BOSTON - LaMarcus Aldridge did something notable on Friday night in the Blazers' otherwise forgettable 98-76 loss to the Celtics. Aldridge scored 23 points and was the lone bright spot in yet another anemic Portland performance, but what was noteworthy was that six of his eight made baskets came from inside the paint.
It was only two years ago that Aldridge established himself as one of the best inside-out threats in the league. Too big to handle in the post, too skilled to leave alone on the perimeter, Aldridge combined the best of both and emerged in his fifth season as a legitimate All-Star and the cornerstone of a post-Brandon Roy world.
That seems so very long ago now. He's still posting superficially solid numbers, but his shooting percentage has tanked and he's become almost exclusively a jump shooting big man in Terry Stotts' system. He's taking about 10 attempts per game from 16-23 feet, per Hoopdata, almost twice as many as players like Rip Hamilton and Monta Ellis, to say nothing of his fellow large humans.
"I don't read papers and I don't worry about where my shots are coming from," Aldridge said. "If I'm getting jump shots, I'm going to take jump shots. If I'm getting a low post game, I'm going to take that. I don't really care about where people say my shots are coming from. All I'm trying to do is put my team in a position to win and tonight I worked out of the post more and that was working for us, so why not? They took pick and rolls out of the game so I worked down low. I'm not really worried about any of that talk."
A lot of other people are, however. Aldridge's perimeter-oriented game has been a major issue in Portland. As the Blazers sink back into the lower depths of mediocrity after a solid start, it's clear that even with rookie sensation Damian Lillard on board, they are years away from contending.
Their depth is non-existent and it may be time to give their cadre of young players a chance to prove themselves. Aldridge's regression has fueled talk that he's not really a No. 1 option, considering he's the highest-paid player on a team with 30-win potential, it's not a long jump to trade speculation that at the moment is just that: speculation.
Aldridge is in the third year of a five-year contract, and new GM Neil Olshey assured him in a preseason meeting that he wouldn't deal him for the next two years while he tries to assemble more pieces around a core that presumably includes Lillard and Nicolas Batum. The Blazers owe a top-12 protected to Charlotte, but they will have money to spend in the offseason.
Rebuilding isn't a straight line in the NBA. It's filled with twists and turns and it's fair to ask if giving up on a talented -- and still young -- big man is in anyone's best interests, starting with their rookie point guard. Lillard has been a revelation. He's a pick-and-roll maestro, but as talented as he is, the pick and roll is only as good as the players involved and Lillard can't do it by himself.
"They run pick and rolls with another guy named Aldridge who's really good," Celtics coach Doc Rivers said. "The fear of a pick and roll is when two good players come together. That makes it really hard to guard. They do it a lot, and they should."
The Celtics turned Lillard into a non-factor on Friday by aggressively trapping the pick and roll. If his development is the most important consideration this season, then it would be wise to continue pairing him with a strong secondary option. If that's ultimately Aldridge's lot in life, then so be it. There are worse things than an automatic 18-and-8 from your second-best player. The Blazers have every right to expect more, but decisions made out of frustration rarely end well.
There's another factor here. The trade market is still taking shape, but there could be a glut of talented bigs available. Al Jefferson and Josh Smith are in the final years of their contracts, Marcin Gortat has made noises about wanting out of Phoenix and that's before we get to the endless Pau Gasol rumors. Trading Aldridge now when his value is low and the market is full is not a strong play for a franchise that needs to get the maximum value out of every asset it has if it wants to emerge from the mire.
DOC BACKS POP
It shouldn't come as a surprise that Doc Rivers would back Gregg Popovich. The Celtics' coach has long cited Pop as an influence, and if the veteran Spurs have an East Coast doppelganger, it's Doc's Celtics. He has periodically rested his veteran core late in the season and has had no qualms about sitting everyone down when the schedule works against him.
