Well, this was not the way Portland Trail Blazers fans were hoping to start the post-All-Star-break stretch run:
— Trail Blazers (@trailblazers) February 19, 2014
After playing 13 incident-free minutes in Sunday's 2014 NBA All-Star Game — which might have seemed too low to some, but didn't seem to bother him very much — power forward LaMarcus Aldridge was reevaluated after returning to his team and has been ruled out for at least the next week with a left groin strain. Blazers' team reporter Casey Holdahl has more:
It’s been a slow developing problem since at least the game against the Timberwolves on Feb. 8 in which Aldridge sat in the fourth quarter.
“A little beat up, but I got through it” said Aldridge after that victory. “That’s why I wasn’t in there at the end. My body has been a little bit sore, some nagging things, but I got through it.” [...]
Aldridge will be reevaluated in a week, which means he could miss more time depending on how the groin heals. Portland has five games in the next eight days, four of which are at the Moda Center.
Portland begins those five games by welcoming in the San Antonio Spurs on Wednesday. On one hand, this might not be the worst time to catch the Spurs — Gregg Popovich's team will be on the second game of a road back-to-back, in the midst of its annual "Rodeo Road Trip," and is playing short-handed, with point guard Tony Parker ruled out for the "foreseeable future" with a variety of injuries, small forward Kawhi Leonard still working his way back from a broken bone in his right hand, and center Tiago Splitter held out of Tuesday's game against the Los Angeles Clippers with a right shin contusion. On the other hand, though, the reserve-heavy Spurs just beat the Clips by 10 behind the likes of Patty Mills, Marco Belinelli and some old guy who managed to stave off retirement just long enough to put up 19-13-7 against Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan.
The Blazers' post-Spurs slate isn't as brutal as it could be — home for the Utah Jazz and Minnesota Timberwolves, a trip to Colorado to take on the Denver Nuggets and a return to welcome the Brooklyn Nets — but three of those four teams are fighting for playoff berths or positioning, and the Jazz are 18-20 since inserting rookie point guard Trey Burke into the starting lineup on Nov. 24. It's a path with some potential pitfalls, especially considering that Aldridge's injury upsets the apple cart in a way that Portland hasn't had to deal with all season. When he misses Wednesday's meeting with the Spurs, it will mark not only the first time all season that a member of the Blazers' starting five has sat out a game, but the first time that complete unit hasn't been on the court for the opening tip.
No five-man grouping in the NBA has logged more minutes than Aldridge-Damian Lillard-Nicolas Batum-Wesley Matthews-Robin Lopez (1,075) this season, according to NBA.com's lineup data; in fact, only two (the starting lineups of the Indiana Pacers and Minnesota Timberwolves) have come close, each topping 900 minutes while no other unit has seen 700. The second most-used five-man unit on Portland has played a whopping 110 combined minutes; that one's got Aldridge in it, too. (Mo Williams replaces Lillard.) Only one Blazers lineup that's logged more than 75 minutes features no LMA. It's Lillard plus four reserves, and it's been outscored by 12 points per 100 possessions.
In just under 2,000 minutes with Aldridge on the floor to serve as the centerpiece of the Blazers' attack, Portland has scored at a league-best rate (110.9 points-per-100) and defended like a middle-of-the-road squad (104.3 points-per-100, which would be just south of the Magic, 18th among 30 NBA teams). In just over 600 with Aldridge on the pine — a much smaller sample, but not an insignificant one — the offense plummets to bottom-10 status (101.9-per-100, right between Memphis and Washington), while the already shaky defense drops down to a worst-in-the-league level (110.2-per-100). With Aldridge on the floor, Portland's "net rating" (whether you score more than your opponents per 100 possessions, or vice versa) would rank as No. 4 in the league, behind only the Pacers, Oklahoma City Thunder and Spurs; with him off the court, that rating drops to No. 28, ahead of only the Milwaukee Bucks and Philadelphia 76ers.
Making matters worse, Terry Stotts' frontcourt cupboard behind Aldridge is as bare as it's been all season. Backup big man Joel Freeland suffered a sprained medial collateral ligament in his right knee just before the All-Star break and will be out for at least the next month and a half. Third-stringer Meyers Leonard, who had picked up Freeland's slack in the final two games before the break, sprained his left ankle during Portland's Tuesday practice and is expected to miss two to three weeks.
For the time being, then, that leaves Lopez and Thomas Robinson as Portland's only healthy big men, with little-used Dorell Wright and never-used Victor Claver suddenly becoming de facto space-filling power forwards. Lineups featuring Lopez and Robinson together have been great on the offensive glass, recovering more than 33 percent of Blazer misses, but have been very rough defensively, allowing opponents to score at a whopping 114.6 points-per-100 rate on just under 50 percent shooting from the field and 49 percent from 3-point range in 164 total minutes.
Given that relative lack of success in limited run as a pairing and the paucity of options behind them, then, it seems likely that Stotts will split Lopez and Robinson up most of the time and play an awful lot of small-ball lineups over the next few games. Portland hasn't gone that route much this season, and certainly not with these two bigs — only six lineups featuring either Lopez or Robinson alongside four wings or guards have seen the floor this season, logging just 24 total minutes, with the most successful unit (Lopez-Lillard-Batum-Williams-Wright) having outscored the opposition by three points over the course of 11 super-fast-paced (nearly 111 possessions-per-48!) minutes.
If Stotts can find gold by cranking up the pace and playing a four-out, spread-pick-and-roll-heavy style that relies on the ball-handling, quickness and range of the Lillard-Williams-C.J. McCollum trio, then Portland could be able to stay afloat without Aldridge and the other injured bigs for a bit. If the offense sputters with Stotts' trademark flow system interrupted and without Aldridge to command attention, though, the Blazers' recent skid — 5-8 over their last 13 games with the fourth-worst net rating in the NBA over the past month, a risk-averse defense that's paying the price for its caution and an offense that hasn't been looking like its smooth-running self of late — could develop snowball-rolling-downhill momentum, which is a very dangerous thing for a Portland team that's fallen out of the top four in the Western Conference and is starting to see the Phoenix Suns (overtime winners on Tuesday, now 31-21 and 4 1/2 games back of the fifth seed) looking bigger and bigger in the rear-view mirror.
A fully functional Aldridge is a must for Portland to be a force come playoff time, of course. But if Stotts, Lillard and company can't figure out a way to restore some semblance of health while the All-Star power forward is on the mend, they could find themselves having gone from home-court advantage to beginning Game 1 in Oklahoma City or San Antonio in the blink of an eye.
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