There's a difference between not trusting anyone and understanding that anyone—and anything—is capable of breaking your trust.
For those wondering what is different about Portland Trail Blazers power forward LaMarcus Aldridge (and thereby, the Blazers as a whole), that shift in perspective might just be it. Whether it was his mother's life-threatening battle with cancer, becoming a dad or nearly joining the Chicago Bulls last summer, in the past year or so, Aldridge has come to terms with the fact that life, both in the NBA and in general, can be cruel and cutthroat and unpredictable. If he seems more at peace, it's because he is—with the fact that the world is not always peaceful.
"My mindset," Aldridge told me, "has changed."
I had asked why he seemed so much more comfortable in front of the cameras and microphones, so much more at ease with his role for the Blazers and his place in the NBA. It was a quick postgame locker-room conversation, so there wasn't time to delve into the whys and hows.
Then I checked with some mutual acquaintances and reviewed all that has transpired around Aldridge recently.
"He's come to understand that the NBA is a business," said one, "and that nothing is for certain."
That awareness coincides with him playing the best basketball of his career, perching the Trail Blazers atop the mighty Western Conference as of Christmas Eve. He long has hovered, statistically, just below the double-digit benchmarks in points and rebounds that earn (fairly or otherwise) national attention, but this year he's broken through with career highs of 23 points and 11 rebounds per game.
More importantly, those numbers have had a bigger impact. There are several players talented enough to fill a box score, but where and when those numbers come in the course of a game matter.
A sensitive kid who viewed himself as, more than anything, a boy from Dallas, Texas—hence the TXBoy12 on the back of his shoes—Aldridge has a quiet gravity about him now. Before, there seemed to be a perpetual twinge of nervousness that he tried to mask with an easy laugh and smile.
I knew from an earlier story I wrote that he was scarred as a kid by an alcoholic father who drifted in and out of his life. Cross or disappoint Aldridge, and there was little chance of getting back into his good graces. He wouldn't make a big deal of it. He'd simply cut out the offender and keep going.
He did that with his dad shortly after the Bulls made him the second pick of the 2006 draft and dealt him to the Blazers that night in a four-player deal. The last straw, he said, was when Dad showed up inebriated at his draft party.
He grew up close to his mother, Georgia, making her bout with cancer—now in remission—especially painful.
Then came the trade rumors last summer. Who initiated them and how close they were to being consummated isn't clear, but a deal sending Aldridge to Chicago for Joakim Noah was discussed, several sources said.
"Aldridge was available," one league source noted. The Bulls had a chance to correct their draft-night mistake (acquiring Tyrus Thomas and Viktor Khryapa for Aldridge and Demetris Nichols) but ultimately didn't.
Put it in the past for the Blazers. Aldridge has formed the inside-outside threat with point guard Damian Lillard that he might've had in Chicago with a healthy Derrick Rose. Even better, he's formed a tougher shell. There was a time when the impact of being dangled would've made him angry, as when he thought former teammate Brandon Roy left him out of a team dinner on the road in Memphis. He sulked and avoided Roy for months without saying why.
Now, instead, he is using the realization he could've been elsewhere to draw his teammates closer.
Perhaps there's been a lesson learned from fatherhood as well. Instead of grieving over the relationship he never had with his dad, he has focused on building one with LaMarcus Jr.
"It has to start with me," he said.
He was referring to the Blazers remaining confident that they can stay atop the Western Conference.
He could've been talking about everything.
• Another big man appearing increasingly comfortable is Rockets center Dwight Howard, especially at the free-throw line. Since making 7 of 7 vs. the Warriors, he's shot 62.7 percent (32 for 51), which, for an entire season, would be the first time he's cracked 60 percent since his rookie year.
While Howard clearly has a more serious demeanor on the court, he remains as much of a cut-up elsewhere. That includes Duck Dynasty camouflage boxers and socks festooned with drumsticks, the chicken variety.
"My nickname is Chicken Legs," he said. Both socks and undergarments are Walmart purchases.
Asked how he managed that without causing a riot, Howard said, "You've got to go at night when the workers are re-stocking the shelves."
• The Memphis Grizzlies are clearly looking to shake up their roster. While the Zach Randolph-to-New Orleans rumors were dismissed by a league source, a Lakers source says they were offered a swap of scoring guards, Jerryd Bayless for Jodie Meeks.
• Lakers center Chris Kaman drew attention recently for going in with several teammates to buy a grass-fed cow, but his eating habits are far more refined than that. His postgame meal includes cottage cheese, a pint of pure cream and dried kale encrusted with a mix of lemon juice, chia seeds, cashews and Himalyan crystal salt. All of it is delivered in a Whole Foods recyclable bag, meticulously prepared by Tim DiFrancesco, the team strength and conditioning coach.
DiFrancesco confirmed Kaman's claim that he's closing on Steve Nash as the team's most health-conscious eater. "He's stalking Nash aggressively," DiFrancesco said. Kaman: "I'd be in the lead, but Nash eats salads."
Kaman's distaste for lettuce and leafy greens is such that he opts for a beverage made of fermented vegetables. "Worst thing ever," he said.
But still better than a Caesar's.
• Spurs coach Gregg Popovich admitted that the reputation of the Oracle Arena crowd's effect on the Warriors prompted him to coach differently in a recent visit. "I called more plays than normal to slow things down, and I called timeouts quicker than I do," he said. "The quieter you can keep them, the better off you are. It's subjective, but it's true."
Ric Bucher covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter.
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