After a torrid start, the Portland Trail Blazers have cooled a bit lately. They still look to be a lock to make the playoffs. However, they could be as low as a sixth seed out West.
That being said, the key for this season's success has been drastic improvements from a number of players on this year's squad.
It's hard to say that a player who was already all-star caliber has been one of the most improved Blazers so far this season, but it really is the truth.
Prior to this season, Aldridge's top scoring average had been 21.8 points per game, and his top season as a rebounder was 9.1.
This season, Aldridge has crushed those numbers, scoring 23.4 and grabbing 11.1 boards per game. He also has shown much more commitment to defense, although those numbers don't really show up on the stat sheet. But you can see in his demeanor that he no longer is a passive defender.
Aldridge has also become a leader for this team, looking for his own shot—especially late in the game.
His offensive game is as good as any power forward in recent years. He has a back-to-the-basket game, an unblockable jumper and has become, perhaps, the best pick-and-roll big man in the league. His range now extends out 20 feet while still being strong enough to score down low.
Aldridge's improvement has mirrored this team and without his incredible play, the Blazers certainly would be struggling.
Prior to this season, there was discussion that rookie C.J. McCollum could cut considerably into Wesley Matthews' minutes this season and moving forward.
An early-season injury to McCollum paired with a rededicated Matthews has been a huge treat for the Blazers.
Matthews has always been a good player, but this year he has vaulted himself into the conversation as one of the top 10 shooting guards in the league.
He is averaging a career-best 16.3 points per game and has been flirting with 40 percent three-point shooting all season. He also has stepped up defensively and on the boards, averaging nearly four per game.
Additionally, he is one of the more efficient players on the team, being the team's third scoring option and only committing a little more than a turnover per game.
Matthews has been fantastic this year and should only improve as he learns to become more aggressive.
When the Blazers brought in Robin Lopez this offseason, it was easy for most fans to feel underwhelmed.
Lopez is a career 7.8 points-per-game scorer and has never grabbed more than 5.6 boards per game.
Given that he was going to be replacing the team leader in rebounds from a year ago, a drop-off seemed like a given.
Instead, Lopez has turned in a career season, scoring 10.7 points per game, grabbing 8.6 boards and blocking 1.7 shots per game.
He also has been the catalyst on defense, providing interior toughness to a team that sorely lacked it last year.
A year ago, J.J. Hickson played matador defense, and Aldridge was visibly frustrated with his role on that side of the court. Lopez is the only different starter on this team, yet the Blazers have a new look to them. They play with more confidence and a bit of a swagger.
Lopez is your typical glue player who is willing to do anything on the court to get the job done. Some people call this type of player a "garbage player" because they aren't typically the focal point on either side of the ball. But Lopez has been one of the most valuable members of this squad and a fan favorite in Portland.
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