City, Houston, San Antonio, or the Clippers could all end up in that range. Home or away, no 7-game series would be secure against any of those opponents until the final horn had sounded. That story also works in reverse if the Blazers end up on the lower end of the standings. Portland won't be afraid to face anybody even if it's from the 7th seed.
If you're concerned about losing seeding position, though, you need only circle one name: Oklahoma City. Division winners earn automatic upper-bracket seeds. No other team in the division is capable of beating out the Blazers and Thunder. Whichever of those two teams finishes ahead of the other is guaranteed a Top 4 spot in the West (though not necessarily homecourt advantage, which is determined by record in a given matchup). No matter what happens in the next 20+ games, the Blazers should be in position to dogfight with the Thunder as the season closes.
If you're a worst-case-scenario person, let's go there just for you. If by some swing of ill-fortune the Blazers do miss the playoffs, in all probability they'll still end up bringing back the same starting lineup next year. Except now they'll be bolstered by either a lottery pick or a veteran they traded a lottery pick for. Bam. Bench bolstered. Neither the team nor its fans should be thinking that way, but if you're forced to think that way, the consequences aren't that bad.
Stretch Their Wings
All season long we've been waiting to find the limits of the constantly-emerging Matthews and Lillard. All season long we've been wondering if Nicolas Batum is getting enough touches in the offense. The throttle is about to go wide open on the first two. Presuming Batum's wrist injury is temporary, they'll need him too. We may see Batum get a new lease on life in the process. Getting Nic re-involved would go a long way in the playoffs.
The big caution here would be the tendency to ride the same guys 42 minutes per game for extra wins. That scenario could domino a single disaster into a team-wide failure, draining Portland's ability to perform in the post-season. The coaching staff will need to get creative and show discipline to make sure "stretching" doesn't become "breaking".
Ride the Young Guys
The gap Aldridge leaves at power forward and in the scoring department will have a trickle-down effect on Portland's bench.
Somebody's going to replace Aldridge in the starting lineup. The Blazers won't be able to cover all facets of his game with a single person but they can choose what they'd like to emphasize. If they need rebounding with a little defensive explosiveness, they'll go with Thomas Robinson. If they like size and shooting ability it'll be Meyers Leonard. If veteran presence is their druthers, Dorell Wright is the key. In certain situations they may even go with Batum, health permitting.
Either way, their move will open up new possibilities for the rest of Portland's reserves. With more punch leaching out of the bench corps, the remaining players will be forced to step up. Offense-generators like CJ McCollum or Will Barton may be especially prized...more so if Batum is out. The Blazers will still run their system with the reserves but they'll experience more of an "anything goes" vibe in which all contributions are good contributions until the roster settles into normalcy again. The bench responded fairly well against the Celtics last night. Opportunity awaits for any player who can step up and seize it.
Adjust the Offense
Personnel choices will dictate which way Portland's offense heads for the next couple months, but they already know they can't just throw the ball to Matthews/Lillard and pray. As we've seen in the last couple games, defenses are wise to Portland's production potential and know to squeeze the only guys left on the roster with huge scoring averages.
None of Aldridge's substitutes will provide the distraction power he commands, nor will they be able to post effectively in his normal court position, so the Blazers will need to run more intricate strong-side plays than usual. If Robinson sees heavy minutes we're looking at traditional pick and rolls. With Leonard the pick-and-pop should work fine. (Though Meyers also likes straight-away shots. One wonders about the old high post.) Wright spreads the floor, opening up drive-and-dish potential for Lillard. Any way you slice it, the Blazers will employ more men and more motion around the ball. This isn't necessarily a bad thing. It could benefit the players involved while giving the offense new wrinkles to employ when those post-season series come around. Maybe this experience will leave the Blazers a little less predictable and a little less Aldridge-dependent...both good things.
Make a Move
Neil Olshey was correct when he affirmed today that any trades the Blazers make will be for the long haul, not responding to a current crisis. Employing permanent solutions to temporary problems doesn't make sense. If there's a trade out there that puts the Blazers head and shoulders above everybody, they'll do it. Without that kind of return, making a move just to look better in this year's standings would be foolish for the same reasons explained above. No matter how good you look, succeeding in the West this year will be a crapshoot.
If the Blazers have been eyeing a move and waiting for the right time, though, this would be that time. They can use any sort of help available save maybe point guard. (And even then...) This is doubly true if they're thinking about signing a semi-retired veteran short-term. The cost is cheap; a return of even a couple more wins would justify it. Olshey might want to start stalk-texting Jermaine O'Neal anytime now.
In no way, shape, or form is losing LaMarcus Aldridge a good thing for the Blazers. In the context of a single season for a team with elite-level aspirations, it's a disaster. But this team's growth curve spans more than a single season and even the 2014-15 campaign encompasses more than an 8-week span. Portland's hopes haven't failed...not even this season's, let alone in a five-year window. The Blazers will need to deal with their new reality, maybe learn something in the process, and see if they can come out the other side with renewed strength and fresh ideas even if their record is ultimately worse than it would have been without this injury.
Unless they melt down entirely, the Blazers will still make the playoffs. They'll still have roughly the same shot in the playoffs that they had before, plus or minus a game at home. If that single game turns the tide, especially in an early round, they probably weren't going to win it all anyway.
As far as devastating injuries go, things could be worse. It's small comfort, but there you go.
Even if the season didn't get any better, it just got a whole lot more interesting. This team is about to be stretched to its limits and beyond. Buckle up and let's see what happens.
Hey folks...please help us send underprivileged youth, children, and chaperons to see Portland's March 30th game against the Phoenix Suns--and yeah, Aldridge could be back--by contributing tickets to Blazer's Edge Night. The cost of a ticket is low and the joy it brings into the life of a child who otherwise wouldn't get to see a game is immeasurable. We're looking to send over 1000 kids this year. You can find all the details here.