Can LaMarcus Aldridge Save the Portland Trail Blazers' Season?

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Can LaMarcus Aldridge Save the Portland Trail Blazers' Season?
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LaMarcus Aldridge is nearing a return to action, but his comeback might not be enough to reverse the Portland Trail Blazers' terrifying slide down the Western Conference standings.

The Blazers are desperate to get their best player back onto the floor, but if Aldridge's demeanor in an interview following his team's disappointing March 25 loss to the lowly Orlando Magic is any indication, he's probably not coming back at anything close to full strength.

Per Chris Haynes of CSN Northwest, he didn't look so hot:

Slouched in his locker room stall after the game was a defeated-looking LaMarcus Aldridge who has sat out the team’s last seven games as he deals with a nagging back contusion. He looked helpless, wishing he could help his team.

And according to Alex Kennedy of Basketball Insiders, Aldridge's comments weren't particularly encouraging either:

I wanted to play tonight, but I can’t run. So if you can’t run then what do you do? I’ve been wanting to come back. I didn’t think it would take this long, but it ended up being more serious than we thought it was. I’ve just been trying to get back out there. It’s a process and we’ve done everything that we can do, the medical staff and myself.

Time's running out for Portland to reverse the troubling downward momentum that has been building since Aldridge excruciatingly crashed to the floor against the San Antonio Spurs on March 12. If the sweet-shooting big man can't return (and return to form) immediately, the Blazers will be in for a similarly painful fall.

 

Undeniable Value

Sam Forencich/Getty Images

Aldridge's importance to the Blazers can't be overstated.

On the year, Portland posts an offensive rating of 110.3 and a defensive rating of 103.9 when he's on the floor, per NBA.com. When Aldridge sits, however, the Blazers' offense bogs down. They score just 104.6 points per 100 possessions without their All-Star big man. And defensively, they surrender 107.2 points per 100 possessions.

In looking at the massive statistical difference above, it's something of a wonder the Blazers have played as well as they have in his recent absence. Admittedly, a 3-4 mark in the seven games Aldridge has missed since March 12 isn't great—especially with the four teams beneath them in the West having won at least seven of their past 10 games.

But Aldridge improves Portland's net rating by a whopping 8.9 points per 100 possessions. It's incredible they haven't dropped all seven contests he's missed.

A fringe MVP candidate earlier this season, Aldridge was the top threat for a rolling Blazers team that was one of the biggest early-season stories in the league. Portland started out 22-4 on the strength of fantastic spacing, elite three-point shooting and a surprisingly improved bench.

Its offensive rating was the league's best during the first third of the season, per NBA.com, and Portland also led the NBA in three-point percentage during that span.

Aldridge was right in the middle of everything and, as Bleacher Report's Josh Martin noted at the time, all of the long-distance effectiveness and offensive flow was a direct result of one man's singular brilliance: 

But more than anything, the fact that Portland tends to struggle without Aldridge points to his central importance on this team. He's the Blazers' rock, their go-to guy, their in-his-prime franchise cornerstone. He's the one around whom their entire operation is orchestrated.

Aldridge was playing better than ever during the early part of the 2013-14 season, and so were the Blazers.

 

Things Fall Apart

Portland has gone 23-23 since that opening surge, which, if you're scoring at home, is a .500 record. Aldridge has been consistently beastly when healthy, but staying on the floor (and playing well at less than full strength) has been an issue for quite a while now.

He missed the first five games after the All-Star break, but a soft schedule allowed Portland to go 4-1 in those contests. Upon his return, Aldridge was clearly limited, becoming something of a volume shooter as the Blazers dropped five of their first seven games in March.

And then this happened:

In Aldridge's most recent seven-game absence, Portland has lost four times.

There's no question Aldridge makes the Blazers better when he's healthy, but it's not clear he'll ever be fit enough to make his typically huge impact between now and the end of the year. Sure, he's angling to return against the Atlanta Hawks. But given his body language and less-than-encouraging self-diagnosis, can we really expect him to be the Aldridge of old?

I mean, it's kind of important to be able to run during an NBA basketball game, isn't it?

Portland has two games of cushion separating it from the lottery and just 10 games left on the schedule. It will face six playoff teams but will also enjoy six contests at home. 

Even if we pretend Aldridge's back can magically heal and he can give Portland what he did earlier this year, it's still not a foregone conclusion that the Blazers can survive. And that's because they have plenty of other issues that Aldridge can't fix.

 

Flaws in the System

Andrew Richardson-USA TODAY Spor

The Blazers' interior defense has been poor all season. They've been successful in limiting opponents' field-goal percentage in the restricted area to just 56.8 percent—an excellent mark—but they surrender in volume what they prevent in efficiency.

Only the Los Angeles Lakers allow more attempts at the rim, per NBA.com.

That's a symptom of a defensive scheme designed to limit three-point shots, and for what it's worth, Terry Stotts' plans are working out. Portland allows the fewest attempts per game from either corner, per NBA.com.

But a defensive strategy that permits practically unfettered access to the lane is a dangerous one. It exposes big men, leads to hefty free-throw totals and, obviously, surrenders a whole lot of high-efficiency shot attempts.

Essentially, it's a gimmick. And Portland's overall defensive rating of 105.1, which ranks 20th in the league, proves it's not working out so well.

In addition to the systemic defensive flaws, Aldridge also can't undo the fatigue that is currently killing his teammates. Injuries and waning effectiveness from the bench have taxed Portland's excellent starters to an alarming degree.

Sam Forencich/Getty Images

Nicolas Batum leads the NBA in total miles run this year, and Damian Lillard and Wesley Matthews are among the top six in that category, per SportVU data provided to NBA.com. Some of that accumulated distance comes from a free-wheeling offensive style that prizes player movement and pace, but a lack of reliable bench play is also to blame.

The Blazers' hot shooting in the season's first few months was never going to be sustainable, but tired legs hastened its regression.

Aldridge, if healthy, can certainly help. But he can't address all of the deep-seated flaws dragging his team toward the lottery.

 

Grim Prediction

Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports

Portland is in serious danger of missing the playoffs, even if Aldridge somehow comes back and plays like himself.

The competition in the West is fierce, and the Blazers are worn down, flawed on both ends and thin on the bench. If Aldridge somehow returns and rights the ship, it'll be a true testament to his skill as a player and leader.

But it's becoming increasingly difficult to see him being the kind of cure-all the Blazers need.

Portland started the season with incredible promise, but it looks to be headed for a seriously disappointing conclusion.

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