Can LaMarcus Aldridge and Damian Lillard Evolve Into NBA's Best 1-2 Punch?

Bryant KnoxFeatured Columnist IIIDecember 14, 2016

PORTLAND, OR - JANUARY 28:  LaMarcus Aldridge #12 and Damian Lillard #0 of the Portland Trail Blazers talk against the Memphis Grizzlies on January 28, 2014 at the Moda Center Arena in Portland, Oregon. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2014 NBAE (Photo by Sam Forencich/NBAE via Getty Images)
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It's been said that the city of Portland, Ore. is a fishbowl. The Portland Trail Blazers are the biggest sports show in town—sorry, Timbers fans—and as a result, players tucked away in the Pacific Northwest are a constant focus of the surrounding community.

Unfortunately for guys like LaMarcus Aldridge and Damian Lillard, local limelight won't translate to national attention, which is why the two must find long-term success if they want to become, and be recognized as, the NBA's best tandem.

When thinking of the league's top duos, a handful of players come to mind. Consider the favorites to be Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, when healthy; LeBron James and Dwyane Wade, also when healthy; and Chris Paul and Blake Griffin.

There's also James Harden and Dwight Howard, not to mention Paul George and Roy Hibbert. And if we're honoring intangibles and winning, Tony Parker and Tim Duncan qualify as well.

One thing these players have in common is postseason success. Neither Lillard nor Aldridge has seen the second round of the playoffs, and while "small-market syndrome" doesn't help their stardom, winning can do wonders when it comes to recognition.

PORTLAND, OR - MARCH 16: Damian Lillard #0 and LaMarcus Aldridge #12 of the Portland Trail Blazers shake hands against the Detroit Pistons on March 16, 2013 at the Rose Garden Arena in Portland, Oregon. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees
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Taking a step back and looking at the players themselves, you can't deny what Lillard and Aldridge have accomplished. Averaging a combined 44.5 points per contest, they became the first Portland tandem to make the All-Star Game since Clyde Drexler and Cliff Robinson back in 1994, and their proficiency in pick-and-pop sets makes them dangerous in the league's top-scoring offense.

Admittedly, the debate surrounding the best duos is subjective, but it's worth having. Few leagues, if any, are as star-driven as the NBA, and the fact that Portland's two-headed machine has entered this conversation in just its second year together speaks volumes about the future.

When looking down the road, free agency could certainly impact this discussion. If Carmelo Anthony spurns the New York Knicks to play alongside Derrick Rose, add them to the list. The same goes for LeBron and Kyrie Irving if Cleveland's fantasy becomes a reality. 

An even scarier thought for Rip City is the possibility of Aldridge leaving. According to the Portland Tribune's Kerry Eggers, Aldridge has stated he'd like to re-sign, but if the team fails to reach the second round of the playoffs before 2015, the eight-year veteran could realistically change his mind.

PORTLAND, OR - MARCH 3: LaMarcus Aldridge #12 of the Portland Trailblazers dunks the ball against the Los Angeles Lakers on March 3, 2014 at the Moda Center Arena in Portland, Oregon. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloadi
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Disregarding hypothetical roster moves for now, you must ask what it would take for Portland's stars to improve their status.

When it comes to Aldridge, it would be unfair to ask him to take on a bigger role. General manager Neil Olshey has avoided doing that by acquiring pieces such as Mo Williams, Thomas Robinson and especially Robin Lopez, and as a result, Aldridge has averaged 23.5 points and 11.1 rebounds despite a dip in efficiency. 

Lillard is a bit of a different story, but only because he's yet to hit his prime. Entering the league, there was the notion that four years at Weber State shrank his professional ceiling. The stigma surrounding four-year players didn't ultimately hurt his draft stock, but it did prompt then-ESPN analyst John Hollinger (Insider) to peg him as having a "low ceiling" regarding "star power." 

Gif courtesy of courtesy of YouTube.

At this juncture, it's clear that the former Wildcat is already a star. Lillard, 23, has the presence of a veteran as just a sophomore, which is one of his best traits as a selfless scorer and explains his composure in crunch time—or "Lillard Time" as it's referred to in Rip City.

Where the guard leaves something to be desired is on defense. It's true that his field-goal percentage isn't ideal, and a rise in assists would help his national perception. But he's negated those offensive concerns with lethal perimeter shooting and improved percentages at the rim as the year has progressed.

If Lillard can continue to improve alongside an already-established Aldridge, the two will reach their full potential. However, if they want to be known as the best, winning becomes the most important variable, which once again points directly to the postseason.

Portland's newfound prosperity has come quickly. After losing 13 straight to conclude 2012-13, it began the new season 24-5 and is now battling for a top-three seed out West.

Short-term accomplishments create entertainment, but as we all know, playoff success is where great players make their mark.

Following an inexplicable Portland loss to the last-place Los Angeles Lakers, B/R's Kevin Ding reminded us that there are still thorns poking through in the Rose City:

Reality here is as follows: As great and earnest as LaMarcus Aldridge has been, he’s not Kevin Durant, and as driven and clutch as Damian Lillard has been, he’s not Russell Westbrook. The Blazers made many good calls in recent years after the embarrassment of the Jail Blazers era and the bad breaks with Brandon Roy and Greg Oden, and they’ve been rewarded with this surprisingly good season. But there is so much still to be done—or more accurately, so much that still has go right for a small-market team like this to get to the top.

The Blazers' success has revived the city's winning expectations, but while the team wouldn't be where it is without either Aldridge or Lillard, it's the latter who has the potential to truly grow.  

Before Lillard ever played in an NBA game, I asked him in an interview at the Adidas headquarters if he and Aldridge could be the next John Stockton and Karl Malone. The question was deliberately lighthearted, but fans had high hopes, and I was curious to see how the then-22-year-old would respond.

"That’s saying a lot," Lillard said while laughing. But the laughter was short-lived, as his eyebrows raised and he quickly stated, "I think we can be productive together. I think we complement each other, and hopefully we can be."

If you asked Lillard today, nearly two years later, whether he and Aldridge can be the best duo around, chances are he'd retort the same way he did as a rookie—except without the laughter. It's no longer ludicrous to make superlative comparisons, and nothing less than success will suffice moving forward.

Lillard admired what the legendary tandem of Stockton and Malone did before him, but without deep playoff runs, we might not view them as we do today. Both Lillard and Aldridge should continue to improve individually, but it's wins in April, May and June that will make or break their spot as the best one-two punch in the NBA.