It’s hard to imagine that it was just over a year ago that there were rumors floating around that All-Star forward LaMarcus Aldridge had demanded a trade, but that’s exactly the scenario the Portland Trailblazers were facing after a disastrous end to the 2012-2013 season during which they lost (a franchise worst) 13 consecutive games and missed the playoffs for the second year in a row.
Sure, Damian Lillard had shown tremendous promise during his Rookie of the Year campaign, but Aldridge had understandably grown weary of all the player turnover, personnel shakeups, and what seemed like an impending overhaul and rebuilding process.
Aldridge – consummate professional that he is – denied ever making such a request, but the writing was on the wall. And then last season happened. Winning, as the cliché goes, solves everything. But a lot of credit also goes to GM Neil Olshey who evidently took Aldridge and his camp aside during a meeting in Las Vegas and convinced him to give it one more season before skipping town. He wasn’t going to win any Executive of the Year awards for his offseason moves, but Olshey, at the very least, was able to make some noticeable upgrades to a bench rotation that was literally the worst in the NBA the previous season.
Still, the expectations were modest…right up until the Trailblazers stormed out to a 22-4 start, which included an 11-game win streak during the first month of the season. On December 12, Aldridge had the first ever 30-point, 25-rebound game in franchise history against the Houston Rockets when he went for 31 points and 25 boards. That was just a taste of what he had in store (particularly for the Rockets).
What followed was the best season of his career as he recorded career highs in points (23.2) rebounds (11.1) and assists (2.6), and there were stretches where you could make a solid case for Aldridge as the best power forward in the game and, depending on who you asked, even a fringe-MVP candidate. His play throughout the season was inspired, and it culminated in this third consecutive All-Star appearance and a third team All-NBA selection.
He led the team to 54 wins, which was a 21-game turnaround from the previous season, the biggest single-season turnaround in franchise history. They also landed the fifth seed in the loaded Western Conference and made it to the second round of the playoffs for the first time in 14 years, largely behind his transcendent play (and a lucky shot from one of his teammates). What a difference a year makes.
So naturally, the question on everyone’s mind this summer was Aldridge’s contract status. In July, however, he told the Oregonian that he would not, in fact, be signing a contract extension this summer. But not to worry: according to Aldridge, it’s simply a matter of waiting until next summer when he can re-up for more money.
Aldridge is in the final year of a 5-year, $65 million deal. If he signed an extension this summer, it would be limited to around three years and $55 million, whereas next summer, he can sign a max deal worth about $108 million over five years. So you can see his predicament.
“After the season, I said that me not re-signing wasn’t a sign that I don’t wanna be here,” he said. “It just didn’t make sense on my end. I felt like after I said that, that was all that had to be said. I’m not trying to not talk about it to hurt anybody’s feelings or make them think I’m trying to hide from it. It’s just that I don’t want that to be the focus. I want our focus to be being better this year, trying to advance further than last year.”
For Aldridge and his cohorts, the price tag that comes along with last year’s success is a whole new burden of expectation heading into the 2014-2015 campaign. Last season’s hot start was in many ways predicated on catching the rest of the league off-guard. That likely won’t be the case this time around as teams will be ready for them now. So how do Aldridge and the Blazers mitigate those circumstances?
“I feel like everyone came into [last] season with a chip on their shoulder because we were picked to finish last in everything,” Aldridge said. “Nobody felt like this team was good enough to do anything, so I kinda liked that hunger that everyone had, so we have to just find a way to reproduce that hunger within ourselves. If every guy comes into camp with that same hunger that we had last year, then anything’s possible.”
One of the hallmarks of this team last year was its chemistry, and that cohesion as a unit was reflected in the way they moved the ball and executed their offense in a manner that kept everyone involved and maintained focus on making the smart play as opposed to forcing the action. Replicating that chemistry is dependent on getting everyone to buy into Coach Terry Stott’s system, beginning at training camp.
“I definitely feel like we can be one of the top teams in the league, and I feel like it just starts tomorrow [at practice],” he said. “As I said last year, I feel like training camp always shows me a lot about a team, and I feel like if guys come in with the same mindset this year that they had last year as far as trying to get better defensively, being very unselfish, and trying to play for the team first, I feel like we can be one of those top teams. I feel like if guys come in here with different motives or different goals, then that can change everything.”
