LaMarcus Aldridge is the prize of the NBA off-season, the free agent almost every team is trying to get an interview with, as if an interview in and of itself, the ability to market a franchise, city, team, can hook and ladder Aldridge into the waiting hands of a fanbase, and in turn, deliver a championship. All of this for a player who has never gotten out of the second round of the playoffs.
These days when a player is labeled as being very good it is often interpreted as meaning great, particularly when transformational players and superstars are in short supply. LaMarcus Aldridge is a very good player who has had stretches of seasons in which he has been great. But he’s only been an All-Star four times. Six times he has watched the game at home. Nor has Aldridge ever been on an All-NBA first team. This year was the first time in nine seasons he has been a member of an All-NBA second team.
There is a lot to like about LaMarcus Aldridge. He is a skilled power forward who can make shots from a variety of angles. He can use his right or his left, he has great footwork in the paint. His mid-range shooting is a lost art, particularly among power forwards. Watching Aldridge’s efficiency from 10-16 feet is a reminder of a different era and perhaps he is more of an old school player than he is a modern one, even though last season he extended his range. But he is not a stretch four, not by any means, and he is not particularly comfortable guarding stretch four’s on the perimeter.
Aldridge is a good rebounder but nothing special on the defensive end. Lacking explosiveness, he doesn’t block shots and pretty much has a below the rim game at that end of the floor. He doesn’t use physicality to disrupt his defender and Aldridge will never be described as the toughest guy on the floor like a Paul Millsap. His talent lies in his offense, in his skill in the paint. A finesse player, Aldridge can mid-range you to death or he can finish at the rim and he gets to the line often enough and makes it count. In the same way that Pau Gasol has an elegant game, so does LaMarcus Aldridge.
The NBA, and its rank and file team builders, can be capricious. Small ball is the rage, the driving force behind a revolution, center stage for two weeks of the NBA Finals. And then it is not. Aldridge is not a small ball power forward. He is 6-11 and plays the way most 6-11 power forwards were taught to play, most of his touches coming in the paint, scoring at will over much smaller defenders who have no impact upon his shot. Aldridge’s footwork in the paint and his offensive efficiency- his shot is never, ever blocked- turns the small ball narrative upside down. In a sense, small ball is the consolation prize if you don’t have skilled size up front. And if there is one downside to Aldridge, his passing is pretty average. He’s not in the paint to dish it out to a three point specialist but then he rarely gets harassed by double teams either.
The NBA loves its poetry about defense but offense is what gets things done. Of the best offensive NBA teams measured by points per game, 9 out of the top 10 were in the playoffs. Of the best offensive NBA teams measured by field goal percentage, 10 out of the top 10 were in the playoffs. Scoring the ball matters, and that, in and of itself, explains the LaMarcus Aldridge love affair. The last two seasons, he has averaged 23 points and 10 rebounds, career highs.
The teams interviewing him this week are the Lakers, Rockets, Spurs, Mavericks, Suns, Raptors and Knicks. If Aldridge felt unloved on draft night when he was selected with the second pick in the 2006 NBA Draft by the Chicago Bulls and then was instantly traded to the Portland Trailblazers for Tyrus Thomas who, by the way, is no longer in the NBA, then he can soak up all of the affection some 9 years later knowing that in his career, which is half over, he has achieved something.
When his 30th birthday hits in a few weeks, LaMarcus Aldridge will start a new chapter. Fair or unfair, he will be expected to lead a team to the NBA title. Portland is one of those great places to play basketball because it doesn’t matter what happens, the fans show up anyhow. Pressure to win is large missing. Trailblazer fans want talented players who are of good character and who play hard every night. They will live with the results.
But, from here on out, LaMarcus Aldridge will be measured by the Chris Paul standard, best player never in his conference’s finals. Will that suddenly change?
Seven NBA teams say yes. The burden of high expectations is something Aldridge has never experienced before- he played college ball at Texas not Kentucky- but one he will now have to carry.
A few months back Charles Barkley said, “You go to Los Angeles and New York if you are a superstar. That’s what the fans there expect to receive. Don’t get me wrong, Aldridge is a very good player, but he’s not a superstar.”
photo courtesy of flickr.com