The Trail Blazers injury bug – How to handle it


As the 2014-2015 Portland Trail Blazers went out with a whimper rather than a bang against the Memphis Grizzlies, it was apparent to anyone watching that injuries had really gotten to the team. The biggest one was certainly Wesley Matthews’, whose complete absence was felt acutely.

But, LaMarcus Aldridge was playing on a bad thumb, Nicolas Batum’s wrist seemed to be messed up for the entire season, and while not officially injured once his sprained fingers healed, Damian Lillard seemed understandably fatigued. The last yet unmentioned starter, Robin Lopez, missed significant time himself with a broken hand earlier in the season.

Portland sports fans are no strangers to injury and disaster, but at times, this season seemed even worse than others. While this was a common sentiment, I poked into the numbers to see how the Trail Blazers compared to the other teams across the league, and they actually didn’t have it that bad, comparatively.

Dec 17, 2014; Portland, OR, USA; Portland Trail Blazers medical staff look over Portland Trail Blazers forward Nicolas Batum (88) after suffering an apparent injury during the fourth quarter of the game against the Milwaukee Bucks at the Moda Center at the Rose Quarter. Mandatory Credit: Steve Dykes-USA TODAY Sports

According to, the Trail Blazers had only the 14th worst (roughly league average) spate of injuries this season, as judged by their Time Missed Impact To Team stat. This measurement does not just factor in games lost, though, it weights them depending on who missed those games. Losing your star player for 10 games is a heck of a lot worse than missing your 3rd string center for 10 games – both in a minutes and overall production sense.

So, ostensibly, the Trail Blazers didn’t have it that bad. I think a few factors are worth pointing out here, though. The first is the timing of some injuries. The Matthews injury was by far the most catastrophic, and it happened at the end of the season, right when the team was going to make their playoff push.  (It’s worth noticing, too, that the games lost website only looks at the regular season, and injury time missed in the playoffs did not factor in).

Additionally, another would-be major injury, Aldridge’s thumb, did not actually keep him out that long. He admirably opted to play through the injury instead of getting surgery and missing even more time. While Aldridge seemed to be performing fine, there is no way that such a serious injury did not affect him in some way, shape, or form.

The final factor to note is that the Trail Blazers were one of the hardest hit teams who still made the playoffs. Only four other teams who made the playoffs were worse off injury wise during the regular season – the Atlanta Hawks, the Milwaukee Bucks, the Houston Rockets, and the New Orleans Pelicans. This means that of the Western playoff teams, the Blazers were hit third worst, prior to the playoffs.

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Now, how do we interpret this all? Losing Matthews was a huge blow, but I feel comfortable in saying that that alone should not account for the dismantling the Trail Blazers underwent in the postseason. Every team experiences injuries, and every team has to survive the grind of the regular season, so the Trail Blazers shouldn’t get just get a completely free pass for their performance.

I think what a lot of this boils down to is that Head Coach Terry Stotts, and the team as a whole, need to commit more to younger player development. I would say this has not been Stotts’ strength, and something that I think we unfortunately really saw the effects of.

The benefits are two-fold – if younger players develop, you can start trusting them with more minutes, thus relieving your starters of some wear and tear / fatigue. This would also decrease the probability of injury. And, if an injury does occur, then the backup who has to take the place of a starter is hopefully capable of holding down the fort.

Jan 8, 2015; Portland, OR, USA; Portland Trail Blazers head coach Terry Stotts talks to forward LaMarcus Aldridge (12) during the second quarter against the Miami Heat at the Moda Center. Mandatory Credit: Craig Mitchelldyer-USA TODAY Sports

It’s an awkward balance, though. Coaches and teams are judged on wins, and young players who are not receiving many minutes are not receiving many minutes for a reason – they aren’t that good yet. Giving young guys more minutes is generally detrimental to your team’s short-term success, and it’s hard to blame a coach for being leery of going down that path. This was especially true for Stotts the last two seasons, who had good teams with real playoff potential that he needed to maximize in a given window.

Many like to point to the San Antonio Spurs as the model of developing young guys and resting starters more, but the reality is that Head Coach Gregg Popovich enjoys job security that probably no one else in the league does. A team can’t just become the Spurs overnight.

However, a team can start taking steps in that direction, and eventually find their own happy medium. With the departure of several older veterans, this next season will be a largely developmental season for the Trail Blazers, so many young guys will finally get a shot to show what they can do.

This youth movement still seems like it was somewhat forced to happen by other, outside circumstances, but I’ll take it. It is a pretty exciting pool of players that the Trail Blazers have assembled, and I am eager to see how they all pan out. Many are alike in skill level, so this is a fresh opportunity for Portland to experiment with interchangeable pieces, developing each for injury insurance.

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