The grind of an NBA season is a curious thing, equally capable of testing mettle and derailing chemistry. Sometimes, such swings seem a weekly occurrence.
Just ask the Portland Trail Blazers. Once the NBA’s plucky darlings, the Blazers have fallen on hard times during the month of March, having lost four of their last six games and—more crucial still—All-Star forward LaMarcus Aldridge to a back injury.
Portland is just 23-21 since its blistering 22-4, notice-serving start to the season—a slow, steady decline that’s taken it from best in the West to the middle of the playoff pack.
What’s worse, with 12 games left to play and only four games between them and the ninth-seeded Phoenix Suns, the Blazers could fall further still, particularly with Aldridge’s status remaining murky.
From The Oregonian’s Joe Freeman:
Coach Terry Stotts refused to reveal further details — whether or not Aldridge practiced, whether he’s making progress, etc. — as has become the norm, so it’s unclear when Aldridge will return. On Saturday, before the Blazers were steamrolled by the Charlotte Bobcats, Aldridge went through extended shooting drills following the team’s morning shootaround. But while that was a positive sign in his recovery, it’s anybody’s guess as to when Aldridge will be healed enough to play.
Perhaps the Blazers are keeping Aldridge out as a precaution, hopeful they can stem the lowering tide long enough to get him back in time for the first round of the playoffs. But with a four-game road trip next up—a slate including dates with the Miami Heat and Atlanta Hawks—that recession might only accelerate.
Last week, we took a long, hard look at what’s been ailing Portland of late, placing special emphasis on its offensive regression, poor fourth-quarter performances and (no surprise here) how its offense and defense suffer with Aldridge on the sidelines.
Speaking with NBA.com’s Michael Holton and Adam Bjaranson on their weekly Trail Blazers Courtside podcast, head coach Terry Stotts acknowledged the toll injuries had taken on his young team:
Well, the first thing I would say is that we were remarkably healthy in the first half of the season. We kept the same starting lineup throughout the season; we didn't have any injuries to speak of. Since then, LaMarcus (Aldridge) has missed some games; Joel Freeland was a big part of our bench. We don't know when he's (Aldridge) going to come back. That would be the first change from the beginning of the season to now.
Unfortunately, the team’s issues—the chief reason why it's bowed out as a legitimate playoff threat—might go even deeper than that.
Or not deep enough, to be precise.
In the nearly two weeks since Aldridge’s injury, Portland’s lack of bench depth—an area that had seen slight improvement over a woeful performance last season—has once again begun to rear its ugly head.
In that span, the Blazers most oft-used lineup (Damian Lillard, Wesley Matthews, Dorrell Wright, Robin Lopez and Nicolas Batum) is registering a net rating of 5.6 over 100 minutes.
Their next six units—none of which have tallied more than 30 minutes of court time—are charting net ratings of minus-10.1, minus-17.3, minus-24.6, minus-25.4 and minus-54.3, respectively.
Rotational situations don’t get much more precarious than that.
Getting Aldridge back will certainly help matters—particularly in the playoffs, where a more measured schedule makes it possible for teams lacking depth to at least partially mask that weakness.
On the other hand, it might be high time to acknowledge a tried and true fact of NBA life: Sometimes, teams simply regress to their mean.
This past Thursday, the Blazers bested the Washington Wizards 116-103.
Why is this significant? It was the first time since February 1 that Portland had beaten a team above .500 (a 106-104 win over the Toronto Raptors).
That’s not exactly the kind of pedigree you want to see in a supposed playoff team.
Weirdly enough, however, the Blazers have fared considerably better against the Western Conference's elite than they have the more middling playoff brass.
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NBA history is rife with well-laid plans of playoff positioning gone awry, which is why even the prospect of slipping toward the bottom of the conference playoff picture oughtn’t offer the Blazers much in the way of solace.
The issues here aren't anecdotal; they're systemic—the necessary growth pangs of a team that flew in under the radar long enough to cause a scare but not so quietly that their enemies couldn't find and figure them out.
In Aldridge, Lillard and Batum, the Blazers boast one of the league's most potent young cores and a surefire conference threat for years to come. But whether by dint of makeup or misfortune, it's become increasingly clear that, for all its promise and upside, Portland has yet to learn there’s no substitute for steadfast consistency.
All stats courtesy of NBA.com (subscription only) and are current as of March 23 unless otherwise noted.