There was a lot of talk at media day on Monday about whether the Blazers considered themselves an “elite” team and what it means to embrace the prospect of being among the NBA’s elite. Without a doubt, the team’s offensive output under Stott’s blueprint was among the best in the league (they ranked fourth overall in scoring at 106.7 points per game), but they were a middling defense at best. Still, that was a dramatic improvement from where they were the previous year when they were at the bottom of the league in every major defensive category.
“We definitely have to continue to get better defensively,” Aldridge said. “I feel like we took huge steps in the right direction last year as far as being a defensive team. Our rebounding was amazing last year. I thought RoLo was a huge help on the boards last year. But I definitely think we have to keep growing defensively and try to keep other teams’ field goal percentage down. I feel like the top teams don’t give up easy shots. The Spurs definitely showed us firsthand. The way we started the season last year was perfect. We played very unselfish, the ball never stuck. I feel like every night guys got shots. Wes had big nights. Dame had big nights. The way that they [the Spurs] play, that’s how we are.”
The Spurs handed the Blazers some of their worst growing pains during the playoffs last spring, and it’s something Aldridge has taken note of. Like Lillard, Aldridge said he watched film of the series over the summer to figure out what went wrong. Not surprisingly, he saw major discrepancies between how he was able to carve up the Rockets porous defense so easily versus the looks he got from San Antonio.
“I studied everything,” he said. “They definitely played me differently than Houston. Houston played me more one-on-one and dared me to make shots. I’ve had pretty good games versus the Spurs, so he [Gregg Popovich] didn’t doubt me. He didn’t dare me to make shots. He folded me to the baseline, and he brought Tim [Duncan] over. They dig pretty heavy. I saw that. It’s not nothing that I can’t handle, but they definitely keyed in on me. I definitely watched that, and I learned from it.”
Here’s more from Aldridge’s press conference.
On building on his MVP-worthy season:
“Just do what I did last year, but better,” he said. “Keep trying to lead by example, keep trying to get better defensively, keep growing offensively, and trying to make my teammates better. I thought last year I was in that discussion because my teammates played so well. I thought it wasn’t just me; it was the whole unit. If every guy came back better this year, and everybody came in with the same mindset of being unselfish, then anything can happen.”
On Chris Kaman and Steve Blake joining the team:
“First, I think it’s definitely a good feeling to have guys on your team that wanna be here in Portland, OR,” he said. “I think that makes everybody confident with them being here. I think it definitely makes things easier. They should buy into the system and fit into our culture and our group better, so that’s nice.”
On attracting more players to Portland:
“About the future, if we just keep doing what we’re doing as far as winning games and playing the right way and building this brand of basketball here, then anything’s possible. I feel like guys around the league see that this team has fun and that we’ve built a brand here that’s rare.”
On the weird collection of big men on the roster:
“I didn’t know Kaman was such a jokester. I didn’t know him to the level I do now. He’s definitely always joking. They’re both [Kaman and Lopez] weird in their own way. RoLo is THE weirdest. Meyers is Meyers. I think they all bring different weird aspects to the team, and that’s good for us.”
On whether he’s added anything to his training regimen:
“Not overly because I think I know myself pretty well,” he said. “I look at my season and things I’ve done well and I could do better. I usually focus on things I could do better and try to come back doing those things better, but I wouldn’t say anything’s changed. I’ve always been high on nutrition. I always try to come back stronger, faster, and better. As you get older, it definitely gets harder to come back faster, but I wouldn’t say anything changed for me. I think it’s just the whole process of winding down after the season, watching film, seeing things that I can do better, and just working on it.”
On not playing for Team USA:
“I think it was just more about my personal preference. Having a big season coming up. I didn’t wanna risk anything crazy out there. I was very disappointed not to be in that group because I definitely wanted to be a part of that group for a long time, but things just keep coming up, but I think the major part was me and my agent and my team just sat down and we just felt like we didn’t wanna take that risk right now.”
One word to describe the team:
“I’ve been here so long, it’s been so many slogans and words,” he said. “No offense, but I’m not really buying into the words. Of course, it’s needed to motivate us, but I’m not into that. I just want us to come in and just be locked in. I think somebody said ‘all in.’ I would take that one because I feel like if we play a brand of basketball that we did last year, everybody has to be all in and be unselfish, so I think that if guys come in locked in and ‘all in’ in training camp and try to get better every day, then it’s gonna be good for us, but if guys come in thinking about themselves, then things could be different for us.”
Will Aldridge be in the MVP conversation this season?
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