You couldn’t have painted a more nightmarish picture for the Portland Trail Blazers: LaMarcus Aldridge, the team’s All-Star forward and long-standing cornerstone, being helped off the floor by a pair of teammates during a recent loss to the San Antonio Spurs, unable to walk, tears welling through wincing eyes.
The good news: Aldridge’s injury, a back contusion, isn’t as serious as first believed, per CSN Northwest’s Chris Haynes:
MRI confirms a low back contusion for #Blazers F LaMarcus Aldridge. He's expected to miss next two games and will be reevaluated next week.— Chris Haynes (@ChrisBHaynes) March 13, 2014
The bad news: Even when Portland’s sweet-shooting power forward returns, the team’s recent swoon has laid bare some potentially fatal flaws—issues that must be remedied as soon as possible if the Blazers hope to bring the playoff raucous to Rip City.
Looking at Portland’s production before and after February 1, the drop-offs don’t exactly jump off the screen. Until, that is, you take into account where Portland has ranked during those two stretches.
|October 30 - Feb 1||109.5 (1st)||102.1 (9th)||17.8 (6th)||.453 (14th)||34-13|
|Feb 2 - March 17||106.5 (9th)||102.1 (8th)||15.9 (23rd)||.441 (26th)||9-11|
Unlike last year's New York Knicks, who came crashing down to earth after a scorching start to the season, the Blazers were never one of the league's best-shooting teams. If anything, logic suggests they could trend back up to the middle of the pack before the end of the season.
So long as they continue making their free-throws (they've slipped from first to second in the league during that stretch), the Blazers have a chance to recapture some of their super-efficient offensive magic.
This picture of gradual regression holds largely true even when considering Portland’s shooting productivity:
|Stretch||Less than 5 feet||10-14 feet||15-19 feet||20-24 feet|
|October 30 - Feb 1||.480||.420||.435||.369|
|Feb 2 - March 17||.605||.351||.407||.359|
Again, considered without context, these aren’t exactly cataclysmic drop-offs. But Portland’s seemingly slight struggles have yielded a particularly worrisome trend of slate: After going 10-5 in games decided by five points or fewer between opening night and February 1, the Blazers are 2-8 over their last 10.
Writing at The Oregonian, Jason Quick included a slew of examples of Portland’s fourth-quarter woes.
In the past month, the Blazers have played five games when the score is either tied or within two points with two minutes remaining. They have lost all five, including Friday’s 103-98 loss at Dallas when the Mavericks outscored them 7-0 in the final two minutes. In those five games -- losses at home to Oklahoma City, San Antonio and the Lakers and road games at the Clippers and Dallas -- the Blazers have made only 6-of-25 shots in the final two minutes with seven turnovers. From three-point range, the Blazers are 1-for-11 in those games.
In this same dispatch, Quick includes some instructive remarks from second-year coach Terry Stotts, who suggested the onus was on him to assure Portland’s late-game execution can start picking it up.
Look, if you win, you chose wisely. But the ultimate proof of the pudding is whether you win or not, or whether you make the shot or not. I have to do a better job making sure I put us in position to make that shot.
Not surprisingly, a quick look at Portland’s metrics in the final frame only reinforces the above-mentioned anecdotes.
|October 30 - February 1||111.5||105||16.5||.560|
|February 2 - March 17||102||103.2||13.8||.524|
Only time will tell whether Portland’s struggles can be attributed to a pre-spring slump or something more systemic. But if that time includes more games without Aldridge, things are liable to get a lot worse—notwithstanding the team’s 5-1 record without LMA in the lineup.
Beyond Victor Claver and Allen Crabbe (who have logged a combined 164 minutes), the Blazers are charting their highest net rating with Aldridge on the floor (6.3), a number that drops to minus-2.3 with Aldridge on the bench—the lowest of any one player.
The same holds true for Portland’s overall assist rate, which clocks in at 17.7 with Aldridge on the floor (second only to Crabbe) and a team-worst 16.2 when he’s not.
That’s pretty impressive, particularly when you take Aldridge’s team-high usage rate (29.6 percent) into account.
More than anything else, Stotts has reimagined Portland’s offense as a kind of throwback to the team’s 1977 NBA title-winning team, which—owing to coach Jack Ramsey’s unique approach to team-building and Bill Walton’s uncanny post prowess—transformed “hitting the open man” into a full-fledged art form.
When it comes to finding cutters and weak-side shooters, Aldridge is no Walton. What he provides, however, is a late-shot clock security blanket should the team’s primary shooters—Damian Lillard, Wesley Matthews and Nic Batum, in particular order—run out of looks.
Without him, Portland lacks the inside-out balance that took the league by storm during the season’s first two months, when the plucky Blazers—a team many saw as a fringe-playoff team at best—jumped out to a 22-4 record.
The first order of business is, of course, getting Aldridge back on the floor at full tilt—even if it means resting him a few extra games.
At the same time, Portland started its swoon well before Aldridge hit the floor, meaning many of the aforementioned issues will still be there even when he returns.
Chief among them: Shooting, which has cratered for the Blazers in recent months. As we mentioned earlier, even a modest upward-trend could pay huge dividends for their overall efficiency—especially if their defense continues to hold steady in the top 10.
The task won't be be an easy one, why with five of the Blazers' next eight games coming against teams ranked in the top 12 in overall defensive efficiency.
With a grip of tough opponents and one five-game road trip on the near-future docket, Portland is liable to find themselves in a few fourth-quarter dog fights before the month is out—precisely the kind of pre-playoff mettle-testing any young team needs.
Indeed, with a 4.5 game cushion on the reeling Phoenix Suns, Portland’s playoff prospects are all but secure.
How long they survive, however, will depend on whether or not they can recapture and maintain some of their early magic—from the first few months and first few quarters alike.
All stats courtesy of NBA.com and current as of March 17, unless otherwise noted (subscription only).