What's Changed for LaMarcus Aldridge?

Josh Martin@@JoshMartinNBANBA Lead WriterMarch 4, 2014

This past Saturday, LaMarcus Aldridge returned from a five-game, groin-strain-related hiatus to do his part in propelling the Portland Trail Blazers to a 102-96 win over the sliding Denver Nuggets.

Aldridge played about as well as you'd expect someone in his circumstances would. He was noticeably rusty, missing eight of the 10 shots he took from outside the paint, but was effective nonetheless in providing the Blazers with the threat, in both the mid-range and the low post, around which so much of their offense has been organized.

The last of his seven rebounds and the final two of his 16 points sealed the victory over the Nuggets, Portland's fifth in a row overall. His mere presence was enough to draw the assignment of Timofey Mozgov and, thus, leave Robin Lopez defended by the undersized Kenneth Faried. As a result, the healthier and more Sideshow Bob-like of the Lopez twins went for a team-high 18 points to go along with his nine rebounds.

It was far from Aldridge's finest performance of the 2013-14 NBA season, one that's been a landmark in a career whose totality had registered somewhere between "highly above average" and "almost great."

Then again, the fact that Aldridge was able to impact the outcome of the game the way he did, in his uniquely workmanlike-meets-finesse style, is indicative of the extent to which he's achieved that next level of basketball stardom, at precisely the time one might've expected him to.


The Numbers Game

Statistically speaking, Aldridge's rise to redoubtability isn't difficult to discern. He's well on his way to setting new personal bests for field-goal attempts (20.9), points (23.8), rebounds (11.3) and assists (2.8) while turning the ball over less frequently than he has since 2009-10 and getting whistled for fouls less often than he ever has.

He's not having the most efficient campaign of his career—his overall shooting percentages are down significantly from their peaks two years ago. But that dip is more reflective of what Terry Stotts has asked of his star forward than it is of any failing of LaMarcus'.

Aldridge's percentages by zone are right where they've been for years. The difference is, a greater share of his shots have been launched from less efficient areas on the floor, in large part because that's the most effective niche for Aldridge to fill on a roster replete with slashers and three-point shooters.

This reflects a larger ongoing shift in Aldridge's shot distribution over the years. Here's his shot chart from 2010-11:

Notice how the majority of Aldridge's attempts came within a few feet of the rim, with significant (but not overwhelmingly so) shares on the left block and the left wing.

The following year, Aldridge converted a career-high 51.2 percent of his looks, despite his near-rim attempts constituting a mere plurality of his shots and taking more of his tries from the aforementioned spots on the left block and left wing, in addition to those from straight away:

Last season, Aldridge firmly established himself as a denizen of "long two" territory while still operating plenty on the block, albeit with just over a third of his shots coming from close range:

Nowadays, Aldridge is more likely, however slightly, to let it fly from either of his other two "sweet spots" on the left side (30.8 percent) than he is to finish at the hoop (29.7 percent).


Help Has Arrived 

Perhaps that speaks to Aldridge's willingness to mold himself into whatever his team needs him to be. Perhaps he just likes to shoot from inside 23 feet and nine inches, with his superior stature (6'11) and back-to-the-basket skills as the primary motives.

Either way, Aldridge's impact in this, his coming-of-age season, might have as much to do with the niche he's filling as it does with the way in which he's filling it. That's to say, Aldridge is an excellent player, one who's benefitting tremendously from the environment that has been built around him.

The Blazers, led by general manager Neil Olshey, have done a bang-up job of surrounding Aldridge with top-notch role players and at least one potential superstar partner, in Damian Lillard, who, in concert, allow the big man to settle into a role of his own without too much concern for his perceived weaknesses.

Having prolific three-point shooters like Lillard and Wesley Matthews has afforded Aldridge more and better opportunities in the mid-range. Lillard and Nicolas Batum have taken on the ball-handling and distribution duties, which have included delivering the ball to Aldridge, be it via pick-and-pop or post entry passes, with aplomb. Batum, in particular, has grown into a "rich man's Chandler Parsons," a jack-of-all-trades glue guy on the wing who fills in the blanks wherever and whenever his abilities to do so are needed.

