LaMarcus Aldridge is the business.
The Portland Trail Blazers superstar is having the kind of season that makes you stop and say, "Whoa."
Not that he has any other choice. Portland needs him to play like the NBA's best power forward to win. Though hardly surprising when the same can be said of any star, it's different with Aldridge.
These Blazers are dominant and vulnerable, illustrious and shallow, relying heavily on the talent of a few to carry them into contention. Chief among everyone is Aldridge, the once-underrated, passively effective forward-turned-MVP candidate.
The Blazers need him. Badly. And they use him. A lot.
Maybe too much.
Lots and Lots of Aldridge
What do NBA teams do with their best players? Use them.
Portland is certainly using Aldridge, but there's a difference between "frequently using" and "overworking."
Aldridge ranks in the top 10 in usage rate (29.3), minutes per game (36.9) and field goals attempted per night (21.1). His 21.1 shot attempts per game actually rank first in the NBA. I repeat: first. In a league where Carmelo Anthony has an unconditional green light and Kevin Durant has changed his offensive setting from stun to kill.
Impressive? Only if Aldridge is producing.
Which he is.
The two-time All-Star is averaging 24.2 points, 11.6 rebounds and 2.9 assists per game while posting a 23.5 PER—all of which are career highs.
While impressive, Aldridge's numbers are potentially dangerous.
Minutes, in theory, shouldn't be an issue. Aldridge logged more playing time last season, when he put in 37.7 minutes a night. Forty-minute outings haven't become regular practice either. He's played 40-plus minutes just eight times this season, checking in outside the top 20.
Excellence isn't the issue, though. The minutes are starting to add up and could take a toll on his body in the long run. Barely half the season is in the books.
Between now and the playoffs, he could incur injury or tire himself out, dealing Portland a loss it cannot afford.
If the minutes don't get Aldridge, his limited supporting cast will.
Overall, the Blazers have a talented core in place. Damian Lillard is a superstar, Nicolas Batum is a fringe All-Star and Wesley Matthews continues to shoot the lights out. After them, there's not much else.
Robin Lopez, Mo Williams and C.J. McCollum are good glue guys. Evening out a rotation with them is never a bad decision—especially McCollum, who, if healthy, has a ceiling higher than most seem to realize.
However, bench and supporting-cast play remain issues. The Blazers have six players—Williams, Lopez, Aldridge, Lillard, Batum and Matthews—averaging at least 24 minutes a night. The seventh-highest average belongs to Joel Freeland at 14.3. Joel. Freaking. Freeland.
What little depth they have also isn't dedicated to power forward. Thomas Robinson is used sparingly (11.1 minutes per game), and Portland only has three listed power forwards—Victor Claver, Aldridge and Robinson.
Issue must be taken here because it's not like the Blazers are teeming with tweeners. Meyers Leonard, Lopez and Freeland are neither mobile nor athletic enough to play the 4. And, you know, only Lopez actually plays serious minutes.
Dorell Wright (6'9") and Batum (6'8") are also generously listed, and only the latter has the versatile traits teams look for in stretch 4s.
Where's the depth? Where's the help?
At some point, Portland must recognize it doesn't have enough talent around Aldridge to give him the flexibility he needs.
Not Broke, But Needs Fixing
Far be it for anyone to criticize the methods and structure of a team that ranks first in offensive efficiency and has the Western Conference's third-best record.
What the Blazers are doing has been working. For the most part.
Portland is 6-3 against fellow top-five teams in the West, but has dropped two straight in that department, falling to both the Oklahoma City Thunder and Houston Rockets. Not every game is going to culminate in a victory, but it was in those contests that we saw Portland's greatest weakness: predictability.
The Blazers offense isn't especially fast-paced or predicated on explosion. It varies its strides, moves the ball and takes what the defense gives it—all good things. However, so many of Portland's victories are on Aldridge. The team almost needs him to put up video-game numbers to win at this rate.
Late-game sets also tend to deviate from the normal blueprint. Isolations become more prevalent, and while Aldridge is lucky enough to have that No. 2 in Lillard, he alone isn't enough.
Then there's the defense, which is a disaster and anchored by Aldridge, one of the few passable spots in a string of disengaged defenders. Too often, they rely on him to cut off dribble penetration that their perimeter bodies don't stop.
Playing the "we'll just get them at the other end" game is dangerous when running an offense dependent on the potency of two players. Thus far, it's worked out, but we're starting to see cracks in the emaciated armor that will be further exposed as the season wears on.
"The most important thing is we won the game," Lillard told The Oregonian's Mike Tokito after a Jan. 18 victory over the Dallas Mavericks. "We’re all together."
Wins may continue to pile up and slumps may remain temporary, but until "together" references more than Aldridge—and Lillard—and an atrophied supporting cast, the Blazers are more vulnerable than any contender ought to be.
Stats courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com unless otherwise attributed. This article was modified from its originally published form to include results of Portland's Jan. 23 game.
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