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Remembering LaMarcus Aldridge with the Trail Blazers – Blazer’s Edge

remembering-lamarcus-aldridge-with-the-trail-blazers-–-blazer’s-edge

Today NBA All-Star LaMarcus Aldridge announced his retirement due to an irregular heartbeat, a recurring health issue which had followed him throughout his 15-year career. Aldridge played for the Portland Trail Blazers during his first nine seasons in the NBA, appearing in 682 games. He’ll go down as one of the great forwards in franchise history.

On the day of his retirement, we share memories of Aldridge and his career.

LaMarcus Aldridge came to Portland courtesy of the 2006 NBA Draft. The Texas forward was selected second overall by the Chicago Bulls, then traded to Portland on draft night for the rights to fourth-overall pick Tyrus Thomas and forward Viktor Khryapa. It was a deal that the Bulls would rue for a decade. Aldridge bloomed into one of the league’s best players. Thomas stayed with the Bulls for four seasons, Khryapa two.

Despite his superior draft position, Aldridge was overshadowed on his own team. In 2006, the vestiges of the “Jail Blazers” era still lingered over the franchise like a fog. Enthusiasm was bubbling over Portland’s lottery picks, but the heat was closer to simmer than high. From the start, a lack of attention, and sometimes credit, became Aldridge’s birthright.

The situation was worsened, albeit unintentionally, by two teammates. All-Star forward Zach Randolph still owned Portland’s power forward position. He set a solid pick in front of Aldridge’s progress towards playing time and a starting role. The Blazers had no such logjam in the backcourt. Fellow draftee Brandon Roy darted around the screen on his way to 35 minutes and 17 points per game, earning Rookie of the Year honors. The 21-year-old Aldridge had to content himself with 9 points and 5 rebounds in a modest 22 minutes per.

That doesn’t mean Aldridge’s rookie year was muted. He did earn 22 starts, showing off a fine rebounding touch. His combination of size, lithe movement, and finesse was something new for a fan base—and in most ways, a league—raised to view power forwards as 6’8 low-post bruisers. At 6’11, Aldridge blurred the line between forward and center. With a slowly-blossoming jump shot, he would also blur the lines between power forward and small. The more he played, the more special Aldridge’s skill set seemed and the more confident he became in it.

The Blazers took notice, jettisoning Randolph in the off-season for center Channing Frye and guard Steve Francis, the latter of whom would never suit up for the team. The relatively low return was less a referendum on Randolph than an announcement to the league: LaMarcus is Here. Indeed, Aldridge would start every game in which he suited up for the next eight years.

Fame was not in the offing yet, though. Aldridge’s second season was overshadowed by the arrival of another potential star: Greg Oden, selected first overall by the Blazers after a lucky ping-pong ball bounce in the 2007 NBA Draft Lottery. The hype over Oden’s arrival obliterated everything that had come before. Fans and observers speculated that the Blazers would become a super-team, with the bruising Oden and graceful-yet-huge Aldridge dominating the frontcourt while Roy scored with abandon at shooting guard. The “Roy-Aldridge” marquee from 2006 now read “Roy-Oden-Aldridge”. On the verge of a breakout season, Aldridge’s billing was moving backwards.

2007-08 was not to be Oden’s year, though. Injured in a pre-season practice, the star-crossed phenom sat out his entire rookie season. Aldridge stepped into the void, averaging a solid 18 points per game on 48.5% shooting. Head Coach Nate McMillan cast him in a classic pivot role: back to the basket, using height, weight, and leverage to gain advantage. On the side, Aldridge developed a baseline jumper in the style of Rasheed Wallace. He seemed to thrive on motion. He could lean and spin, then release high in the lane for an unblockable chip shot. For three seasons, Aldridge struggled between the demands of traditional post play and his urge to dance on the floor. During this span, he averaged roughly the same 18 points on 48-49% shooting…not bad for a player conflicted.

