What feels like eons ago, the Portland Trail Blazers was Brandon Roy’s team. The level of excitement, with LaMarcus Aldridge playing Robin to his Batman, exhibited during that unforgettable moment in time was invigorating. And then it all came crashing down. Roy’s knees betrayed him, and he was forced to hang up his sneakers at the young age of 27. During the downturn in his heartbreakingly short career, when he was battling injury after injury, Aldridge was put in a position where he was the guy. He was thrust into the limelight, whether he was ready or not. Perhaps it was daunting, but his new role didn’t phase him. He just continued to deliver. Teammates looked for him more, and he found himself being more and more aggressive as a result. The ball went through his dependable hands, and though unfortunate and saddening circumstances gave him the reigns, he has, in the time since, transformed into the league’s best power forward.
Following a 39-19 fourth quarter discrepancy that led to a 110-94 win over the Orlando Magic, the Blazers stand at 27-9, good for third in the Western Conference and just a game back of first place San Antonio. Aldridge had 36 points in 35 minutes of action, shooting 16-25 from the field to compliment his nine rebounds and three blocks. He is now averaging a shade under 24 points per game on the season after that performance, while also grabbing 10 rebounds per and shooting 47 percent. The shooting percentage is the only statistic that is down from his career average, but that doesn’t mean he has struggled in that department. On the contrary, his jump-shot has become even more lethal and far more versatile. He’s no longer just a face-up jump-shooter perched 17 feet from the basket. That is definitely in his repertoire, to be sure, and a nearly automatic two points every time he chooses to go that route, but he has incorporated a turnaround jumper and an array of post moves into his arsenal. And he is interweaving each into every game he plays, keeping defenses on their heels and, inevitably, marred in disappointment at the repeated sound of swish, swish, swish.
His teammates have been impressed with his development into a star. At 28, Aldridge has proven to not only be a consistent scorer and the team’s biggest threat offensively, but also a veteran leader. He was forced to grow up quickly as Roy declined, and he has clearly made definitive strides into a player who can be counted on on and off the floor. “He’s more vocal,” said Nicolas Batum earlier this season to the Times-Picayune. “When we need to have big games, he got big games.”
Only helping him improve is the group of players around him. The production from Batum, who posted his fourth career triple-double in victory over the Magic, is exemplary of the supporting cast that takes pressure off the 6’10″ double-double machine. Batum is averaging 13 points, 6 rebounds and 5 assists per game. Damian Lillard, as Aldridge’s main partner in crime, hasn’t had a sophomore slump, scoring 21 points and dishing 5 assists per game. Center Robin Lopez has been a pleasant surprise, especially offensively, averaging 10 points and 8 rebounds. Wesley Matthews has transformed into one of the top shooting guards in the league, averaging 16 points on 48 percent shooting–five percent higher than his mark last season. Mo Williams has provided a spark off the bench backing up and, as is often the case, playing alongside Lillard. The list of contributors goes on and on, which can’t be said for past Blazers teams.
While Stotts is relying heavily on Aldridge, and for good reason, the reliance on the power forward isn’t because they necessarily need him to carry the team. There is less pressure on Aldridge now, which allows him to just focus on improving his game and putting up big numbers to fill the win column rather than have to try to single-handedly shoulder the load. As Lillard said, Aldridge is “letting the game come to him.” Stotts agrees.
“I think a lot of times people want to point to one thing being the answer,” the Blazers first-year head coach told the Times-Picayune. The players around him [Aldridge] have all been playing a little bit better as well, it makes his job a little easier. Aldridge was frustrated this past offseason, expressing his desire to win and win now. In order to make that possible, GM Neil Olshey did what he could to surround Aldridge with talent capable of leading the Blazers to the promise land. Aldridge was impressed by an offseason’s worth of work that resulted in eight new teammates. And now, among the cream of the West’s crop, Portland appears set for the long-haul. And behind it all, there’s Aldridge, picking apart defenses as the guy. The guy. And this time, that title isn’t a result of being Robin to a shelved Batman. It has, instead, naturally and deservedly come to him for a team that doesn’t look like it will slow down anytime soon.