And let's not forget about Lopez, whose bulk, prowess on the glass and willingness to do the "dirty work" has freed Aldridge to stay in his proverbial lane, with his unique combination of silky smoothness and blunt dependability. 

Not that Aldridge has ever been overwhelmed by other responsibilities, or that he's ever struggled to fulfill them. Aldridge has long ranked among the most productive and effective power forwards in the game, his value predicated largely on consistency and durability.


LMA, Overlooked

As it happens, Aldridge's relative anonymity is more the product of personality and timing than it is of talent. In a piece for The New York Times this past December, Beckley Mason described Aldridge as "a notoriously reticent player in years past."

It didn't help Aldridge's case for future stardom that he was overshadowed upon entry, as the No. 2 pick in the 2006 NBA draft, not only at his position of choice, but more immediately by his own teammate. Aldridge arrived in Rip City alongside Brandon Roy, whom the Blazers acquired in a draft-day trade from the Minnesota Timberwolves in exchange for the rights to Randy Foye the same year.

Roy ran away with Rookie of the Year honors after starting 55 of the 57 games in which he played—and missing 25 due to knee problems that would ultimately prove to be his undoing. Aldridge finished a distant seventh in the voting, though he did come on strong toward the end of his introductory campaign.

Over his last 15 games as a neophyte (all starts), Aldridge averaged 14.7 points and eight rebounds while shooting 51.7 percent from the field. The first of those starts saw Aldridge light up the Charlotte Bobcats for a career-high 30 points on 12-of-19 shooting in a 37-point win for the Blazers.

That stretch, along with Roy's success, likely gave the Blazers enough confidence in their young scorers to then spend their pick, the first overall in the 2007 NBA draft, on Ohio State's Greg Oden instead of Texas' Kevin Durant.

As big of a bust as Oden has turned out to be—and as transcendent as Durant has become—there's no use berating the Blazers for making that choice.

Oden had been touted as the next great center for years, dating back to his days as a star on the high school and AAU circuits in basketball-crazed Indiana. Portland needed a guy who could protect the paint, collect caroms and provide some serious size and skill up front, alongside Aldridge and Roy. Oden just so happened to fit that profile while also doubling as the most drool-worthy prospect since LeBron James.

“Looking back on it, I would still draft Greg,” Kevin Pritchard, the ex-Blazers GM who chose Oden, told Ben Golliver, then with CBSSports.com, back in February of 2012. “Hindsight, it’s easy to make an assumption [now]… You can’t predict the injuries that would come. Going back on it, I wouldn’t have changed anything in drafting Greg.”


Sad Times in Rip City

Roy's rapid rise and Oden's arrival pushed Aldridge further into the shadows, where he toiled to the tune of 17.8 points and 7.6 rebounds in his second season as a pro. Aldridge's productivity improved steadily from year to year, only for the attention of diehards and onlookers alike to be drawn more to Roy's meteoric dissolution and Oden's annual tragedy, both due to chronic knee conditions, than to L.A.'s rock-steady play.

All the while, Aldridge barely registered on a national scale.

The previous generation's premier power forwards (i.e., Kevin Garnett, Tim Duncan, Dirk Nowitzki, Pau Gasol) were still competing for championships and taking home awards. By the time Aldridge cracked his first All-Star Game in 2012, he was stuck in the proverbial pecking order behind Blake Griffin and Kevin Love, whose dunking and shooting exploits (respectively) had made them the darlings at the "4" during the league's midseason festivities in L.A. the year prior.

Aldridge's arrival on the NBA's center stage was a bittersweet one. It coincided with the Blazers' inevitable collapse under the unbearable weight of dissipated promise from the Roy-Oden era.

Following the 2011 lockout, Portland waived the remainder of Roy's contract via the one-time amnesty provision in the new collective bargaining agreement and negotiated a contract with Oden (one year, $1.5 million) that checked in well below the $8.9 million qualifying offer he'd have otherwise been due.

Oden was cut the following March, after undergoing yet another round of surgeries on both of his knees.

That left Aldridge at the wheel of a sinking ship in Rip City. The Blazers started hot in both 2011-12 and 2012-13, certainly hot enough to earn Aldridge All-Star recognition for his near-20-10 productivity. But both of those campaigns ended on sour notes; Portland lost seven in a row and nine of 10 to close out the lockout-shortened season and endured 13 consecutive defeats between late March and mid-April of last year.

