The LaMarcus End Was Always Going to Be A Shocker

When LaMarcus Aldridge was drafted number 2 in the 2006 NBA Draft by Chicago, and then traded to Portland for Tyrus Thomas (Thomas was drafted 4th and lasted in the league half as long as Aldridge), it began a career that had epic highs and shape-shifting lows. The Texas phenom joined a team that was once upon a time referred to as the Jail Blazers because they had an insatiable thirst for trouble. Most of that team was gone, only Zach Randolph remained. Brandon Roy joined the team the same year as Aldridge, another lottery pick. Roy was a young scorer and Zach Randolph was their best player in 2006-07.

In his first season, Aldridge performed like a rookie. He had his moments but was indoctrinated into the Portland way of doing things, meaning defer to Zach. His second year, Randolph was gone, and the Blazers finished at .500 and missed the playoffs but Aldridge was the showstopper. He averaged nearly 18 points and 8 rebounds. He scored in the paint. Over and over and over again. He lacked the physicality of a Randolph but made up for it with his midrange game that lulled opponents to sleep.

Aldridge’s first taste of the playoffs was his third year. He averaged nearly 20 ppg but the Blazers lost in the first round to the Rockets. Aldridge would make the playoffs three straight years, 2009-11, and then six straight years, 2014-19.

Aldridge’s 2010-11 season was special.  It was his first year averaging more than 20 ppg (21.8), and his first year with a 21.5 PER.  ESPN ranked him the 7th best power forward (Real Plus-Minus).

Rip City faithful loved everything about Aldridge’s game. He was quiet and smooth. He didn’t self-promote, was consistent, and efforted while on the court. Fans could invest in Aldridge in a way they couldn’t in Randolph who had a volatile side. Aldridge was chill.

Aldridge made his first All-Star appearance in 2012, the season after the lockout but the Blazers didn’t make the playoffs. There were so many ironies that year. The lockout was triggered by small markets like Portland whose front offices protested player movement. Portland supposedly did it the right way by drafting two lottery picks in 2006. But they weren’t a contender because the rest of the roster was mediocre.  Would they be able to keep Aldridge?

His All-Star nod was a personal achievement, a highlight during a dreary season. Four months later, the Blazers drafted Damian Lillard because new GM Neil Olshey was in love with the Weber State guard. Now the Blazers had two scorers, a big and a small. All they needed to do was fill in the rest of the roster, easier said than done.  The Blazers had good intentions but didn’t know what they didn’t know, particularly LaMarcus Aldridge the man. He wasn’t interested in being number two. He was the face of the franchise. Or, he was gone.

Let’s back up a bit. Aldridge played well with Brandon Roy because he didn’t have to worry about losing a popularity contest. Roy was low-key. He was comfortable being in the Aldridge orbit, taking two steps back if that’s what Aldridge needed. Despite Roy’s clutch gene, he was modest about his abilities which allowed Aldridge to remain the straw that stirred the Portland drink. Brandon Roy was a good scorer but he wasn’t a better player than Aldridge. Talent-wise, he wasn’t Aldridge’s equal.

But Dame was a different kind of player. Oakland raised, he played with hunger and determination and he could make shots. He had swag and charisma. Just by being himself Lillard reminded the faithful of everything Aldridge was not.  In the first game of his career, Lillard had 23 points and 11 assists. In the second game of his career, he had 21 points and 7 assists. In the third game of his career, he had 20 points and 9 assists.

The playoffs of 2014 changed the Blazer organization. In game 1, Aldridge had 46 points and 18 rebounds. In game 2, he had 43 points on 64% shooting. Lillard led the team in scoring in game 3, and the Blazers lost by 5. Aldridge had 29 points in game 4, and the Blazers had a 3-1 series lead. The Rockets won Game 5 and it was back to Portland for game 6 which would be the nail in the coffin for the Houston Rockets. And for Aldridge’s Portland career.

It was entertaining fare, a back and forth drama fest. Harden had 34 in game 6. Dwight Howard had 26 and 11. Aldridge had 30 and 11. But it came down to 0.9 seconds and the Blazers trailing by 2. Slow to fight through a screen, the Rockets Chandler Parsons was out of position. Perfectly, the ball was delivered to Dame without interference and he drained a three for the bye-bye walk-off. Series over. With that one shot Damian Lillard entered the Blazers history books. He single-handedly ended a 14-year losing in the first round of the playoffs. Dame Lillard was hero and God. On YouTube, the highlight is referred to as “Damian Lillard’s Ridiculous Game Winner…”

Lillard can do the ridiculous. Aldridge, the consistent. With that one shot, everyone realized the difference.

In all the post-game euphoria, no one mentioned that the Blazers were in the position they were in because LaMarcus Aldridge was a beast in the first two games of the series. It was all about that crazy, ridiculous Dame being Dame shot. For the first time in his 8-year Blazer career, LaMarcus Aldridge was invisible. And he couldn’t stand it.

There was no reason for LaMarcus to leave Portland except Dame was the star now. In San Antonio, Aldridge was an All-Star. He struggled with Popovich’s system until Pop reimagined it to bring out the best of Aldridge’s game. He was a 3-time All-Star in San Antonio and had back-to-back 23.1 and 21.3  averages, The Spurs reached one Conference Final with Aldridge (2017) and were swept by the Warriors. Remember that series? A dirty play by Zaza Pachulia ended Kawhi’s playoff run and engineered a rules change. The Spurs wouldn’t win a game. It only reinforced the truth. Aldridge couldn’t carry a team on his own. He needed Kawhi. Or Dame. Or whoever. The Spurs haven’t won a playoff series since.

7 All-Star appearances and 7 seasons of 20 ppg. 1 Conference Final appearance. Top-10 MVP voting 3 times. All-NBA 5 times. Aldridge leads his draft class in minutes played, points, rebounds, and VORP (Value Over Replacement).

The question is front and center now that Aldridge is a former player.  Is he a Hall of Famer? Basketball Reference puts his odds at 51%. A lot of it depends on who retires when he retires, who is his competition on that first ballot?

Aldridge retired 49 points away from reaching 20,000 points. He has 8,478 rebounds. His career PER is 20.7.  His career defensive rating is 106. He was in the playoffs more often than he was not. No, he was never Tim Duncan. But he was a dominant power forward in his era. It was not supposed to end like this, with an irregular heartbeat. But Aldridge wasn’t supposed to leave Portland either. Or, San Antonio. He shouldn’t have been traded on draft night.

And so there it is, the career. The beauty and the fragility and all the memories of 15 years. LaMarcus Aldridge was asked to do one thing and one thing only on draft night. Play his game. Give 100%.  Be of history. Some don’t have the talent, the will, or the ego. Some don’t have the luck, don’t get the breaks. Some are lazy and undisciplined. And a few are like LaMarcus Aldridge. They honored their career and gave it all they had. Until it was over. Until goodbye.

The last image of  LaMarcus Aldridge is Andre Drummond brutalizing him in the post. Over and over and over. But that wasn’t LaMarcus Aldridge, future Hall of Famer. That was an aged player who had given it all until there was nothing left. Those players leave because they are forced to leave, not because they want to.

Leaving so abruptly is bittersweet. But the Aldridge 14-year career? That’s the opposite of bitter.