I’ve said it already, but after the Portland Trail Blazers snatched defeat from the jaws of victory Saturday night against the San Antonio Spurs, allowing a 14-point lead to slip away, yet more questions have been raised about the Blazers’ poor bench play. In a 112-109 loss at the Rose Garden, the bench managed a grand total of 4 points; 2 from Meyers Leonard and 2 from Sasha Pavlovic, while the starters outscored the Spurs starting unit 105-49. In the plainest of terms, that is pathetic.
It is becoming more apparent that the Portland bench is just as much a liability on the defensive end as it is on offense. If they can’t spell the starters, the starters get worn out. If the starters get worn out, it becomes very difficult to play good D. And the vicious cycle continues as San Antonio shot 57% from the floor. This 7-8 man rotation that Portland is using right now won’t cut it for an entire season and the front office has to address this issue soon. I’m not going to spend a whole column lamenting the bench, however, as that’s already been done. What I am going to do is discuss what Portland needs to break the 4-game losing streak that continued Monday night against the Atlanta Hawks.
The easy thing to do here is point to improved bench play. But that isn’t going to happen, so the point is moot. And it’s hard to nitpick at the box score since Portland matched or out-performed the Spurs in nearly every statistic except the one that counts. But the biggest thing that this Portland team needs is more aggressive play from its star; LaMarcus Aldridge.
Yes, Aldridge had 29 points against the Spurs, but it was on 12-26 shooting and 0-2 from 3 point-land. And he only had 14 points on 4-13 shooting against Atlanta. On the season, he’s shooting 43.6% from the floor, while his career average is 49.4%. There’s a reason for this dip in efficiency and it’s a criticism that has plagued Aldridge throughout his career. Here you have a 6’11″, 240lb All Star power forward with great footwork and a really diverse offensive skill set; why is he taking so many jump shots? He has 3 wing guys around him who have been very efficient from beyond the arc and have shown they can put up points.
What Portland needs is for their biggest starter to start playing like it. Aldridge has to start living in the paint. Yes, we know he has great range on his jumpshot, but the mid-range jumper is the most inefficient play in basketball and Aldridge is taking far too many of those at the moment. If he stays down low for the majority of offensive possessions, it’s a near-guarantee that he’ll get more efficient. And that’s not even including the fact that he’ll likely get to the charity stripe more often, where he’s shooting 83%.
His rebounding, at 7.1 per game for the season, also has to improve. He had 4 against San Antonio with just 2 on the defensive end and it didn’t get much better against the Hawks, where he registered 6. That’s just plain not good enough. I’m hesitant to criticize him too much here because he is playing close to 39 mintes per game. But rebounding is about aggression and effort and Aldridge isn’t playing with enough of either on both ends of the court. He’s averaging slightly lower points totals than he has the last couple of seasons, and he’s dropped below that in rebounding. His assists are up a bit at 4.4 per game, but it all just reads as a guy who has plateaued out and you have to wonder if he will ever make that jump to the next level.
A lot of what Portland does this season will determine his long-term future with the team, but the opposite is also true. If Aldridge can’t improve and become the leader that Portland needs him to be, perhaps it might be worth going in a different direction after all.