Can Portland Trail Blazers Stay Elite Without Injured LaMarcus Aldridge? – Bleacher Report
Another character-testing obstacle has reared its menacing head for the Portland Trail Blazers.
Already dealing with the absences of Robin Lopez (hand) and Joel Freeland (shoulder) up front, the Blazers will now be without All-Star LaMarcus Aldridge for a long time after he injured his left thumb against the Sacramento Kings January 19:
Although Aldridge’s surgery wasn’t immediately scheduled, per The Oregonian‘s Mike Richman, missing eight weeks would mean he’s out for 24 to 26 games, depending when his rehab timetable officially begins.
Can the Blazers not only survive but also remain elite while playing without him?
“It’s tough, we’ve been in a pretty good rhythm most of the season,” Aldridge told reporters following his official diagnosis, per ESPN.com. “We’ve lost guys a lot this season—this is a totally different season from last year—but we have a lot of guys here who can step up and play better, and make plays. So I think the team shouldn’t stall, we’re going to get guys back soon, so that should be good for us.”
Indeed, this season bears little resemblance to 2013-14. The Blazers were the poster team for durability, rolling out just two different starting lineups through all 82 regular-season games. After trotting out Damian Lillard, Nicolas Batum, Wesley Matthews, Thomas Robinson and Chris Kaman in a 90-89 loss to the Boston Celtics on Thursday night, they’ve now burned through 11 at the halfway point of 2014-15.
To that end, there is no silver lining here. In fact, let’s be frank: Losing Aldridge sucks. He’s the Blazers’ leading scorer and rebounder and one of the league’s premier power forwards.
There is no silver lining to Aldridge’s absence. None.
Matters may be further complicated by Batum’s injury. He left against Boston with a wrist injury and did not return. Afterward, things didn’t look good, per The Oregonian‘s Jason Quick:
Portland’s rotation is already thin. The Blazers having to push forward without Aldridge—and potentially Batum—removes key contributors from a shallow bench that ranks in the middle of the road in offensive and defensive efficiency, according to HoopsStats.com.
Aldridge’s absence also comes at a time when the Blazers are sputtering.
Following their loss to Boston, the Blazers have now dropped five of their last six contests. Through the previous five games leading up to Thursday’s bout (four losses), their offense ranked 19th in efficiency, while their defense checked in at 20th. Prior to this stretch, they ranked eighth and third, respectively.
Soldiering on without Aldridge stands to cripple that offensive standing.
In the 727 minutes they played with him on the sidelines through the season’s first 43 games, the Blazers pumped in just 100 points per 100 possessions—the exact equivalent of the Brooklyn Nets, who rank 24th in offensive efficiency. They also registered their worst shooting display of the season against Boston, putting in just 37.1 percent of their field-goal attempts.
For all of the acclaim Lillard receives, Aldridge is equally irreplaceable. As Bleacher Report’s Zach Buckley recently underscored:
At the offensive end, he is the primary reason this unit still stands in the league’s upper half. Say all you want about Lillard’s coolness in the clutch, Wesley Matthews’ perimeter proficiency, Nicolas Batum’s glue-guy game or Chris Kaman’s low-post arsenal. None of it keeps this attack running the way Aldridge’s versatile game does.
Aldridge has a gravitational pull with opposing defenses. His ability to command that type of attention sets everything in motion. Driving lanes get wider for Lillard. Shooting windows become cleaner for Portland’s collection of three-point marksmen. The paint opens up for the crafty Kaman or (when he’s healthy) a crashing Robin Lopez.
An Aldridge-less offense demands adjustments. There’s no way around it.
Fortunately for the Blazers, said adaptations should be right in their wheelhouse.
A truckload of the Blazers’ scoring opportunities are generated off of catch-and-shoots. They’re second in points scored off of spot-up opportunities and fifth in efficiency for those same situations. Aldridge is not a huge part of that particular offensive aspect.
Less than one-third of his shot attempts come off of catch-and-shoots. His field-goal percentage on those looks (44.2), while sound, is worse than it is overall (46.1). So while the Blazers have lost a valuable pick-and-pop big man who can also create his own shot, they’re still able to work the perimeter off drive-and-kicks.
And that’s what they’ve done when he’s off the floor. They average nearly four more three-point attempts per 48 minutes when he’s on the sidelines, and they’re even hitting them at higher rates.
Relying even more on Lillard’s passes out of dribble-drives may not be enough for the Blazers to maintain a top-10 offense—again, they’re markedly worse overall without Aldridge—but it’s enough to survive over time. If Batum, who is having the worst statistical season of his career, is both available and has more games like he did against the Phoenix Suns on Wednesday night—27 points on 9-of-15 shooting—the Blazers will be in business.
Provided their defense takes care of the rest.
Which it should.
The Blazers have enough to remain strong defensively without Aldridge, which is huge.
While the Blazers’ most recent performances haven’t been encouraging, Aldridge’s absence barely impacts their defensive model. The way they defend is truly unique and prided on neither rim protection nor paint-policing.
Evans Clinchy expanded on this for Blazer’s Edge earlier this month:
More specifically, what the Blazers are doing is cracking down on opposing outside shooters. All the talk in NBA circles these days is about the changing style of play around the league—teams want offenses that can pace, space and shoot. They want to control the flow of the game, spread the floor, move the ball and find open jumpers—or, as many often put it more succinctly, ‘play like the Spurs.’ The Blazers’ greatest strength is they’re able to game-plan for this style and beat it. …
Simply put, the Blazers just won’t let you get an open jump shot from the perimeter. If you’re going to take one, it’s going to be forced, it’s going to be contested and it’s going to be ugly.
Now, the Blazers do rank ninth in rim protection, but they’re more dependent on players anticipating and either avoiding or fighting over perimeter screens. They goad opposing offenses into jump shots, and though Aldridge has the chops to defend stretch forwards, he’s not especially crucial to their previous success.
Opponents are shooting below their season average when being defended by him, but the Blazers are allowing fewer points per 100 possessions when he’s off the floor. And despite their solid rim protection, they’re 25th in points allowed in the paint, per Team Rankings, an area he’s frequently manning.
If they cannot keep opponents outside the paint, their defense suffers. That undertaking starts on the perimeter and therefore has little to do with Aldridge.
Yet, even if both their offense and defense suffer, the Blazers have one saving grace: They hold an eight-game edge over the Oklahoma City Thunder for first place in the Northwest Division. Their quest for home-court advantage in the playoffs, then, has not derailed.
Aldridge’s absence will hurt, not kill.
Will the Blazers still be in line for a top-four seed by the time Aldridge returns?
Sure, they’ll likely forfeit the West’s No. 3 seed over the next few weeks; they have just a half-game lead over the Dallas Mavericks. But division winners are guaranteed a top-four spot. The Thunder aren’t making that deficit up with just 40 games left to play. It’s just not happening.
Ten of Portland’s next 25 games come against Eastern Conference foes, including its next five. The team is 17-3 against the East this season after its loss to Boston.
Similarly, just 10 of the Blazers’ next 25 games come against the Western Conference’s top-nine squads. That’s a manageable number, even when you consider they’re 5-8 against those clubs this season.
All of which means they have enough cushioning to remain atop their division. So long as they do so, they’ll remain elite in status, positioned to make a legitimate championship run once Aldridge returns, even if their performance in the interim reflects otherwise.
And at times like these, when silver linings are wearing thin, nothing else matters.