The Portland faithful serenaded their star forward with chants of "M-V-P" in the fourth quarter. Aldridge certainly played an MVP type of game against Houston, with 31 points and a career-high 25 rebounds. The fact that it came in a nationally televised game against Dwight Howard's Rockets will only increase Aldridge's MVP exposure. And for a player like Aldridge, coming from way off the MVP map, that early-season exposure is key.
It appears that Aldridge's hard work has not gone unnoticed by the NBA pundits. In the midst of Thursday's game, ESPN's Bill Simmons tweeted out his MVP candidates for the first quarter of the season.
That's a pretty august group.
Now, by the advanced numbers, Aldridge doesn't come particularly close the the triumvirate of LeBron James, Kevin Durant and Paul George. He's significantly behind in both player efficiency rating and Basketball Reference's win shares stats.
But the MVP debate rarely comes down to raw data. Let's look at the competing cases for and against Aldridge as a legitimate MVP candidate.
The Case For Aldridge
MVP voters are a peculiar bunch. They don't like to give out the award to the same guy every year—hence Karl Malone over Michael Jordan in the late '90s—and they love a good story.
Aldridge has a leg up in this race because he's the face of perhaps the best story going right now in the NBA. James is the two-time defending MVP, and Durant is a perennial contender. Say what you want about George and the Pacers, but he is coming of a Most Improved Player award-winning season and his team made Game 7 of the conference finals last season. Their hot start shouldn't exactly come as a surprise.
But the same cannot be said of Aldridge and the Blazers. While they certainly came into the season with a chance to compete for a playoff spot, few outside of the Pacific Northwest had them tabbed as contenders for the Northwest Division title. But there the Blazers are, going head-to-head with the favored Oklahoma City Thunder at 19-4.
And Aldridge has been a huge reason why. In a perimeter-oriented league, his silky mid-range game hearkens back to a bygone NBA era. A traditional power forward or center hasn't won the MVP since Kevin Garnett in 2003-04 (Yes, Dirk Nowitzki won, but he's more of a modern stretch 4).
As of Friday, Aldridge ranks in the top 10 in total points (fourth), rebounds (sixth), made field goals (first) and minutes played (sixth). That certainly passes the MVP candidate smell test.
The Case Against Aldridge
Yes, Aldridge is the Blazers' best player and his improvement is a big part of the reason for Portland's tremendous improvement this year.
But the argument can be made that the improvement of many players—particularly guards Damian Lillard and Wesley Matthews—have been more critical to Portland's success in 2013-14. Just look at the marked improvement in all four returning Portland starters this season.
|Improvement in Returning Portland Starters|
|Player||2012-13 PER||2012-13 WS/48||2013-14 PER||2013-14 WS/48|
In fact, prior to Thursday's game, Lillard actually had a higher win-shares-per-48-minute average than Aldridge. As it stands now, he's not so much better than his teammates that he can be credited for carrying the Blazers on his back...you know, real MVP stuff.
If anything, the true award competitors on Portland should be head coach Terry Stotts for Coach of the Year and Matthews (and maybe Lillard) for Most Improved Player.
Top Five Isn't Bad
In the end, Aldridge probably doesn't have what it takes to steal the MVP award from evolutionary players like LeBron and Durant (with George rapidly joining the discussion). But he has made enough noise to be on everyone's short list.
Not that Aldridge—a player with two All-Star Games and one Western Conference Player of the Month award on his resume—should take that as a slight. As with the Academy Awards, the NBA's Most Value Player award is something for which it is truly an honor just to be nominated.
The Blazers aren't sitting on top of their division because not because of one player, but because of a concerted, organization-wide effort that has been years in the making. They're in the mix not only to make the playoffs, but to play Game 1 at home in Portland. Surely Aldridge and the Blazers would take that honor any day.
*All stats courtesy of Basketball Reference.