LaMarcus Aldridge Validating Worth to Portland Trail Blazers in Breakout Season

D.J. FosterContributor IJanuary 13, 2014

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Is LaMarcus Aldridge worthy of a max contract?

If you had posed that question to anyone at the beginning of the season, it would have garnered a lot of hemming and hawing in response. It's somewhat unique for a steady producer to be evaluated with such hesitancy, but nailing down Aldridge's value has always been tricky.

Is he a top-five power forward? Sure.

Can he be the best player on a legitimate contender? Well...

Not many players live in the gray quite like Aldridge. He always seemed destined to be considered a great player but not great enough to make an impact on the league.

That has changed this year.

It has changed in an interesting way, though. Aldridge didn't reinvent his game this offseason. He didn't add the 15 pounds of muscle that apparently 80 percent of the league seems to do, and he didn't implement new wrinkles to his game. He didn't stretch his range out to the three-point line like some speculated he would, and he still has the same three post moves he's used for the last eight years on shuffle.

That's not to downplay the impact of what another year of experience can do for a talented player. Rather, it serves as a reminder that winning makes everything a little better. 

"He was doing this a lot last year, too, but we weren't winning," starting shooting guard Wes Matthews told the Portland Tribune's Kerry Eggers.

While the spotlight does get a little brighter the higher a team rises in the standings, what changed with Aldridge were his surroundings.

PORTLAND, OR - DECEMBER 26:  LaMarcus Aldridge #12 of the Portland Trail Blazers walks up the court against the Los Angeles Clippers on December 26, 2013 at the Moda Center Arena in Portland, Oregon. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees th
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With Aldridge entering the prime of his career at 28 years old, Blazers general manager Neil Olshey and head coach Terry Stotts worked diligently to give him a better chance to succeed by making him the top priority schematically.

And succeed he has. He is posting career highs in points (23.6), rebounds (11.0) and assists (2.9) per game, as well as player efficiency rating (22.7). The Blazers, to the surprise of everyone, are 28-9 and a legitimate threat to win the West's top seed.

There are many tangible reasons why Portland has been so good this year. Being the league's best-shooting team from behind the arc certainly doesn't hurt. The Blazers lead the league in three-pointers made and are second in three-point percentage, and that's a luxury every post player in the league wishes he had.

Of course, Aldridge isn't a typical post player. Per's stats page, he has attempted 494 mid-range jumpers this season. Dirk Nowitzki is next at 351. 

With so much of his game focused on that area, Aldridge needs specific types of players around him to thrive. As Eggers notes, Olshey went straight to the source this offseason to find out exactly what Aldridge wanted around him:

Neil and I talked all summer. I was unhappy with what happened last season. He said, 'I know you want to win now. We're not going to rebuild. We're going to bring in some guys to win now.' We went back and forth. He said, 'Let me bring in some guys to help you.' And that's what happened.

Aldridge told Olshey that he wanted a "big guy next to [him] in the paint," and thus, the general manager acquired center Robin Lopez in a three-team trade. With his 7'0" size, Lopez allows the 6'11" power forward to drift away from the bucket while he does all the dirty work underneath the rim on both ends. Aldridge's mobility and skill are finally being properly leveraged.

The head coach, of course, has a lot to do with that. Olshey may have put the pieces in place (Damian Lillard being the most noteworthy example), but Stotts has created one of the most aesthetically pleasing offenses in the league. The Blazers have embraced both player and ball movement as much as any team, and Aldridge's ability to chew up single coverage has been a huge part of creating so many open looks.

While there are tangible reasons why Portland and Aldridge have been so good this year, other factors are a little tougher to see.

For example, after another round of trade speculation this offseason, Olshey emphatically went to bat for Aldridge on media day, shooting down every rumor and making trade talk suddenly taboo. Aldridge's value and future always seemed to be aligned in that they were constantly in flux, but Olshey removed some of the distractions by investing in a bench and treating him like a franchise player, both with his actions and his words.

And that's important, because role definition isn't just for moderately talented players. The Blazers have a hierarchy that makes sense, and while the winning has a lot to do with it, the players seem to enjoy one another and the system they play in.

It couldn't have come together at a better time. With his contract expiring after next season, both Aldridge and the Blazers badly needed a big year to justify their future relationship. 

And now, because of what we've seen so far this season, we may finally be able to peg down Aldridge's value.

Is he worthy of a max contract? He's shown that he can be in the right situation, and that's all Portland needed to know.