The Portland Trail Blazers find themselves at a crossroads after suffering another devastating injury Tuesday night when center Joel Przybilla ruptured his right patella tendon and dislocated his right patella, an injury that will likely end his season. Przybilla joins a crowded Portland injured list that also includes starting center Greg Oden, starting small forward Nicolas Batum and key reserves Rudy Fernandez and Travis Outlaw. With so much talent on the shelf, can the Blazers even make the playoffs after starting the season with the goal of winning the Northwest Division and advancing in the postseason?
When healthy, Portland had an embarrassment of riches at center. Oden was developing into an All-Star before fracturing his left patella on Dec. 5, and his biggest weakness--foul trouble limiting his minutes--was counteracted by the presence of the league's best backup five in Przybilla. Now, the Blazers are left with veteran Juwan Howard, who was signed for his veteran leadership more than his play on the court; rookie Jeff Pendergraph, who made his NBA debut Tuesday after hip surgery cost him nearly two months of the season; and a whole lot of question marks.
Plus-minus data from BasketballValue.com confirms the conventional wisdom about the three Portland centers. The Blazers have been at their best with Oden in the middle, have been solid with Przybilla and have struggled tremendously when Howard has been on the court.
Center OffRat DefRat Net
Oden 114.5 105.7 +8.8
Przybilla 104.2 100.9 +3.3
Howard 101.6 108.4 -6.8
The Portland offense has been far more potent with Oden's presence in the post and on the offensive glass. Przbyilla has been able to make up some of the difference with his superior defense. However, the most striking aspect of these numbers is just how poor Howard has been this season. He has actually shot the ball amazingly well from midrange (55.2 percent from the field overall), but because he has a small role in the offense and is not a threat on the offensive glass like Oden and Przybilla, defenses have been willing to ignore him in favor of double-teaming LaMarcus Aldridge and Brandon Roy. At the other end, Howard is not a shot blocker and is also a downgrade in terms of rebounding from both Oden and Przybilla.
Should Howard continue to start, his numbers will surely get better. The difference between him and the Blazers' other centers cannot possibly be as large as it appears in the numbers, and the team will learn how to better cover for Howard's weaknesses with more playing time. Still, the plus-minus data makes it clear that playing Howard heavy minutes is a recipe for disaster for Portland.
So what are Portland's other alternatives? Pendergraph could be capable of taking over as the starting center in time. A polished prospect out of Arizona State, Pendergraph's finishing ability and rebounding should be an upgrade on Howard. He also offers a little more size, though Pendergraph is a poor help defender and inexperienced. His injury cost him a chance to acclimate to the NBA during training camp and the preseason, meaning Pendergraph will be learning on the job. Look for his learning curve to be steep, which could be rough for the next month but will pay off later in the season.
Because of their series of injuries, the Blazers already have secured a hardship exception to sign forward Anthony Tolliver from the D-League. According to The Oregonian's Blazers Blog, they will petition the NBA for a second exception with an eye toward signing a center, but their choices will be limited. The D-League is short on 7-footers. Rod Benson, Dwayne Jones, Rob Kurz or former Blazer Shavlik Randolph are potential options, but none figures to be an upgrade on what Portland already has on the roster; their primary contribution would be depth.
Likewise, a trade could be difficult for the Blazers, who would not want to commit to anyone beyond this season, do not want to overpay and would have a tough time dealing one of their few healthy players. Surely, Portland's general manager Kevin Pritchard will work the phones, but finding the right fit will be a challenge.
Instead, the best option for the Blazers might be to get creative. There is one other player who has seen regular action for Portland in the middle this season--6'11" power forward LaMarcus Aldridge. According to BasketballValue, those lineups have been extremely effective. Here they are, broken down by the power forward alongside Aldridge.
PF OffRat DefRat Net
Cunningham 120.0 109.1 +10.9
Fernandez 133.3 150.0 -16.7
Outlaw 104.1 101.4 +2.7
Roy 86.7 84.6 +2.1
Webster 134.5 105.6 +29.0
Aldridge Tot 115.7 105.8 +9.9
Overall, lineups with Aldridge at center have been extraordinarily effective this season--even better than lineups with Oden at the five. While the sample sizes are dangerously small for some of these frontcourt combinations--Aldridge and Fernandez have been at center and power forward for just nine possessions all season, so those numbers are essentially meaningless--it is interesting to note that the Aldridge-Outlaw combo, one Nate McMillan used to finish games at time last season, has not been especially effective.
A couple of duos that are available to McMillan right now have worked well. Aldridge and rookie power forward Dante Cunningham have been solid together. Cunningham won the backup power forward job from Howard following Outlaw's injury by thoroughly outplaying him. McMillan has favored Howard over Cunningham alongside Aldridge because he is bigger, but Cunningham's skill advantage has made him a more effective complement.
Putting Webster at power forward is an even more extreme version of smallball, one that leaves Portland vulnerable on the defensive glass. When McMillan has used this pairing (a total of about 55 possessions), he has spotted it against more favorable matchups. Still, the results are striking. The Blazers' offense has been extremely potent with shooters at every position on the floor. This lineup also makes room for Portland's three-guard units, which have been some of the team's most effective lineups this season. With Brandon Roy at small forward, the Blazers have outscored opponents by 7.8 points per 100 possessions. A lineup of Steve Blake or Andre Miller, Jerryd Bayless, Roy, Webster and Aldridge could emerge as Portland's go-to lineup down the stretch.
Even despite all the injuries, the Blazers still have plenty of talent, as they demonstrated in knocking off the Mavericks on the road following Przybilla's injury. By putting their best players on the floor, even in unfamiliar roles, Portland can survive a horrendous stretch of bad luck with injuries and salvage something from this season.
Looking for a last-minute gift idea? Consider the 2009-10 Pro Basketball Prospectus, available now at Amazon.com.
Kevin Pelton is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
You can contact Kevin by clicking here or click here to see Kevin's other articles.