The latter of those carried with it an air of promise, albeit at Aldridge's "expense." Like Roy before him, Lillard was named the Rookie of the Year in a landslide, though Damian's came unanimously. Batum, in his age-24 season, had stepped up his game as a playmaker. Matthews' third strong year in a row lent him standing as one of the league's foremost sharpshooters.


Because He's Happy

Still, the on-court results left much to be desired, to the point where Aldridge, a free agent-to-be in 2015, began pushing for a way out of Portland behind the scenes. Aldridge admitted as much during an appearance on The Jim Rome Show this past December.

"It was just me being overly emotional at the time," Aldridge explained, via Ben Golliver. "Nobody wants to lose. I'm in my prime right now. At the time, I was a little emotional about not winning or what not. After I had time to talk to Neil and the team, I knew they were going to make some moves, bring some guys in."

Those comments came in the midst of Portland's 24-5 start to the 2013-14 season. Not surprisingly, Aldridge added that he would, indeed, be willing to stay with the Blazers long term:

I'm happy. I'm going to cross that bridge after the season. I'm happy that the team is winning. I feel like we have a great group of guys that plays very unselfish. That whole thing last summer was just about losing so many games in a row and not winning. Now we're winning, and guys are getting better every year and that's great.

Indeed, the growth and maturation of the team's constituent parts, in the second year under the auspices of basketball journeyman Stotts, has everything to do with Aldridge's happiness and MVP candidacy. He's been good for years, and thanks to the wave of success that the Blazers have been riding all year, he's attracting a degree of attention that's more commensurate with his talents. 

It helps, too, that the basketball community has such a soft spot for Portland. Over the years, the city's built up its reputation as a hoops haven, with the Blazers as the main (and prior to the arrival of the MLS' Timbers, only) event. Once the Seattle SuperSonics skipped town for Oklahoma City, the Blazers took on even greater cultural significance, as the NBA's lone representatives of the Pacific Northwest.

For once, then, timing is working in Aldridge's favor.

Renewed interest in the Blazers has coincided with Aldridge finally becoming "The Man" at the very point in his career when he should. At 28, Aldridge is and should be at the peak of his prime. He's comfortable in his own skin, having become the player he was seemingly destined to be from the beginning.


Rose City Revival

The player Aldridge is now would appear perfectly suited to Portland.

In many ways, Aldridge is a walking contradiction: an understated superstar, a "boring" figure who comes up big during the most exciting moments. His height and feathery touch from the perimeter point to the future, while his expertise in the low post and in the mid-range—the two most notorious "dead zones" by today's analytics-driven conventions—is firmly planted in the past. He's at once old school and new, throwback and flash forward.

Aldridge's personality and skill set have allowed him to blend seamlessly into whatever milieu he's placed. Nowadays, he is the milieu, or rather, the milieu has been fashioned around him.

That's no knock against Aldridge. As gifted as he is and as much hard work as he has poured into his craft in his eight years as a pro, Aldridge, like any great player before or since, could only do so much if the conditions and the cast that Portland put in place weren't conducive to winning.

The Blazers have clearly figured out that much. Their current five-game winning streak began with four victories from which Aldridge was absent, admittedly at the expense of sub-.500 squads. Portland can survive without Aldridge but can only thrive if he's at his best.

As for Aldridge, he's at a point in his basketball life now where even a spectacular regular season won't do a whole lot to boost his legacy, however incomplete. He's yet to win a playoff series in Portland. His Blazers qualified for the postseason three years in a row, between 2009 and 2011, only to be ousted from the first round in six games each time.

Plenty about Aldridge has changed since then. He's the straw that stirs the Blazers' drink, one that's been deliciously efficient on offense all season and has shown some signs of life on the defensive end of late, as well.

But nothing will change for Aldridge, he won't truly be a superstar until he leads the Blazers to greener, more exclusive pastures come April, May and (perhaps) June. That remains a distinct possibility, even in a loaded Western Conference, so long as Aldridge does what he's always done.

And then some.


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