The question for the Blazers, as it is for all contenders this time of year, is: How far can they go? Defining success is no longer the topic, as expectations were elevated after a 24-5 start, but we still have to wonder how successful this group can be with its inexperience and defensive deficiencies at this point in the process.
As much as Rip City loves Damian Lillard, this is Aldridge's team. The big man has been through multiple rebuilds with this franchise, and the three-time All-Star deserves recognition as the team's MVP.
How Far Can The Portland Trail Blazers Go In The 2014 NBA Playoffs?
Portland plays an up-tempo game (it's top 10 in pace, according to ESPN.com), yet Aldridge helps balance the three-point attack with one of the best fade-away jumpers from the mid-range. Terry Stotts' offense works best with Aldridge on the floor; and the big man recognizes it.
According to The Oregonian's Mike Tokito, Aldridge was quoted during his recent absence as saying, "I’m not trying to be arrogant, but our offense just flows a little bit different when I’m out there." Considering how modest Aldridge has been throughout the years, it's no wonder he confused his own confidence for arrogance.
Aldridge is a person (not just a player) who has been known in the past for keeping to himself. Critics have pointed to his leadership as a point of uncertainty, but following Brandon Roy's departure, the veteran has established himself as a go-to option and arguably the best power forward in the game.
At this point in his career, Aldridge recognizes his own value, as evidenced by his quote above. He's even begun to recognize his historical impact on the franchise that drafted him, telling the Portland Tribune's Kerry Eggers:
I never used to pay attention to those things, but I've been watching it more this year. I'm the No. 4 scorer now. That's cool. To leave a legacy with one team and win a championship here and to be here my whole career, that would be great.
Historically speaking, Aldridge has become one of the most accomplished Trail Blazers of all time. Since that quote in January, he's passed Cliff Robinson for third on Portland's all-time scoring list, but the question here isn't about his place in history—it's about current events.
The Trail Blazers have gone through highs and lows through 2013-14, but they're catching fire again with the year coming to an end. Since Aldridge's return from a back injury, he's scored 22 points per game while pulling down 12.2 rebounds, and not-so coincidentally, Portland has gone 5-1 after going 3-4 during his absence.
None of this, of course, is to say that Aldridge can do it on his own. This year, Portland has seen progress from its bench (albeit minimal) and development from its starters. Aldridge has performed admirably in a career year, but look at what Nicolas Batum has done. The swingman accepted the role of "Swiss Army knife" and became a consistent facilitator and rebounder while hitting from beyond the arc.
Then there's Wesley Matthews. The undrafted starter out of Marquette has shot nearly 40 percent from deep all season and he's the No. 3 scorer on a playoff squad in a tough Western Conference.
Then, of course, there's Lillard and Robin Lopez. Lillard has the unique ability to create shots for Aldridge while simultaneously taking the pressure off him, while Lopez has defended the paint and made life easier on both ends for the power forward.
Trail Blazers get double-doubles from Aldridge, Lillard, and Lopez to blowout the Mavericks, 127-111! #RipCity— Trail Blazers (@trailblazers) January 19, 2014
Aldridge has failed to carry this team in the past, but this season he doesn't have to do it solo—he just has to be a leader. As B/R's Grant Hughes put it, "Aldridge's importance to the Blazers can't be overstated," but at the same time, neither can the value of his teammates.
So we ask once again: Is Portland primed for a deep postseason run? The truth is that only time will tell, but it's easy to feel good about this team. Detractors have no problem pointing to defense, but success has been a long time coming, and earning 50-plus victories is indicative of a true contender.
This is a group that's hungry to win, and a fanbase that's even hungrier to cheer. The team's core hasn't seen the playoffs since 2011, but Rip City hasn't seen the second round since 2000, giving everyone something to aim for.
If the team can make the second round, it will be an accomplishment for a city that's in the middle of a revival. But as previously stated, expectations shifted following the team's hot start, meaning championship aspirations are officially in place.
Portland is ready to fight for Western Conference supremacy and it finally has the player it's needed in Aldridge to lead the way.