Rise and shine, LaMacrus Aldridge carpers. Your longstanding slumber is over.
Talk of underrated NBA players is overrated. Qualifications are subjective and salary restrictions have made it so the superhuman LeBron James can be considered underrated as well. Once you traverse that path, conversations of similar persuasion lose meaning.
Aldridge is an exception. He actually is undervalued.
The Portland Trail Blazers forward is a superstar and has been for quite some time. Two All-Star appearances are already under his belt, and he's consistently been an 18 points and eight rebounds per game guy for close to a decade. And still, he's slept on.
Playing in Portland, home to a loyal fanbase that just isn't as overwhelming as New York or Los Angeles, hasn't helped. Lack of playoff success hasn't, either. Aldridge has made three postseason trips through seven full seasons, never making it out of the first round.
But where there were once excuses, there is now nothing. The Blazers are thriving in an ultra-combative Western Conference, and Aldridge is a virtual lock for his third All-Star selection. Portland is for real, and Aldridge is for real, and that changes everything.
Snoozing on him is no longer frowned upon; it's just plain wrong.
Numbers Never Lie
Aldridge has beasted.
The 28-year-old is averaging 23.5 points, 9.7 rebounds and 1.2 steals per game, all of which would be career highs. As it stands, Aldridge and Carmelo Anthony are the only two players in the NBA currently averaging at least 23, 10 and one, respectively, per game.
Portland's tower has never been stronger defensively, either. The Blazers' defense is pedestrian at its peak—22nd in defensive efficiency—but Aldridge is posting a career-best 103 defensive rating while limiting opposing power forwards to a 13.6 PER, according to 82games.com.
Funny part is, none of this is exactly new. Sure, Aldridge is in take-over mode, but it's not like he's busting all of his previous marks.
Take a look at his per-36 minute averages through the last three seasons:
|Aldridge Per-36 Minutes|
|Season||FGA||FGM||PTS||FG%||REBS||Off. Rtg||Def. Rtg.||PER|
Not one category can be looked upon in dismay. No, "Oh my God! How is he doing this?" Or, "This guy came out of nowhere!" Or even, "No way he keeps this up."
There's just, "What's that? LaMarcus is back? Doing his thing? Cool."
What Aldridge is doing now is what he's done all along—score efficiently, rebound, provide a little help defense. Grind. Excel.
Nothing we're seeing is especially innovative. None of it. It's Aldridge. Superstar is as superstar does, and Aldridge, like he has been for years, is a superstar.
Winning Breeds Exposure
Highlighting what Aldridge has already done is important, but it won't change everything.
If he's been putting up similar numbers for years, pointing to them again only illustrates how devalued he is. It doesn't fix things.
Winning fixes things. It fixes all things. Or rather, it should.
The Blazers have obliterated the competition to start 2013-14. Their 16 wins have them perched atop the generously gifted Western Conference, a half-game ahead of the San Antonio Spurs.
Let's repeat that: Portland is in first place. Not the Spurs, Los Angeles Clippers or Oklahoma City Thunder. Not the young and vibrant (and injury-prone) Golden State Warriors. Or even the Dwight Howard-James Harden-led Houston Rockets. The Blazers.
Portland has won 50 games just twice since Aldridge entered the league in 2006. This season, its on pace to win 69. Realistically, that's not going to happen, but you can see how this may be the best Blazers team Aldridge has played on.
And it's because of Aldridge.
Narratives tend to credit Lillard, the 2012-13 Rookie of the Year, more than they do Aldridge. It wasn't until he came along last season that Portland's fortunes began to change. He's the better building block, the one more responsible for the Blazers' surge.
Long term, this could be true. Lillard certainly pushed these Blazers over the top, giving Aldridge the complementary star he sorely needed. But that's kind of the point.
It's not like Aldridge has had ample opportunity to lead a winning outfit. The supporting casts put around him were either mediocre or ravaged by injury; Greg Oden and Brandon Roy flamed out due to chronic injuries. Had they been fully healthy, together, the Blazers would have won more. Aldridge would have been talked about more.
By no means is he a helpless victim—it's just the opposite. Limited exposure has done nothing to curb his production or effectiveness. All it's succeeded in doing is restricting his distinction.
Numbers meant nothing, or little, when the Blazers weren't winning, when they weren't elite.
Finally, the Blazers, and their top-ranked offense, are winning. They are keeping pace with the elite.
What've skeptics got to say now?
May He Have Your Attention Please?
Superstars post gaudy stat lines, and Aldridge has done just that. They also win, and that's what Aldridge's Blazers are currently doing.
The extent of this team's ceiling and Aldridge's importance came full circle in Portland's recent victory over the Thunder. Trailing by 11 points at halftime, the Blazers came roaring back.
Aldridge pored in a ridiculous 38 points, including 16 in the third, as he scored and rebounded his way into Portland's record books.
To cap the evening off, "MVP" chants rang throughout the Moda Center during the fourth quarter, giving Aldridge a level of recognition and appreciation he has never experienced before.
Understand that Aldridge is a superstar on what is currently the best team in the NBA. He leads them in minutes played (37.2) and is tied for second in win shares (2.3). The Blazers aren't his team and his alone, but they're not a success-by-committee prototype, either. Their rotation runs six or seven deep, and they depend heavily on starters to sustain present levels of comfort.
More than anyone else, they rely on Aldridge. He carried them in a come-from-behind victory over the Thunder, a legitimate powerhouse, and he's piggybacked them to where they are now—the top.
Cheapening Aldridge, then, is cruel. Downplaying his importance to the Blazers and standing in the league is unjust. Sleeping on him as a superstar, as a genuine NBA luminary, is no longer possible.
Aldridge hasn't arrived; he's been here for awhile. It's his Blazers that have just now caught up, bringing our long-awaited wake-up call with them.