Yesterday the Portland Trail Blazers announced that LaMarcus Aldridge, Nicolas Batum, and Chris Kaman were all doubtful for tonight's matchup with the Golden State Warriors. Whether those players take the court or not, a game that was supposed to feature two of the top Western Conference teams will now feature one, plus a squad that's become a shadow of itself.
Just in case you missed it, here's a summary of recent Trail Blazers injuries:
Aldridge tore his thumb ligaments on January 19th, took a couple games off, then opted to skip corrective surgery in order to help his team go as far as possible in this season's playoff quest. He's been playing in pain ever since.
Nicolas Batum has appeared in 61 of Portland's 68 games this season but is suffering through the worst offensive slump of his career. His poor performance has been blamed on a combination of fatigue and injury.
Chris Kaman has remained relatively healthy this year, playing in 64 games. If he logs 6-7 more he'll have played more minutes than any season since 2009-10 when he was an All-Star starter for the Los Angeles Clippers. But the intervening years haven't been kind to Kaman. Before this year he exceeded 50 games only once in 4 tries, twice playing fewer than 40 games because of injuries.
We need not mention Wesley Matthews' Achilles tear, suffered March 5th against the Dallas Mavericks. That season-ending blow felled a player with the reputation of playing through anything, smart or not, pain notwithstanding.
Whether these setbacks turn out mild or sustained, watching them pile up within a three-week span has been sobering. Portland's 2014-15 season is not what it was just a month ago. Slipping from the top of the standings to the middle (and perhaps farther if the trend keeps up) is no surprise in a crowded, competitive conference. Far more shocking is the speed with which the Blazers have fallen from darkhorse contenders to a team just trying to hang on. The regular season ends three weeks from tomorrow but the once-mighty Blazers are limping towards the finish, not charging.
Given the circumstances--pain, loss, lack of momentum--we're all but forced to ask, "At what point is enough, enough? When do you look at these injuries and ask injured players to shut it down instead of sucking it up?"
We might be reaching that point now.
None of us knows the medical conditions of Portland's players. We get status reports but lack the prognoses necessary to weigh ramifications. Far be it from me, or anyone here, to take the place of doctors, agents, team officials, or the players themselves. Ultimately they get to make the call, we don't.
But how many times can you hear the sentence, "LaMarcus Aldridge's x-rays came out negative" before you want those x-rays to stop altogether? They may be termed precautionary, but if the chances of further damage--perhaps permanent damage--were zero, we wouldn't need the x-rays in the first place. Every time a defender's arm swipes down when Aldridge is holding the ball, time freezes. Every time that x-ray machine clicks we hold our breath, hoping to expel it in a sigh of relief and not a cry of frustration.
Anything that strikes at LaMarcus Aldridge strikes at the foundation of this era of Blazers Basketball. Put all the shooters, defenders, and role players around him you want, this team goes nowhere significant without #12. A major retooling and a few years under Damian Lillard's belt might change that story, but those won't happen soon. This season will end far before Aldridge's influence over this team does. Which is more important?
We could also ask whether the Blazers can contend for a title, or even a conference championship, without Matthews. If you believe they can, how about with Batum hurt and slumping? What if Kaman has to sit? Any two of these factors going wrong probably disqualifies them regardless of Aldridge's status. And Matthews' injury is in the books already.
We want our warriors (lower case) to fight to the end, but we also have to measure what they're fighting for. A first- or second-round exit is nice, but is it worth gambling health for?
Even if we can't make concrete judgments about the medical conditions of these players, there's no harm in demarcating the line at which the sacrifice isn't worth it anymore. Watching the team play over the last couple weeks, watching the injuries mount as they've done so, I'm ready to say that any risk of further injury to Aldridge is too much risk for me. He delayed surgery on the premise of a special season. When Matthews went down, that premise changed. If Aldridge reconsidered--if we didn't have to undergo even one more x-ray test--I wouldn't be upset. Nor would I be upset if Batum took time off or if Kaman rested until fully healed. If the Blazers dropped to the 7th or 8th spot as a result and had to take their chances, well, their chances from the 4th spot don't look that much greater. They might get by the first round, but after that the conference is a Cuisinart that a less-than-healthy Blazers lineup isn't equipped to handle.
I want to open up this question to you, our readers, as well. At what point are you willing to prioritize health--short- or long-term--above everything else, including finishing with the best possible record this season? What conditions, if any, would make you say, "Enough"? Have we already reached that point for you? If not, what else would you need to see? Or do you think the Blazers should gut it out for three weeks and hope for a post-season resurgence? Is there a happy compromise between the two?
Share your thoughts in the comment section, if you would.