It's time to answer the Mailbag question that's been on everybody's mind...a hot topic of debate in the comments and a source of worry and joy for Blazers fans.
I'm sure you're already working on this, but I've seen almost nothing in-depth on the wisdom of Aldridge's decision to play through his injury. While I met the decision with unabashed joy and elation, at the same time it troubles me. In some respects this is a decision we'll only know the wisdom of in hindsight, but I'd love to hear your thoughts. Among other pitfalls I see:
1. Won't opposing teams start hacking at that troubled thumb, potentially making it far worse than it is?
2. If he had gone out on schedule, we'd have him back with 10-12 games before the playoffs. If we lose him in the weeks to come to surgery we know is inevitable, he may not be able to use regular season games to work himself into game-shape and may have to do that in the playoffs - not a comforting prospect. We could lose him for the playoffs altogether.
3. Is there risk he may compromise his long-term career in making this move? The medical consensus seems to be immediate surgery is the preferable option and the thumb won't be in ideal shape for surgery if he waits. He has become quite dangerous with his left hand - it would be a shame to compromise that ability for just one season. This is the prospect that troubles me most.
4. How does Dave - weighing all the pros and cons - feel about this decision? The plusses seem obvious, but maybe I've missed some.....likewise the negatives. Oh great oracle of basketball wisdom - enlighten the masses on this most critical of questions.
People have written about a billion questions on this topic. Yours is fairly complete so I'm going to let it stand for all LaMarcus Aldridge injury inquiries. That's what happens when you break things down into succinct bullet-points. (And when you call me "great oracle of basketball wisdom"...though I suspect that might have more to do with me making a charisma check than a wisdom check proper. Still, I'll take it!)
1. Won't opposing teams start hacking at that troubled thumb?
Most opponents probably won't hack at it too badly until the playoffs. When you combine the percentage of decent guys, guys who understand that the players are a fraternity of professionals dressed in different colors, and guys who know they have to play in this league for a few more years (and what goes around, comes around), you've defined the brotherhood of non-thumb-yankers. Some players lie outside the order, but they need opportunity and motivation. The regular season doesn't bring enough of either to worry about overmuch.
A playoff series, on the other hand, gives plenty of incentive to even decent, professional, career-minded players. Do-or-die, win or go home, legacies made or broken...a little thumb-related brutality seems tamer with so much else at stake. Aldridge will face the same team night after night, so opportunity will rise as well. Plus the Blazers without Aldridge are the Blazers without any hope of serious post-season advancement...a serious potentially tipped with one well-timed swat.
For these reasons, I hope LaMarcus feels better by April. Either that or Thomas Robinson, Meyers Leonard, and Wesley Matthews need to show up with crowbars ready to concuss the first person who looks sideways at that thumb.
2. The timing for surgery is better now than it will be for the entire year until the season is over...
That's correct. This feels like an all-or-nothing move, at least if Aldridge plays more than a week or two with the injury. If he opts for surgery next Friday, the old college try won't have hurt much. But carrying on for a while before changing his mind bites into recovery and post-season time, as you pointed out.
You also have to factor in the All-Star break. That's a solid week without games...free-pass days if you're counting recovery time. Plus Portland's game against Brooklyn just got postponed until April, theoretically after Aldridge's return if he had surgery right now. The Blazers might be stealing 4-5 games' worth of normal schedule at an actual cost of 0 games without Aldridge. That's a fine argument for an early operation.
If Aldridge can wait, though, the off-season is unquestionably the best time of all. That's what the Blazers are hoping for.
In a way, this is like playing a Vegas slot machine. You can put in a dollar and maybe win $100 or $1000, or you can put a dollar in another machine with a higher chance of busting but a top payoff of $50,000. Neither $100 or $1000 will change your life, but $50,000 might. Personally, I go for the bigger payout. Apparently Aldridge and the Blazers do too.
But honestly, it's hard to talk about odds and payouts without knowing more about his condition. And even then, medicine is mostly about statistics and probability. There are no guarantees. What if the surgeons says, "We can fix this but until you rest it for 6 months your post-op discomfort is going to be about as bad as your current condition and you're going to risk messing up my work with all your balling tomfoolery, so what's the point"? Perhaps the risk of giving it a go evens out with the risk of having the surgery, just with a far higher payoff potential. Until we've seen the medical charts and the numbers, we just don't know.
