It’s been a while since a team in the Pacific Northwest has had a surefire go-to-guy to call their own. While one team has long bounced to the Great Plains, the other has already gone through two potential superstars â€“ both now likely lost to injury. Which is why when LaMarcus Aldridge decided to have his breakout moment in his fifth NBA season, it was beyond a breath of fresh air.
Welcome to the spotlight. To the mainstream, the big show and crowds that will glorify you for your triumphs as soon as they’ll fault you for your mistakes. Welcome, LaMarcus Aldridge, to being The Guy for a franchise that has put its faith in not one, but two others of the same age before you. Welcome now because after having mixed success and confidence issues in each of your first four seasons, you have arrived as an NBA force to be both feared and revered. Your elevator has arrived â€“ and you’re finally welcomed to ride that puppy straight to the top.
“I think LaMarcus is â€“ I don’t want to say firmly entrenched â€“ but he is slowly, but surely, becoming the face of this franchise,” says the Oregonian‘s Jason Quick, who has worked as the Blazers’ beat writer for nearly a decade. “I think people have kind of turned the page on Greg Oden, and stopped hoping so much for him, and then I think people have a sense of the reality of Brandon Roy‘s situation with his knees.”
It’s no secret, but Portland hasn’t exactly been Johnny-on-the-spot when it comes to producing a healthy starting core. In 2006, when the Blazers acquired the No. 2 overall pick on Draft Night in a trade with the Chicago Bulls, they also put their stock into another promising Lottery selection â€“ Brandon Roy. Portland had hoped that Aldridge and the current three-time All-Star Roy would become the high-scoring duo to lead them for the next 10 years. Due to Roy’s now severe knee problems, however, that looks highly impossible. And the team’s semi-latest ace in the hole, Greg Oden, (remember, the No. 1 pick in 2007) has only gotten into 82 total games during his first four years in the League. Combine that with a slew of other team injuries, missed free agent swings and a rotating carousel at GM, and the Trail Blazers haven’t been exactly stable in a while. Still, and no matter the unfortunate circumstances, the Blazers keep finding ways to win â€“ and Aldridge’s emergence is the major reason why.
“It was great (watching Aldridge’s breakout season), but LaMarcus always had that kind of game,” says Roy about his teammate of five years. “The biggest key to making that next step was his confidence â€“ stepping out there to start taking big shots. To start wanting big shots in big moments.”
“I think when Brandon was the main guy (Batman), and I was Robin, I would kind of get up and down, and kind of get hesitant,” says Aldridge. “But when I became the main guy, every night I had to stay confident no matter what. If I had an off night, I just put it behind me and moved forward because I knew that if I didn’t bring my ‘A’ game â€“ mentally and physically â€“ then we didn’t have a chance. So, I think I just learned that you have to turn the page quickly, and that’s what most main guys do.”
“Most main guys.” A term synonymous with the University of Texas product throughout his hoops career and one that, until recently, was thought to be escaping Aldridge’s grasp. Labeled with the tag of being too soft to bang with opposing frontlines, L.A. would fall easily into the trap of settling for jumpers. Portland desperately craved the same kid that built his reputation in both high school and college with ferocious post play and a smooth complementing shooting stroke. That hesitancy to battle down low and fondness for floating around the perimeter is what seemed to frustrate fans the most. As Quick recalls, it got to a point where Blazer Nation would refer to him as “LaMarsha.” This now, of course, is ridiculous. Aldridge has erased any past concerns of softness and replaced it with consistent crunch time buckets and highlight reel dunks. And in the process, witnessed that same rabidly passionate fan base back him up.
“I think (the fans) definitely embraced me and what I did last season,” says Aldridge. “I felt that they showed me a lot of respect and a lot of love from stepping up and doing the things that I did. That was definitely fun for me. The city’s definitely made it easier for me to be confident in my skills and to just go out and play.”
“Portland has some of the best fans in the League,” says Zach Randolph, who was a staple of the Blazers organization for six seasons, including Aldridge’s rookie year. “With winning, that’s what it’s all about: winning. You see in Portland, they have a sold-out crowd every game. Every time they’re on TV, it’s packed. If it ain’t on TV, it’s still sold out. That’s just what it’s all about â€“ having fans. Fans don’t know that’s big for us. We get energy and we feed off that.”
