by Leo Sepkowitz | @LeoSepkowitz
The Blazers had a pretty nice season, though that would be tough to gather by looking at the standings. They finished 33-49, behind the Raptors and just a notch above perennial bottom-feeders Sacramento, Washington and Detroit. Don’t get Portland confused with those teams, though. They’re not your typical basement dwellers whatsoever.
Running the show is Rookie of the Year Damian Lillard. A pair of do-it-all players, Nicolas Batum and Wesley Matthews, handle the wings. Center JJ Hickson was one of only two players in the League to play 80+ games and average a points-rebounds double-double this year. The leader of the team, of course, is LaMarcus Aldridge.
Aldridge was one of the League’s best players once again this season, scoring with the likes of Dwyane Wade and rebounding with the likes of Kenneth Faried. He can beat you in the post or with a sweet mid-range game, and might even knock down a three if you’re not paying attention. In a league where big men who can score and rebound are becoming harder and harder to come by, LMA was the NBA’s only 20 and 9 guy. Don’t try to ignore him because he played on a bad team—Portland was in the thick of the Playoff hunt until they got ravaged with injuries over the last few weeks of the season.
The seventh-year man was kind enough to talk to SLAM this week. He opened up about the Portland dynasty that coulda-woulda-shoulda been, where this Blazers squad goes from here, trade rumors, video games and lots more.
SLAM: Where are you now? Where do you live in the offseason?
LaMarcus Aldridge: I live in California. I’ve been here for the offseason, just enjoying the weather and relaxing.
SLAM: Father’s Day is coming up in a few weeks. Do you do anything to celebrate it?
LA: Yeah, usually we go somewhere or do something. But right now, [me and my son] have been playing Skylanders Giants a lot lately. We’re really into the game right now.
SLAM: How much do players care about video game ratings?
LA: I think some guys play a lot—I’m not a big NBA video game player because, you know, I play the sport so I don’t play too much. But some guys definitely care about their ratings.
SLAM: You got drafted by the Bulls. On TV, they announced that the pick was actually going to go to Portland, but did you know that or did you think you were going to be picked by the Bulls?
LA: No, I knew. My agent had updated me on what was going on, and he told me Portland had traded up to get me, and the Bulls would draft me but they were trading me to Portland. So I already knew what was going to happen.
SLAM: Do you play with a chip on your shoulder against the Bulls knowing they passed you up to take Tyrus Thomas in that Draft?
LA: I used to, but I don’t think I do anymore. I think someone named a stat that I average more points and rebounds against them and Dallas than anyone else. So people say that whenever I play them I have something to prove, but I don’t think I do anymore. But if the stats say I do, then I guess I do.
SLAM: Why do you think you play so well against Dallas?
LA: That’s my hometown. It’s on TV in Dallas—local broadcast—so all my friends can watch it.
SLAM: Were you a Mavs fan growing up?
LA: I was, I was. I think I definitely went for the Bulls—I was definitely a Michael Jordan fan, I definitely had Bulls hats and a Michael Jordan jersey—but I definitely liked the Mavericks also. I was a fan when the whole Nash/Dirk thing didn’t work out, but I would say both of those guys ended up having great careers.
SLAM: The same year you got drafted, Portland took Brandon Roy. In your guys’ third year together, ’08-09, you win 54 games, as many as the franchise had won in about a decade. I remember watching you guys and thinking that you had something really good going on there. Did you think that was going to be something special with that core?
LA: I did. You know, Brandon and myself were old enough to lead the young guys and I thought we had a bunch of young guys that were talented and had a very high upside. I thought that once those guys got older and they matured and as Brandon and myself kept getting older and more dominant, I thought that would be a dynasty. Having Greg [Oden] on that team and having that much depth, you know, I thought that team would end up being great. But, you know, everything doesn’t work out like we wanted it to, but there was potential for us being great.
SLAM: How disappointing is something like that?
LA: It was disappointing when I was in the moment, but I had to turn the page quick because a lot of things kept changing. Brandon got injured and then it kind of was just me and my team. So I didn’t really have time to dwell on it. I had to keep working and getting better and learning how to be a leader on my own team. I think that’s why I didn’t dwell on it too long—I had to keep getting better and keep growing as a player.
SLAM: Roy signed a contract with the TWolves this season and it looked like he was on his way back, but then he got hurt again. Was that tough to follow?
LA: It was, you know. We played a lot of years together so we’re really close—we felt like brothers. To see him come back and not be able to do the things he wanted to do, that’s tough. I think now he has an understanding of where he is in his life and it actually worked out good for him. Just coming back and seeing what he could do. You don’t want that “What if I never tried to come back? What if I could have done it?” So now I think he answered all those questions for himself.
SLAM: In your rookie year, Roy won Rookie of the Year, and now this year Lillard won Rookie of the Year, too. Obviously they play different positions, but they both scored at an elite level early in their careers. What do you see in terms of similarities?
LA: Oh, they’re really different. I think they’re both elite players at their position. Brandon was a 2-guard, Damian’s a 1—that’s a difference right there. I see them being very different. Damian’s a really, really good three-point shooter, and Brandon was a good mid-range shooter and getting to the basket and getting fouled. He shot more free throws than a lot of people when he played. So I see them both being very tough-minded in their first year and having something to prove, so that’s pretty similar. But other than that, I think they both were pretty different. Damian’s a pretty dynamic scorer since he can hit threes and make tough shots. I thought Brandon was very court savvy. He used his skills to get to the basket a lot and get fouled.
SLAM: Right now in Portland between you, Lillard, Wesley Matthews, Nic Batum and JJ Hickson, that’s a really strong starting five that can hang with anybody’s. What do you think about this core?
LA: Yeah, I think it’s definitely a good core. As guys keep getting older and keep growing—it’s Damian’s first year so as he gets older at that point guard position—we’ll be better and make better decisions. And as Nic gets more comfortable with being more of a playmaker for us—I think he’s been one of the top players at his position. He’s a dog, he does it all. He makes threes, he plays defense, he just leaves it out there every night. You need a guy like that on your team. So I think that core is definitely good and JJ is an energy player who drives to the rim and finishes really well and gets boards. You need that guy who’s gonna be a high-energy player.
SLAM: What do you think about Batum’s development this year?
LA: I think this year he definitely picked it up offensively and became more of a playmaker for us because he became more confident. He definitely asserted himself offensively and showed what he can do, and I think next year he’ll be even better.
SLAM: What needs to happen next year so you can finish the year stronger? Do you think you need one or two more pieces, maybe off the bench? I thought Eric Maynor was a great mid-season pickup for you guys.
LA: I think we definitely need one or two more pieces. Eric Maynor was good for us, maybe he’ll be more confident next year because he’ll be here from day one. We definitely need some more bigs, like a real heavy center, somebody who can bang with the Dwight Howards and the Bynums and those types of guys. I think you need that true center even if he doesn’t play a lot. You just need one on your team, just a guy who’s big and clogs the paint. I think we definitely need a traditional 5-man. You know, I definitely love JJ and I think he’s good for us and he brings a lot of things to the table, but we need an actual 5-man, too.
SLAM: You’re under contract for two more years. There have been rumors that the Cavs might float, say, Tristan Thompson and the No. 1 pick for you. How do you feel about your future in Portland?
LA: You know, as of now I’m here and we have a great team. I’m here now and we have a team that can definitely get better next year and we have cap room so we can bring in players. So I’m definitely here, and we’ll see what happens.