3. What about career-ending (or impacting) risk?
I'm going to assume the Blazers and Aldridge have considered this extensively. LaMarcus is up for a new contract this summer. He can't afford to risk his future. The Blazers are fixing to pay him 522 bajillion dollars. They can't afford uncertainty. The only scenarios in which those factors don't sit uppermost in everyone's minds are too ridiculous to consider.
If this does end up curtailing Aldridge's career it will go down as one of the biggest blunders in franchise history, right up there with whatever happened to Bill Walton's foot. But until that happens we have to assume that the team and LaMarcus have gone over these things and consider the risk minimal.
4. What do you make of all this?
Probably the same things that most of you do.
Part of me is thrilled by the Willis Reed/Kevin Duckworth comeback march. Trying to play through the season shows that Aldridge not only believes in himself, he believes in the team and its chances to do something special. It's a noble, stirring gesture. Having Aldridge in uniform is a huge positive on the court and will lead to more wins. That's all good.
I've also been around long enough to understand that noble, stirring gestures make great copy but they don't always lead to ultimate success. Neither life nor the NBA are storybooks. Pragmatism is necessary.
I am not a doctor, nor have I spoken with Aldridge's physicians. I am not LaMarcus Aldridge, nor do I know what's at stake for him personally. Neil Olshey is a better General Manager than I. I'm not going to sit here and tell you Aldridge should or should not be playing. That would be stupid.
I will tell you that in my view, the pragmatism and overarching vision in this kind of situation needs to come from the GM, even if nobody else has it. Coaches are hired to win games. We tell players to give their all, suck it up, and be heroes to the world every night. Sure, plenty of players end up self-interested but when you find one making unselfish decisions like Aldridge is, you have to run that decision through a sieve of logic and long-term perspective. The GM provides that filter.
If I were GM--assuming some level of uncertainty and no obvious path forward--I imagine I'd say something like this.
LaMarcus, you don't know how much I appreciate what you do for this team, what you're willing to give to this team. You're the heart of everything we do, and you're showing it again by being willing to take the floor despite the injury. Your voice will ultimately weigh most in this decision, but I want you to hear how the franchise views you and the future to give you some perspective as you're making it.
I believe we have a chance to do something special this year, but that's just what it is...a chance. It's the first chance, but not the last. First chances always seem special from the front. In retrospect they're still special, but afterwards you understand that they were only a step in the progression. This won't be your only chance at a title with us. It won't even be your best chance at a title with us. It's a chance, no more and no less, one among others.
We fully intend to keep the core of this team together. We fully intend you to remain the foundation of that core, the piece upon which everything else gets built. You and most of your teammates are in your early-to-mid-20's. We're looking at a 4-6 year window here, not a single-year, all-or-nothing shot.
If you and your doctors are confident that there's nothing more that can happen to your thumb, we're happy with you taking your first shot this year. If there's any risk of complications making things worse or jeopardizing your career, we're going to value the long-term you over the right now gamble. That's partially about you, but it also makes good business and basketball sense. 5 tries are better than 1.
Weigh that as you make your decision. Do what's best for you and the franchise. Tell me there's no risk and I'll sign off on you playing right now, tonight. Otherwise, we already know that you're our heart and our hero. 6-8 weeks in the early months of 2015 isn't going to change that one way or the other. Get fixed, get right, and then lead us to a few titles.
I'm assuming that Neil Olshey had this kind of conversation with Aldridge and they decided that the best way forward was to play through it. Given that, they're now doing just what the rest of us are...crossing their fingers and hoping for the best, both on the court and in Aldridge's ligaments. We'll have to see what happens.
Thanks for all your Mailbag questions, Aldridge-related and otherwise. You can send them to firstname.lastname@example.org and we'll try to answer. We also have a phone line set up for that purpose on our Blazer's Edge Podcast (next edition coming today!) but we're having real trouble with sound quality and we're thinking the call-taking process we're using needs to be changed. Stay tuned on that; we'll be bringing it back soon.
Also don't forget to help underprivileged youth see Portland's March 30th game against the Phoenix Suns 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.