You grow to think they'll always be there. Then, when they no longer are, you think you'll never be the same. Eventually you realize you were wrong on both counts.
Dealing with losing someone is difficult, and few have the perspective to deal with it rationally. Whether it's your girlfriend dumping you, your favorite athlete skipping town or whatever else, we're all prone to overreacting, overanalyzing and overworrying about the future. It's baked into our DNA, I reckon.
In the case of the Trail Blazers without LaMarcus Aldridge, however, the healing process has been fairly quick. The Blazers are 4-5 this season, a far cry from the 105-59 record and kinda-sorta-fringe-contender status they maintained over the previous two seasons - they're not the team they used to be. But they're OK. They have an identity again, and they have more than enough talent to stay afloat for now while planting the seeds for a return to real prominence later. Meanwhile, in San Antonio, Aldridge is as good as advertised, and the Spurs are shining. In short, everything's good for everyone.
There were more than a few skeptics who doubted that this would be the case. Over the summer, there was a lot of negativity about both teams, relatively speaking. Everyone obviously thought the Spurs would be good, but there was some nitpicking about Aldridge's plodding style of play and its fit with the Spurs' movement-oriented offense. On the Blazers' side, you heard plenty of despair about the state of the roster post-Aldridge. There was even a little bit of buzz about them finishing last in the West (ha!). To be fair, I consider myself a member of both of the above lists of doubters, to an extent.
The first two weeks of the season have quelled a lot of doubts, though. Never was that clearer than on Wednesday night in Portland, when Aldridge revisited Rip City for the first time since his departure in free agency. The Spurs won behind a strong closeout effort in the fourth quarter, and LMA led all scorers with 23. But quietly, the Blazers got a very solid 18 points on 8-of-9 shooting from the two-headed monster they're using to replace Aldridge - Meyers Leonard and Ed Davis. That'll work.
The Blazers without Aldridge are a very different team than they were with him, but they're still a cohesive unit that functions well, especially offensively. As of this writing, the Blazers rank No. 8 in the NBA with 106.5 points per 100 possessions; last year with LMA they were No. 9, with 108.2 points per 100. Everything's changed, but everything's still the same.
As for the Spurs? Yeah, they're doing OK too.
This is an Aldridge-centric possession that every Blazers fan has seen a million times before - the point guard brings the ball up the floor, he finds Aldridge on the block with his back to the basket and Aldridge goes to work, posting him up. In Portland, this play became a cornerstone of Terry Stotts' offense; in San Antonio, it's exactly the kind of play the skeptics said would screw everything up.
Respectfully, I submit that it hasn't. According to Synergy Sports, the Spurs have run 49 post-ups for Aldridge already this season in only 8 games - that's far more than Spurs teammates Kawhi Leonard (24), Boris Diaw (21) or Tim Duncan (19). But Aldridge also has 46 points off of those post-ups, ranking him fifth in the NBA, and at 0.94 points per attempt, he's more efficient than two of the guys ahead of him (Jahlil Okafor, 0.81 and Marc Gasol, 0.80). Aldridge's post play isn't ruining the Spurs' offense - it's diversifying it. The Spurs would melt down if they simply abandoned their ball movement altogether, but they're too smart to do that. Instead, they use Aldridge's inside game as yet another way to mix up their offensive play and keep opposing teams guessing.
Adding to the unpredictability is the fact that Aldridge is just as comfortable around the perimeter - say, 19 feet from the basket - as he is around the rim. Consider this play here:
Aldridge gets the ball at the elbow on a pass from Tony Parker and hesitates, then dribbles to his side - oh, great, the Spurs skeptic thinks. More Aldridge freelancing. But then watch what happens - after two Aldridge dribbles, Danny Green comes darting around from the right corner, Aldridge finds him and screens C.J. McCollum, and boom - you've got an open lane for Green to drive to the basket. C.J. and Meyers Leonard collapse on Green, Aldridge pops out, and the result is an easy pick-and-pop jumper.
Through only eight regular season games, the Spurs are already doing a tremendous job of integrating Aldridge - who's a tricky, multi-talented player - into what they do. He's got the post game, he's got the mid-range jumper and he's also frequently in position to help the Spurs out on the offensive glass (Synergy also has him ranked No. 14 in the NBA in scoring off of putbacks, with 19 total points so far this season). Aldridge is still Aldridge, and the Spurs are still the Spurs. This may come as a surprise to some, but the two statements are not mutually exclusive.