Around him, though, the Blazers were crumbling. Oden returned, briefly turning the team into a juggernaut, but the rally was short-lived. Continued injuries would limit the center to just 82 games in his Portland career. Even worse, perennial All-Star Roy started to experience knee issues of his own. The high-powered shooting guard went from 21.5 points per game in 2009-10 to just 12.2 points in 47 games the year after as his shooting percentage plummeted from 47% to 40%. The next year, Roy was gone, retired at 27 years of age.

Just like that, the dream was dead. The marquee that had once blazed with the names of three highly-coveted stars now flickered, Fallout-style, with Aldridge’s name half-dangling off the bottom as dirge music swirled in the air.

A funny thing happened on the way to the franchise funeral, though. LaMarcus still stood. And he was good. REALLY good.

With Roy fading, then gone, Aldridge became the #1 option for the team. The coaching staff freed him from the obligation to post-up, big-man basketball, allowing him to play to his strengths in the mid-range. Opponents quickly discovered that the same high release that was unblockable at 4 feet was just as unblockable at 16. The jumper became Aldridge’s bread and butter, an incredible lever to move defenses away from the rim and the arc.

At the same time, the Blazers were making a shift towards a new type of support player, valuing shooting prowess instead of just scoring power among their forwards and guards. Shooting and scoring mingled in 2012 when Portland drafted Damian Lillard out of Weber State University. Like Roy, Lillard would win Rookie of the Year. But this time, Aldridge would not be overshadowed. He ran off five straight NBA All-Star appearances, firmly ensconced as his team’s leading player no matter who else came along.

It was during this time that the familiar lineup of Aldridge, Lillard, Wesley Matthews, Nicolas Batum, and “add-a-center” (first J.J. Hickson, then Robin Lopez) came to full flower. Everyone smaller than Aldridge could shoot. Once Lopez came on board, everyone except Lillard was a good defender as well. It was as well-rounded of a starting five as the Blazers had fielded since 2000-01.

The unit played well, and every bit of it rotated around Aldridge. The pick and pop at the elbow became Aldridge’s signature play. He would set a screen, roll to the free throw line extended on the left side, and catch the ball. If he was single-covered, he’d put up the shot. When defenses doubled, one pass found an open shooter on the perimeter. It was simple, foolproof, and devastatingly effective.

Clockwork precision was possible because Aldridge’s jumper was so bankable. He became one of a handful of players in franchise history whose shot could be called before it left his hand. At the right spot on the floor and fewer than two defenders on him, Aldridge simply would not miss. Bending defenses from 16 feet out was a relatively new concept in the NBA, especially for 6’11 players. Aldridge brought a new definition of “power” to forward position.

Aldridge’s tenure with the Blazers peaked in the spring of 2014, when Portland defeated the Houston Rockets 4-2 in the first round of the 2014 NBA Playoffs. The most enduring image from the series is Lillard hitting a last-second three to give his team the clinching victory, but people forget that Aldridge scored 46 and 43 in the first two games of that series and 30 in Lillard’s hero game…all wins for Portland.

The Blazers would lose to the San Antonio Spurs in the second round that year, but the future was looking bright again. Lillard had proven himself both prolific and clutch. Aldridge was mentioned breathlessly among the three best power forwards in the league, with no clear consensus on #1. Portland had developed a first-rate frontcourt-backcourt combo with a roster of multi-talented role players besides. This could be the beginning of something special.

It did not work out that way. The Blazers were in the thick of the race for bracket seeding in 2015 when Matthews ruptured his Achilles tendon. Aldridge had battled injuries all season, including a recurring thumb issue that interfered with his shooting ability. Portland limped, rather than marched, into the 2015 NBA Playoffs and were summarily dismissed by the Memphis Grizzlies, a fate less noble than anticipated.

Injuries weren’t the only thing dogging Aldridge that year. His contract was expiring and questions abounded. He had opted not to sign an extension the summer prior. That was understandable, as he could make more money by waiting. But was his heart in Portland or would he take advantage of his first real shot at NBA free agency?

