For the Portland Trail Blazers, a team that has won 30 of its first 39 games, it has often been ‘Lillard Time’ thus far. In the grand scheme of things, it is also Damian Lillard’s time. The point guard has skyrocketed into the limelight as a clutch performer and overall one of the best players at his position. He holds the reigns, and his rise to stardom has resulted in LaMarcus Aldridge sitting in Portland’s passenger seat. That does not mean the veteran power forward hasn’t been incredibly productive, posting career highs in both points and rebounds. And as per usual, he is getting the attention he is accustomed to: not enough.
Aldridge’s career has been fascinating, full of a roller-coaster of roles. First, he was Robin to Brandon Roy’s Batman, then when Roy’s career was shortened due to knee issues he stepped in and became more than a mid-range jump-shooter, living inside with more regularity, particularly in the post. He was the guy, albeit through unfortunate circumstances. He has since maintained that versatility, only adding to it. His patented 17-footer is still in full force, but he has stretched his range out beyond the three-point line. Shooting from deep is far from a regular occurrence but he is becoming more and more confident with his stroke from there. He has made 19 three-pointers thus far in 38 games, while shooting an extraordinarily efficient 47 percent. On average he is making more three-pointers this season than he had attempted on average in any of his previous eight seasons.
I have long believed Aldridge was suited closer to the basket, rather than further away. This being my viewpoint, I was very excited to see him make a significant effort in that regard while Roy nursed injury after injury five years ago. Portland, having seen its on-court and emotional leader turn into a shadow of his former self, desperately needed someone to step up. They needed a reason to cheer and believe that there was a light at the end of this heartbreaking tunnel that ultimately led to the retirement of Roy. Aldridge took the initiative, quickly becoming a leader in his stead. Now, he was the guy. He was dominating not only offensively but on the boards, transforming himself from sidekick into star. I don’t think it is a mere coincidence that the addition of a repertoire of inside moves led to his heightened position on the Blazers, but that being said, as Portland painfully moved on following Roy’s decision to hang up his sneakers, it became clear that Aldridge was outside his comfort zone depending more on an inside game. For a time he was used as the team’s center, a role that didn’t suit him despite the statistics he put up.
Forced to carry the load for much of the 2011-2012 season, Aldridge’s Blazers managed to finish out of the playoff picture with a record of 28-38. This wasn’t his fault; there wasn’t a playoff-caliber team around him. This being the case, Portland desperately looked to the NBA Draft for help, hoping to find someone who could take some of the mighty weight off his shoulders.
They did, as Lillard was selected and immediately entered the hearts of Blazers fans. While he has done so over the past three years, Aldridge has gradually become a unique kind of sidekick. He is better than ever, averaging 23 points and 10 rebounds, and yet doesn’t grab the attention of the NBA public. He must be used to this, and it must be frustrating, but though that may be, I have a theory about Aldridge: I think he likes his role as Lillard’s right-hand man, and while he is a star, he doesn’t mind not being the star. The NBA and its overall fan base should be catching more wind about him and his contributions, but Portland and its fans know what he is worth. Perhaps that is what matters most to him–that and the wins necessary to win a championship, of course.
He is an impending free-agent, having turned down a contract extension offered last July but pledging to re-sign at season’s end. And with the way Portland’s season is going, there is little reason to believe he would go back on his promise. Why would he? He is in a role that suits him, helping put wins on the board with his still present inside attack, those mid-range jumpers that are his bread-and-butter, and now that three-pointer in his book’s latest chapter. And while it may be Lillard Time for many years to come, in many different ways it has always been and always will be Aldridge’s time.