That support has been paramount to Aldridge’s preparation and psyche. And his resilience, coupled with a newfound confidence, is exactly what enabled him to carve up the League this past season. It’s what has taken L.A. from solid starting forward, to dominating All-Star presence â€“ even if his 21.8 points and 8.7 rebounds a game didn’t technically warrant that distinction from the NBA. Against San Antonio in early February, Aldridge dropped 40 and 11 for the win. He then followed that up four games later with another W against Chicago, giving the Bulls 42 and eight. He’s improved so much, so fast, that it’s made one of the sports world’s most knowledgeable and engaged cities all but forget their past woes and put their collective rain gear in Aldridge’s corner. It has solidified Portland’s hopes for the future not in lieu of their injuries, but in response to them.
“I don’t know if I’ve ever seen or can recall a player kind of getting it in one instant like he did,” says Quick. “I mean, something just clicked with him where he just blew up. And I think a lot of it did â€“ when you look back at it now â€“ it totally coincided with Brandon going out. For a variety of reasons that helped him kind of blossom.”
“I think I’ve grown a lot of confidence in my game,” adds Aldridge. “I always want to have the ability to do things that I’ve done, but I think this last season â€“ you know actually having the opportunity to be the guy to step up and play a bigger role â€“ I thought that was big. I always felt like I could do it, but actually doing it feels so much better.”
What doesn’t feel as pleasant, however, is Aldridge’s exclusion in this past February’s All-Star festivities â€“ no, that still burns the fresh 26-year-old deep. L.A. served up an inside heater this season, while ultimately locking Portland down a playoff berth, and the selection committee struck out looking.
“I felt like I’ve been on that brink of making it for so many years, but I felt like I really put in my time, and I thought I really earned it last season,” says Aldridge. “And to actually not make it, that was like a slap in the face. So I think after that, I was just out to show the league and the world that they made a mistake.”
“I think a lot of people said it at the time,” adds Quick. “It was one of the worst All-Star snubs in years. But, LaMarcus handled it very classy at the time.
“He, more than anybody I can think of, holds grudges and uses things to motivate himself. That’s like one of the worst things for anyone to do â€“ to doubt him or to criticize him or to snub him from an honor â€“ because that is just going to make him work harder.”
With great power comes the great responsibility of a Northwest nation waiting to explode into the playoffs with a Rip City exclamation point. It’s been 11 years since PDX has seen its most beloved boys head past the postseason’s first round. But behind their 6-11 front man, along with the relatively recent additions of Wesley Matthews, Gerald Wallace and Raymond Felton, the Blazers have the lead pieces from which to build a new foundation around. One that is a little bit tougher, a little bit wiser and a lot more aware of the possibilities in front of them. It was the Blazers who gave the reigning world champion Dallas Mavericks their toughest postseason challenge in the Western Conference. And it is the Dallas native Aldridge who thinks things might have worked out a bit differently for Portland if they had moved past Dirk and Co.
“It didn’t feel good to see them win because you feel like, ‘Okay, if we could have beat them, then maybe that could have been us,'” says Aldridge, who put up nearly 20 and 8 in the six-game series against Dallas. “But, I felt like they played hard, they played together â€“ I felt like they earned it. I was looking at it as if we would have beat them, then we probably could have won it all.”
“I said it during the year: He was arguably the best power forward on the court,” says Roy. “I mean, you had Dirk and guys like that, but LaMarcus held his own against everybody in the League. He not only held his own, he carried our team. Now the next challenge is to see how he responds after a big year. I think he’ll do fine. His talent is at a high level.”
What happens next for LaMarcus Aldridge in his adopted city remains solely with LaMarcus Aldridge â€“ it always has. He’s been working harder this past offseason; putting in extra work and developing a stronger inside game for whenever the NBA and the Player’s Association can agree to lift the lockout. If there is no agreement in time for a season, he’s even lightly entertained the thought of going overseas for a possible team-up with Nets point guard, and fellow Dallas product, Deron Williams. In mid-July he half-jokingly tweeted, “I wonder if D Will needs a big man to play with overseas?! Hmmm.” Although, he admitted it’s not something he’s actively looking into at the moment.
Regardless of when the players find themselves back on an NBA hardwood, Aldridge will be ready. In his continuing maturation as a leader, and as a “legitimate No. 1” as Quick and much of Blazer Nation believes, he will need to continue moving forward in his development. The path of hesitancy and hiding behind Brandon Roy undoubtedly must be over in order for Portland to prosper. It’s a tough assignment for anyone to have to shoulder the load of a franchise â€“ but it’s a challenge he’s finally ready for.
“I think you take success with a grain of salt,” says Aldridge. “I definitely want to look at the season and be proud of my growth and look at what I did to be better, but also I’m not satisfied; I haven’t done a lot of things I want to do.”
Well, big guy, welcome to your chance.
Go to the next page to see more photos from our shoot with LaMarcus
Here are some photos from photographer Hance Taplin that didn’t run in Dime #65…
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