By now, the Portland Trail Blazers have grown from a surprise breakout team to a legitimate title contender. Much of that can be attributed to Damian Lillard's growth in just his second year in the league, shooting guard Wesley Matthews' efficient .478 shooting rate and Portland's status as the NBA's top rebounding team.
But what really makes the Trail Blazers tick is their leading scorer and rebounder, LaMarcus Aldridge, who might be an NBA MVP contender—forget team MVP—in the absence of scoring machine Kevin Durant.
Those arguing for Lillard's team-MVP candidacy might point toward Aldridge's career-low .471 field-goal percentage this season, but that's not really a fair assessment of the Portland power forward's scoring efficiency.
This year, Aldridge is shouldering the bulk of the load more than ever. He's averaging career-highs of 21.1 shots per game (by far a career high, explaining his low-ish shooting percentage, at least for his standards), 24.3 points per game, 11.5 rebounds per game, an .824 free throw percentage and 2.8 assists per game, with the latter ranking eighth among power forwards.
Part of the reason Aldridge takes so many shots, and thus provides value to the Blazers, is that he is excellent at creating scoring opportunities in isolation.
Of course, Lillard is a point guard, so he's not expected to shoot as much, which is fair. But it's not as though he's passing whenever he isn't shooting, as his mediocre assist rate of 21.7 can attest (that figure ranks 72nd in the NBA).
That's not to say Lillard hasn't been good. Rather, he's been terrific, probably the best sophomore in the NBA not named Anthony Davis. But let's not kid ourselves: Aldridge has been the Trail Blazers' MVP thus far.
Still not convinced? Don't forget, Lillard has had the opportunity to shoot as many threes as he does (he's third in the NBA in three-pointers made and attempted) in large part because teams often rush to double-team Aldridge, who often provides a matchup mismatch, thus leaving Lillard alone beyond the arc.
But it's not just Lillard; Aldridge makes everyone around him better. Just ask the rest of his Trail Blazers teammates.
"His play speaks for itself and our record speaks on behalf of his play," Matthews said, according to Huffington Post (via the Associated Press).
Aldridge's play isn't his only value to the team, however. "If you watch him out there, he's so engaged in the games," Blazers owner Paul Allen said. "He's taken on more of a leadership role. I think it's evident in all aspects of his game."
"He's without a doubt the best power forward in the league," point guard Mo Williams added.
Indeed, the Blazers' reliance on Aldridge was showcased perfectly in LaMarcus' 44-point explosion against the Denver Nuggets on Thursday:
Aside from teammates' praise, advanced statistics also point to Aldridge's dominance (and importance to the Blazers).
Aldridge boasts a turnover ratio of just 6.3, eighth lowest in the NBA (that is, 6.3 percent of his possessions end in a turnover). He's also sixth in the NBA in estimated wins added and 10th in the all-encompassing player efficiency rating stat (23.27).
What really matters, however, is that Aldridge and Lillard have proven to be a deadly duo, and their improvements have gone a long way toward turning Portland into a top team in the NBA's tougher conference.
Aldridge has been the team's best player and Lillard has proven to be a brilliant sidekick, but none of that will matter much unless the Blazers can stay rolling, as they've done all season. If Aldridge can stay hot (his 2-of-14 performance against the Golden State Warriors notwithstanding), that won't be an issue.
All statistics courtesy of ESPN.
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