Just think: This could have been the first week back for LaMarcus Aldridge.
It was Thursday, Jan. 22 when Aldridge announced that he'd torn a ligament in his left thumb and would need surgery, keeping him out for six to eight weeks. The Trail Blazers were dominating at the time, at 31-12, and Aldridge individually was having quite possibly the best season of his career. That the franchise player could miss almost two months was earth-shattering news in Portland.
We all know what happened next - Aldridge decided two days later he would put off the surgery, he returned on Saturday the 24th to turn in a monster performance in a win over the Wizards, and the Blazers kept chugging along with their full complement of players. The team closed out the first half with four wins in five games and was 36-17 when the All-Star break rolled around.
But if you'll indulge me for a second, I'd like to explore an alternate reality - what would have happened if Aldridge had had the surgery? Where would things stand now?
Assuming everything went according to schedule, LMA would just now be getting into the flow of things with the Blazers again. The original timeline was six to eight weeks, and knowing the Blazers, they'd probably err on the side of caution rather than risk a more serious injury to their franchise player. After all, they've got a $100 million extension to hand him this summer. So - eight weeks from Thursday, Jan. 22 brings him to Thursday, March 19, meaning he returns in the middle of last week's Southeast road trip. This Wednesday's win in Utah would probably have been his fourth game back, give or take.
How would things be different?
When news first broke that Aldridge would miss time, I remember thinking that the Blazers could afford to sit him down if it meant getting him right for the playoffs. They had a gargantuan lead for the Northwest Division title, they had plenty of time, and a mid-March comeback would put them in prime position to get Aldridge and the rest of the group into playoff form. As semi-serious injuries go, LMA's did actually have perfect timing.
It's not like the team would have performed too terribly in the big fella's absence. In reality, Portland has only gone 14-13 in its 27 games since that 31-12 start - how much worse would things really have been with an absent Aldridge instead of a playing-hurt Aldridge? Any team with Damian Lillard and a decent supporting cast around him is probably good enough to scrape together a .500-ish performance. Dame and company would have found a way.
I keep thinking about how the season would have unfolded differently with Aldridge out for a couple of months. The team would likely still be in playoff contention just as it is today. I also think they would have been endlessly fascinating to watch in the interim. Maybe Terry Stotts starts to experiment with new lineups. Going super-big with centers Robin Lopez and Chris Kaman playing a lot together? Small with Dorell Wright at the four? Stretching the floor with a lot of Meyers Leonard in LMA's spot? Everything would have been on the table.
Then, right about now, LMA would be getting back and the Blazers would be rediscovering their playoff form.
What happened instead is that Aldridge played through it. I can imagine why he made the decision he did - at the time, he was thinking about the Blazers as serious title contenders, and he wanted to grind out every game and give his team a chance at a high playoff seed, a season-long run of championship momentum and a sense of continuity. When you think about it, Aldridge failed. If you go down the list of every thing he really hoped to accomplish, can he check off any of them? A high West seed is doubtful - Portland will probably only eke out the No. 4 by the good grace of the "division title rule." Momentum? Nah - this recent five-game losing streak has pretty much dashed any chance of that. Continuity? Obviously the injury to Wesley Matthews isn't LMA's fault, but it did ruin any chance of a complete season for the starting five we all know and love.
When Aldridge made the decision back in January to play, it was celebrated by fans near and far. What a gamer! What a selfless act for the benefit of the team! But looking back - what have the Blazers gained?
One thing they haven't gotten out of the deal is any assurance of Aldridge's long-term health. If he'd gone under the knife back in January, LMA would presumably be 100 percent by now; instead, he's still hurting. Here was his explanation Saturday night in Memphis, after he sat out the second half of a Blazer loss, according to ESPN's Michael Wallace:
"I already had my thumb messed up, so not being able to use my hand was just too much. They said it wasn't broken, so that's good. I'm going to take my time, try to let it go away. I had prior issues and I don't want to come back and not be able to use my left hand at all. I'm not going to rush it."
"Take my time," "not going to rush it" - this is exactly the kind of rhetoric you want to hear from your franchise player. But where was it two months ago? Why is the caution only setting in now? And can you imagine how much more confident we'd all be in this Blazers team if they had a fully recuperated Aldridge available now?
To be fair, Aldridge has found a way to play through the pain. He's appeared in 24 of Portland's 26 games since his announcement that he was putting off surgery, and for the most part he's produced at the All-Star level we've always been accustomed to. Though it is worth noting that he's been a little bit erratic from month to month. Here are his splits:
LaMarcus Aldridge, by the month:
|LMA field goal percentage||LMA points per game||PDX points per 100 possessions w/ LMA|
There's a definite trend here - Aldridge had a strong January, including an initial burst of adrenaline immediately following his decision to play. (In the three games immediately after tearing the ligament, he put up point-rebound totals of 26-9, 38-11 and 37-11.) Then he began to decline in February, which is understandable given that he still had half a season left and the reality of his situation was really starting to sink in. Then, gradually, he began to find his form in March as he got better and better at adapting his play in light of the injury.
