The Portland Trail Blazers may not have much in the way of short-term competitive prospects, but that shouldn't at all undermine the promise of their best player. LaMarcus Aldridge finished 12 in the NBA last season in PER despite scrambling on a sinking ship and only stands to get better; the ascent of this particular 27-year-old isn't yet over, and this season may see the best of Aldridge yet.
The path of basketball development isn't easy at any juncture, but it's particularly tough for players of Aldridge's caliber. The jump from great to exceptional requires more than long hours in an empty gym, and if Aldridge really is to elevate his standing in a league-wide context, he can take aim for a few specific areas of his game.
An emphasis on the little things
Aldridge is a player without many substantial holes in his game, all of which makes it that much more difficult to pinpoint the opportunities for significant improvement. He doesn't need to manufacture a low-post game, as back-to-the-basket work is already a forte. He doesn't need to expand his range, as few bigs are better from the elbow. He doesn't need a complete defensive overhaul, as he already does commendable—if merely solid—work on that end.
Aldridge simply needs those minor nudges in effectiveness and efficiency to take the next step in his basketball stardom. A softer touch with the off-hand, slightly cleaner ball-handling, an improvement of half-a-percentage point here or there...those kinds of factors are honestly all that separates Aldridge from elite status.
After miles of improvement, the home stretch comes down to a matter of inches. How Aldridge might choose to focus on those minute elements of his game is entirely between him and the Blazers coaching staff, but they nevertheless remain crucial to making the remaining leap.
Seeing the bigger picture on defense
If the open-ended nature of the previous paragraphs isn't to your liking, let me hone in on one particular area of weakness for Aldridge: team defense.
The Blazers' centerpiece fares well when tasked with one-on-one defensive assignments, but he isn't the rotational defender that Portland needs. He's mobile enough and his instincts aren't bad, but Aldridge lacks a fundamental nuance in his defensive performance—an adhesive quality to his various skills and attributes that would allow him to actually elevate his team's defensive performance.
At present, Aldridge doesn't hurt his team in any particular regard. He's a relatively conservative defender who's long enough to contest well without gambling, quick enough to guard face-up threats and strong enough to hold his ground. He simply lacks a certain transcendent quality—the very same that has separated the likes of Kevin Garnett and Tim Duncan from the rest of their positional field.
Those are lofty examples to invoke in cases such as these, but Aldridge is talented and productive enough to at consider where Aldridge needs to go from here to follow an elite course. This is the clearest way down that path, and though Aldridge simply may not have it in him to go beyond above-average status as a team defender, this particular area of his game is worthy of attention and emphasis.