He rested all of his stars except for Paul Pierce in a late-season matchup with the Heat last April. Heat coach Erik Spoelstra countered by sitting LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, resulting in a horrific 78-66 contest, notable for Sasha Pavlovic scoring 16 of the 22 points he scored in the entire season.
"I don't like it," Rivers said of the $250,000 fine levied against the Spurs. "I just don't like it. I do get the other side of it, but it's a tough one. You've got to coach your team to win in the long run. You've got to do whatever you need to do. If that's sitting players, that's sitting players."
Rivers held Kevin Garnett and Pierce back in New Jersey last season while the rest of the team went to Charlotte for a third game in three nights. Rivers didn't send them home on a discount airline, by the way. He just left them at their luxury hotel, and he said that the fine wouldn't stop him from doing the same thing.
"We'll do it when we want and we should be able to do it," Rivers said. "It can be early in the season, end of the season. Now if we give a guy off because he has a family thing ... it's just so many things here. Hopefully we all figure it out."
He added, "I think it was an action and a reaction personally and I think the reaction was probably overdone (Thursday) and then all of a sudden you have to have an action."
Not all coaches would feel empowered to speak so forcefully on the issue, but then not all coaches have long-term security like Rivers. Besides defending his friend and colleague, Rivers also raised an interesting point: What's a coach's obligation?
"Whatever is going to help your team win, a coach is going to do," Rivers said. "If you don't and it hurts your team then you're the one that won't be around. You have to do whatever is best for your team."
It was the last night of a six-game road trip and the Spurs were playing their fourth game in five nights and their second back-to-back of the week. That kind of a schedule is as much a disservice to the fans as resting players. There's a valid argument to be made that Popovich was absolutely acting in the best interest of his team by going all out against Orlando on Wednesday and saving his players for a divisional matchup against Memphis. A win is a win, whether it comes against the Magic or the Heat.
Popovich could have picked any of those games to rest one or more of his players but he chose the one that was on national television against the defending champs. He knew what he was doing and the league has an obvious interest in protecting its financial interests. But if this was about national television, say it was about national television.
A final point: It's hard to make the case that games in April mean less than those in November. The tickets still cost the same, after all. The only precedent here is that the league is willing to make up its rules as it goes along.
THE TAO OF STACK
So many people assumed that when Jerry Stackhouse signed on for an 18th tour of NBA duty, he would be a well-paid assistant coach with a uniform. Everyone that is, but the 38-year-old vet.
"Everybody was talking for me," Stackhouse said after the Nets dispatched the Celtics earlier in the week. "I did everything. When we were out on the track in September, I was out on the track in September preparing and not putting myself behind anybody."
Stackhouse has enjoyed an unlikely renaissance with the Nets and has become an integral part of one of the oddest -- and most successful -- reserve units in the league. The key to his revival has been the corner three, an unlikely twist for a player who's a career 31 percent shooter from behind the arc. Small sample size or not, Stack is is coming off huge performances against the Knicks and Celtics, in which he scored 31 points and sank 9-of-11 three-pointers.
"Avery (Johnson) used to always say when I was back in Dallas that I was 66 percent," Stackhouse said. "I didn't know what he was talking about, but he had the stats. He said I was 66 percent from the corners. I don't know what it is right now but I'm sure it's somewhere around that number."
As it turns out, he was exactly at that number. Following the Celtics game, Stackhouse had attempted 21 corner threes and made 14 of them. This may be a surprise to everyone else, but not to the man himself.
"The last couple of years I probably could have done this," he said. "I was in a playoff series against (Boston) last year and didn't even get in a game. Who was the smart guy that decided that? It is what it is. I'm happy about where I'm at right now and the role I have with the team, the player-coach situation and kind of being an extension of Avery and the coaching staff in the locker room. I know my days that are less than what I have in front of me. I'm just trying to make the most of it."
As enjoyable as Stackhouse's evolution has been, it's also a reminder that time is fleeting in this league and the prime years are ones you can never get back.