I've written about this challenge before with Aldridge, but I think his specific methods of playing hurt have only gotten savvier with time - in Wednesday night's win over Utah, there were several examples of LMA continuing to find crafty new ways to assert himself. Here's play No. 1:
This clip is a fascinating instance of not only Aldridge asserting himself and scoring, but also the Blazers as a team executing beautifully to get their star big man a clean look at the basket. Watch what happens here - LMA's open shot is the result of not one but two effective screens by Robin Lopez.
LMA begins the possession with Rudy Gobert guarding him, and Gobert is exactly the kind of player you don't want to play against when you've got a messed-up hand - he's long, he contests shots like a madman and he's bound to reach out and smack you around a little bit (usually inadvertently, but still). If you're trying to avoid contact and play a finesse game, he's a nightmare. But fortunately for the Blazers, they know Utah is an aggressive defensive team that loves to switch everything - so what do they do? First Lopez sets a screen for Steve Blake, which prompts Blake's man Dante Exum to switch onto him quickly. Then Lopez shuffles to his left and sets a second screen to pin down Gobert - leading to switch No. 2, with Exum on Aldridge. Seeing a mismatch, Aldridge proceeds to mosey into the paint, find his sweet spot and take the right kind of shot - a fadeaway leading with his right hand. The left stays out of harm's way. Easy bucket.
Aldridge has shown a willingness to open up and take more risks in certain situations - namely, in the final minutes of close games when the Blazers really need a bucket. Here's a play in which LMA gets relatively reckless:
We've seen Aldridge drive like this before, but not quite like this. I doubt he would have finished this bucket a month ago - not in traffic, with three Utah defenders ready to collapse on him, and especially not when one of the three is the insane shot-blocker Gobert. But watch how artfully Aldridge outplays Gobert here, putting himself in position to score - he drives hard with his right hand (the healthy one) and contorts himself as he goes to the rim, twisting so as to finish cleanly with the right hand and use his body to obstruct Gobert from reaching in. What he lacks in a full-strength right hand, LMA makes up with instinct, quickness and strength.
Another thing Aldridge can still do really well, even with the injured hand, is box out and get rebounds. Here he is pushing Gobert out of position to corral a miss by Arron Afflalo:
His form here is excellent, and again, he minimizes the impact on his left hand. Aldridge turns to face his right side to the basket as Afflalo shoots - this way, he can bump Gobert with his left shoulder to push him off the block and he can use his right hand, not his left, to snag the offensive rebound and put the ball back up. The result is yet another two of Aldridge's 19 points on the night.
Everything we're seeing here is encouraging. And it's translating on the stat sheet - overall, Aldridge's numbers in March have been fantastic. But will it continue? We're still waiting for proof that he can sustain what he's doing for two months in a row. It's a valid question, given his injury - the more he produces, the more wear and tear he puts on his hand, making it increasingly difficult to keep producing.
There's no doubt that Aldridge still has his propensity for flashes of brilliance. They can last for a game, sometimes two or three. But I still wonder whether he's got enough strength in that hand to survive multiple playoff series. The postseason is a different beast - rather than playing Utah one night, then packing up and leaving for Phoenix the next, you get the same opponent up to seven times in a row. That opponent gets a chance to watch you closely, learn your tendencies, adjust to your little ploys. Aldridge pulled out some nifty tricks against Rudy Gobert - can he do the same stuff to DeAndre Jordan for seven consecutive games and be successful? That's a lot harder.
Everything the Blazers have done this year, they've done with one eye on championship contention. From the additions of Blake and Kaman to bolster the bench, to the move to keep Aldridge active, to the trade for Afflalo in February, the mindset all along was that a deep, consistent team would have a chance to win it all.
Sadly, though, expectations might be changing. The Blazers are 4-6 since losing Matthews, and they're falling fast in the West standings. They're still going to the playoffs for sure, but their future beyond that is a lot less clear.
Given that, you start to think about everything differently. Looking back, with everything we know now, was it still right for Aldridge to play through his injury? What did the Blazers gain from it? How has it helped them long-term?
We won't be able to answer these questions fully for a long time. It will depend on how Aldridge and the Blazers play the rest of the way, not to mention how he recovers over the offseason and what he looks like next year. But it's hard not to let your mind wonder at times like this. LaMarcus Aldridge made a decision two months ago that represented a major turning point in Portland's season. Do you ever look back on it and wonder... what if?