Sure, you say. As a Blazers fan, you don't find any of this surprising. You've watched Aldridge be a superstar player for nine years, so you had no doubts about him in San Antonio. Well, let's flip it then, because the other side of this coin might be more interesting - the Blazers are also doing pretty damn well without LMA around.
This was my favorite possession from Wednesday night's game. Watch Meyers Leonard and admire the patience and poise he shows here. With about 11 seconds on the shot clock, Leonard gets the ball at the elbow on a pass from Al-Farouq Aminu, and he's matched up against Aldridge. If the roles were reversed, with Aldridge against Leonard, he'd probably stop the ball, back Leonard down and launch a jump hook over him. Instead watch what Leonard does - he keeps the ball moving to Damian Lillard, who drives and kicks for Aminu, who drives and kicks again to find Leonard, sneaking out to the corner for an open 3. Aldridge (who should know better!) winds up losing Leonard. Easy trey for him.
The Blazers have survived in the post-Aldridge era because they have plays like this in their arsenal now. Between Leonard and McCollum, they've got a whopping 9.2 3-point attempts per game coming from guys who weren't in the starting lineup last year (actually, it's 13.4 once you throw in Aminu too). This newfound ability to stretch the floor is significant, and it's something the Blazers didn't have as much last year with Aldridge, who's a threat from 19 feet but not all the way out to the arc, dominating so many possessions.
Of course, the Blazers are even trickier because they don't just use Leonard to plug the massive hole that Aldridge's departure left. Leonard has started all nine games at the power forward spot for Portland this season, but he's only averaged 26.3 minutes, lowest in the starting five. That's largely because Ed Davis has seen the floor for 20.6 minutes a night, giving the Blazers a platoon partner who can give defenses an entirely different look.
Unlike Leonard, Davis gives the Blazers value almost exclusively through his play around the rim - which works great when he's got a horde of teammates who can space the floor and create opportunities for him. Peep this:
Not to belittle Davis or anything, but it should be said - he doesn't really have to do anything on this possession to record an easy two points. He simply stands around and waits. The play works because Damian Lillard has an uncanny ability to suck in the defense when he drives. Dame is actually guarded by three Spurs on this possession - there's Patty Mills, his original man, plus Aldridge, who's disrespecting Leonard by leaving him alone beyond the 3-point line, and Boris Diaw, who's supposed to be guarding Davis but cheats off of him a little bit. Lillard appears pretty swarmed, but fortunately he's got a knack for making nice little underhand scoop passes to find open teammates when he's in trouble. He finds Davis here for an incredibly easy bucket.
The Blazers' offense worked Wednesday night, to the tune of an impressive 101 points in only 93 possessions, because they were able to mix things up. They might not have multiple All-Stars in the lineup anymore, but this sort of volatility is one thing they're good at. When you expect them to attack the basket, they pull the ball out and shoot. When you expect them to shoot, they use their spacing to attack the basket. That variety of offensive skills is huge for them, and it's largely the product of using a really interesting one-two punch of power forwards. They didn't have the same variety last year with Aldridge - he's multi-faceted to an extent, but not to the extremes of the Blazers' current guys. He doesn't stretch all the way out to the 3-point line like Leonard, and unlike Davis he shows a little bit of reticence to bang down low with opposing centers. With their current bigs, the Blazers cover the full range of the floor, from rim to arc. (The elephant in the room, of course, is that the Blazers will likely be without Leonard for the next few weeks as the big guy recovers from a separated shoulder, but no worries. Long-term, this group should be just fine.)
Meanwhile the Spurs, who are 6-2 and rank fourth in the NBA in offense, are doing just fine too. Go figure.
I don't know about you, but I didn't expect things to iron themselves out this well, this quickly. Aldridge isn't a superstar changing teams quite on the same level as Chris Paul in 2011 or LeBron James last year, but he's still a pretty big deal, and that said, it's remarkable how quickly San Antonio and Portland have adjusted to life with him and without, respectively. This isn't to say adding Aldridge is negligible for the Spurs - he gives them a stud scorer, not to mention big man depth and veteran leadership. Nor is it forgettable for the Blazers, who will need some time before they're a top-five team in the West again. But it's still noteworthy that we're only two weeks into the season and both teams already have an identity that works. The integration and the grieving both went a lot quicker than expected.