I suppose, when you think it over, it’s pretty easy to underestimate LaMarcus Aldridge, despite the stats and accolades he’s piled up throughout his eight-year pro career.
The 29-year-old power forward plies his trade in Portland, OR, an unassuming little city wedged into the upper-left corner of the US, known more for its lattes and electric cars than its two professional sports franchises (one of which is a soccer team). He doesn’t make much noise off the court, and you won’t see him in a nationwide Nike or Subway commercial. Aldridge and the Trail Blazers, toiling away in the shadow of Mt. Hood, tend to fly under the national sports media’s radar.
But don’t be deceived by this relative lack of hype. LA can flat-out get it done. One glance at the stat sheet is enough to prove he’s among the League’s top forwards.
Last season, for instance, the former Texas Longhorn averaged 23.2 points, 11.1 rebounds and 2.6 assists per game (all career-highs). He shot nearly 46 percent from the floor, logged 40 double-doubles and represented the Western Conference in his third All-Star Game appearance. And, if you ask me, he did it all with a certain throwback style, part athleticism and quickness, part old-fashioned bulldogged post play.
Trail Blazers fans are a passionate group, filling the Rose Garden on game nights and showing off their Rip City jerseys all over the Pacific Northwest. During those rainy Portland winters, the Blazers are the talk of the town.
These folks know their hoops; they’ve known for a while now that Aldridge is a special player.
And on April 20, 2014, in the opening round of the NBA Playoffs, the rest of the basketball world saw firsthand what kind of damage Aldridge can inflict when he’s feeling good and his game is clicking. In Game 1 of the six-game series against the Houston Rockets, LA simply dominated—46 points on 17-31 shooting, 18 boards, 2 assists and a couple of fear-inspiring blocks.
He did it just about every way you can do it. Even against Dwight Howard, considered by many the best big man in the world, Aldridge owned the low block. He scored often on his favorite shot, the mid-range jumper, spinning and fading from the baseline, lofting it over outstretched arms. He posted up smaller defenders with ease (his work against Chandler Parsons was almost abusive) and hit short-range baby hooks. On pick-and-rolls—a play he runs beautifully with star point guard Damian Lillard—he popped for open jumpers or dove to the rim, catching and finishing.
Taking advantage of all those rebounds, Aldridge found some easy buckets off put-backs. And, stretching the floor, he even knocked down a couple of three-pointers (a shot he’s been working on, and hopes to use more often this coming season).
All told, it was a magnificent performance, sweetened by victory—the Blazers pulled out a road win in overtime, 122-120. Versatility, efficiency, hard work—it was all on display.
Then, remarkably, Aldridge followed it up with another spectacular night, scoring 43 points in Portland’s 112-105 Game 2 win. Finally, the national media noticed that this guy is pretty damn good.
I have a soft spot in my heart for multi-skilled, versatile big men; the kind of guys who can bedazzle you with footwork and shot fakes, or pass out of a double-team and find the open man—Timmy Duncan, Pau Gasol and Kevin Love being a few of the archetypes. Throw them the ball, and something good almost always happens.
That’s how it worked in those two Houston games. Aldridge could do no wrong. He didn’t force shots, he played with great pace and energy—basically, he played like LaMarcus Aldridge, just at another, superhuman level.
The Blazers beat the Rockets in the opening round, but lost to the buzzsaw that was the San Antonio Spurs in a quick five games. Aldridge played well against the Spurs—a considerably better defensive team than the Rockets—but “only” averaged about 20 and 10.
Now the Blazers are poised for that next step in 2014-15. An appearance in the conference finals, maybe, or perhaps even more. With the dynamic Lillard in the backcourt, sharpshooting Nicolas Batum on the wing, centers Robin Lopez and Chris Kaman patrolling the lane, and a deep stable of role players, the Blazers are certainly talented. But in the loaded Western Conference, Portland will have to battle every step of the way.
Back in 2012-13, the Blazers went 33-49. Last year they were 54-28, clearly headed in the right direction. Can LA, Lillard and coach Terry Stotts lead this team to greater heights?
In many respects, the pressures of this season largely fall on Aldridge’s broad shoulders. Entering his ninth year as a Trail Blazer, he has established himself as the team’s preeminent scoring threat. His rebounding is second to none on one of the best rebounding teams in the League, and defensively he is a disruptive force.
By now, it seems, Aldridge is nearing the peak of his game, and lucky for Blazers fans, he doesn’t plan to leave the Rose City anytime soon. This year will be the final season of his five-year, $65 million deal; he told the Portland Oregonian he plans to sign another long-term contract next summer.
“I want to be the best Blazer—ever,” Aldridge told the newspaper. “I should be able to leave a mark on a big-time franchise that is going to be seen forever. This city has embraced me and grown with me. I have some much history, it just makes sense to stay.”
In a city that once cheered for Clyde the Glide, finishing his career as the best Blazer of all time would be no small feat. Clearly, though, Aldridge has the talent and the moxie to make good on that goal.
Another season of 23 and 11, another incendiary playoff performance, and he’ll be well on his way.
|#SLAMTop50 Players 2014|
Rankings are based on expected contribution in ’14-15—to players’ team, the NBA and the game.