Aldridge and the Blazers attempted to deflect the questions during the season itself. He participated in PR-like interviews, stating that he wanted to be the “Best Blazer Ever”. This allowed fans to exhale, but every inward breath still hid a hitch. The new contract was not signed and, after a certain point, both Aldridge’s camp and the team went mum.

Anxiety peaked during the playoffs loss to the Grizzlies. Not only was Portland’s performance well under standards, Aldridge himself seemed to alternate between self-absorbed and disinterested play. His thumb was still a major issue, but something else felt “off”.

“Off” certainly described the position of the wheels on Portland’s happy bus when the off-season hit. Rumors swirled around Aldridge’s courtship with multiple teams. No progress was reported on negotiations between the Blazers and their star forward. It was like finding your long-term partner on a dating site: inconclusive, but this wasn’t good.

Portland’s front office obfuscated throughout the free agency process, toeing the line between information and disinformation, picked up and amplified by an increasingly agitated cadre of media. As days dragged into weeks, grandstanding from the podium got more pronounced. An assistant coach was fired for speaking publicly about Aldridge’s eventual decision, outside of the company channels and line. National media released contradictory reports, depending on whether they were tapped into the front office or Aldridge’s camp. Lillard reportedly flew to meet with Aldridge personally to discuss the possibility of re-signing. The once-overlooked star finally had a unfiltered, laser-focused spotlight on him, and it was ugly.

Finally, mercifully, the saga—along with Aldridge’s Portland tenure—came to an end when he announced he’d be sighing with the San Antonio Spurs, heir apparent to Tim Duncan, nestled close to his family in Texas. Portland had resolution, but lost their star.

At the time, feelings rose high against Aldridge. Dealing with the reality of a front office left twisting in the wind was emotionally difficult for fans. It was easier to blame the departed player.

In reality, Aldridge did only what he was expected to do: fulfill his contract until its conclusion, then exercise his right to sign a new one wherever he wished. There was no disloyalty towards Portland involved in his departure. He had spent nine seasons with the franchise and was no closer to a World Championship than when he had begun. He had played second-fiddle to Roy, third fiddle to Roy and Oden, then had shone for a brief moment before being overtaken by Lillard in the minds and hearts of the Blazers faithful. He had been heralded with calls of “soft” because he couldn’t single-handedly deliver things that nobody outside of LeBron James could. Finally, he had been branded a traitor, scapegoated by those interested in keeping the team’s image intact after he left.

This is not to say Aldridge was a perfect player, nor the most charismatic star the Blazers have ever fielded. He wasn’t. But unlike every one of his contemporaries outside of Lillard (who was still quite young when Aldridge left), LaMarcus endured. He played with consistent excellence, he persevered through injuries, and he became the most stable first option the franchise has seen outside of Lillard and Clyde Drexler.

Aldridge’s time in Portland ended in controversy. He did not rise to greater prominence with the Spurs than he had with the Blazers. He never won a ring. That should not obscure the fact that Aldridge was one of the most talented, and ultimately most reliable, stars to put on a Blazers uniform.

When Portland fans remember Aldridge, they should remember his position at the hub of the beautiful Terry Stotts offense, played in its purest form, during the span between 2013-2015. Watching the ball move to, and through, Aldridge’s hands recalled the days of Bill Walton and Jack Ramsay. High praise in the Pacific Northwest.

Portland got plenty of value out of the fourth pick in 2006. LaMarcus Aldridge gave them 9 seasons, 648 regular-season games, averaging 19.4 and 8.5 rebounds points per game on 48.5% shooting. He averaged 22.1 points per game in 34 playoffs appearances as well. He now stands with Rasheed Wallace and Maurice Lucas as the best power forwards in franchise history. That’s more than could have been expected when David Stern called his name a decade and a half ago. It should be enough for anybody.

Thank you, LaMarcus. Continued health and blessings. You will be missed.

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