How LaMarcus Aldridge Is Proving Everyone Wrong

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How LaMarcus Aldridge Is Proving Everyone Wrong
USA Today

LaMarcus Aldridge is the substitute savior for a Portland Trail Blazers franchise that for so long seemed impossible of saving.

Yet, here the Blazers stand, holding a world-beating 18-4 record and a standard-setting offensive attack (league-best 109.5 points per 100 possessions).

At the center of that dramatic rise is Aldridge, a player never pegged for this level of importance leading a franchise he seemed to spend most of the summer trying to escape.

Critics have dissected his game inside and out. Compliments have trickled in but always in backhanded form. He's been viewed as a good-not-great player for a Blazers team that's drifted between decent, mediocre and simply unfortunate during his tenure.

But all of the pieces have somehow fallen into place this season. A season that by all accounts seemed destined for a dramatically different outcome.

 

Leading By Default

It's only fitting that the contender no one thought could contend would be led by the man everyone thought was incapable of leading.

Aldridge's basketball credentials were never called into question. He was a double-double machine during his sophomore season at Texas and was soon after snatched up as the second overall pick of the 2006 draft.

Terrence Vaccaro/Getty Images

But that rookie class was a crap shoot, far more so than the average group of wide-eyed NBA imports. Among the top-10 players selected that year, only four remain in the Association—Aldridge, Andrea Bargnani, Rudy Gay and Randy Foye.

Finding transcendent talent from that garbage heap—Adam Morrison, Tyrus Thomas, Shelden Williams, Brandon Roy, Patrick O'Bryant and Mouhamed Sene rounded out the top-10—carried the same odds as a Powerball drawing.

Aldridge quickly emerged near the top of that class, which required little more than having a pulse out on the NBA hardwood. With 9.0 points and 5.0 rebounds to show for his debut season, he still found his way onto the 2007 All-Rookie first team. Then again, so did Jorge Garbajosa.

But Aldridge had shown enough that season—well, that or the franchise was so eager to shed all remnants of the "Jail Blazers" era—that leading scorer, and fellow power forward, Zach Randolph was shipped out to the New York Knicks in a 2007 draft-night exchange.

The door had opened for Aldridge to make his move.

"If they wanted me to be where I am today, we couldn't play together," Aldridge said, via The Oregonian's Mike Tokito. "Because he's a four and I am too, and it wouldn't work out."

Joe Murphy/Getty Images

The Blazers had indeed let Aldridge loose. But they were not giving him the keys to the franchise.

Those belonged to Brandon Roy, the 2007 Rookie of the Year and an All-Star by his sophomore season. Even Portland's interior wasn't entirely Aldridge's, as the Blazers pinned their post hopes on Greg Oden, the organization's first No. 1 overall pick since landing Mychal Thompson in 1978.

Aldridge, if everything went according to plan, would be the third leg of Portland's young trio. But things, of course, quickly went awry.

Knee problems limited Oden to just 82 games over his first two seasons, his only appearances before Portland waived the big man in March 2012. Roy had his own knee problems, which forced his exit after only five seasons with the Blazers.

Sam Forencich/Getty Images

Just like that, this trio was reduced to a solo act. Aldridge, to his credit, filled his box scores regardless of who was around him. After that quiet rookie campaign, he's averaged at least 17.8 points and 7.5 rebounds in every season since.

But the Blazers needed more than just inflated stat lines. They needed someone capable of erasing the stench of a two-year funk, as Portland sputtered to a 61-87 mark between 2011-13.

Someone scouts weren't convinced the two-time All-Star could be. Yes, he could walk into any gym and leave with 20 points and 10 rebounds to his credit. But was he the type of star who could elevate the players around him?

Those doubts, and that uncomfortably growing pile of losses, started weighing on Aldridge. And that's all it took to cast shadows around his future.

 

Swirling Trade Winds

Something didn't smell right in the City of Roses this summer.

The Blazers were engulfed in a two-year playoff drought. Their best player, Aldridge, had just two years remaining on his current contract. The present was dark and the future held no promise of sunshine.

Then the lightning bolt struck.

Word leaked that Aldridge had asked to be moved during his exit interview at the end of last season. Aldridge quickly did some damage control and said he had not "demanded a trade," via The Oregonian's Joe Freeman.

But quickly the big man's words lost their momentum.

Christian Petersen/Getty Images

One report said Aldridge was ready to bolt if the team didn't make roster improvements. Another report by The Oregonian's Jason Quick said the city was "too small" and "too boring" to keep the big man happy.

When another surfaced that Aldridge's camp had met with Blazers general manager Neil Olshey to discuss trade scenarios, it seemed as if Aldridge was as good as gone.

People weren't sure when he'd go or where for that matter, but those questions started to feel like formalities.

Aldridge, of course, went nowhere. The roster improvements he reportedly requested happened in the form of veterans Mo Williams, Dorell Wright, Robin Lopez, sophomore Thomas Robinson and rookie C.J. McCollum.

Sam Forencich/Getty Images

Suddenly, the Blazers had the bodies to compete.

But Aldridge later said that even that step wasn't necessary for him to stick around. Those trade demands (or rumors, whispers or whatever you want to call them) were the result of him feeling "overly emotional" at the end of last season, he told CBS Radio's Jim Rome (via Trailblazers.com).

Aldridge was tired. He was tired of losing, tired of shouldering the blame in tough times and not seeing the credit during the bright spots.

More than anything, though, he was ready to change his NBA narrative. Even if the rest of the league wasn't ready for his dramatic rise.

 

Undeniable Success

Aldridge's numbers have always been there. But they've never demanded this type of respect before.

He's scoring (23.2) and rebounding (10.0) at career rates. Even his assists (2.7) and steals (1.2) have reached new heights, along with the all-encompassing player efficiency rating (23.1).

Aldridge, it turns out, is more than capable of leading an NBA power. Already, he's taken home a pair of Western Conference player of the week awards this season.

And the award voters are not the only ones taking note of his play.

After years of postseason slip-ups, fruitless regular seasons and unbelievably cruel breaks, he's casting his own shadow inside the Moda Center. And doing it in front of deafening "M-V-P" chants.

It's remarkable even to the man eliciting those cheers.

"Humbling to have that moment here," he said, via Yahoo! Sports' Adrian Wojnarowski. "I've been here so long and I've had very few of those types of chants here."

Even more amazing is the way those chants have started to travel. After notching 24 points and six rebounds in Portland's 105-94 road victory over the Utah Jazz on Dec. 9, those same "M-V-P" cries started raining down inside the EnergySolutions Arena.

Russ Isabella-USA TODAY Sports

Hollywood couldn't have scripted his story this well.

"It’s a blessing, and it’s definitely something I feel like I worked for,” Aldridge said, via Tokito. “I’ve never heard MVP chants on the road."

Where do you have Aldridge in the MVP race?

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He also knows just how fragile these moments can be. He's been a firsthand witness to some meteoric rises and falls.

Yet, his time at the top feels sustainable. Portland's win column might be rising. The talent around him may be sitting at an all-time high.

But Aldridge is the same player he's always been. He's still shredding nets from the elbow or bullying his way on the low block, still effortlessly putting up those same 20 points and 10 boards on a nightly basis.

The only difference with these digits is that the basketball world finally understands how to appreciate them.

Overlooking the best power forward in the business is no longer an option. The basketball world finally understands how to appreciate him.

 

*Unless otherwise noted, statistics used courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com and NBA.com.

 

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