It was just about 15 months ago today when Portland Trail Blazers forward LaMarcus Aldridge was doomed to basketball anonymity. In many ways, this is the worst kind of fate. For three years, Aldridge put up the same decent, but unremarkable numbers. He hadn't broken out, nor had he become a spectacular draft failure that people would talk about for years. He was essentially Keith Van Horn, who had a very solid 10-year career but still left a lingering feeling of disappointment everywhere he went because he was merely "pretty good" as a No. 2 overall pick.
Once a player puts together that large of a sample of merely decent play, he begins to be fairly classified merely as a decent player. You can't blame anyone who covers this game for jumping to that conclusion about Aldridge's career in the late months of 2010. That's what makes his rise to the best player on one of the league's most surprising teams all the more improbable. Very few people could really see this coming.
It's been so jarring that there's still a sizable group that can't accept the Trail Blazers' forward as one of the league's superstars. At this point, though, it's becoming harder to ignore the reality. Not only is Aldridge a superstar, he's the kind of superstar that one really has to examine closely to appreciate.
His brilliance can't be measured in his traditional statistics. It's true that Aldridge averages fewer rebounds per game than Chuck Hayes. It's true that he shoots fewer free throws than Tyler Hansbrough. It's also true that he logs a lot of minutes, giving him more opportunities to add to his counting stats.
But as the old cliché (sort of) goes, Aldridge's brilliance can't be measured solely by the box score. To understand why Aldridge is a superstar in the truest sense of the word, we have to consider instead a pair of buzzwords that are often casually used but are absolutely appropriate in this case: versatility and dependability.
"Versatility" is one of those things that many players seem to provide, but very few actually do. A player tends to be only as good as his best skill. The ones asked to do multiple things tend to never play to their strengths and confound coaches by doing the wrong thing at the wrong time. The perfect example is a player like Atlanta's Josh Smith, who is capable of doing pretty much anything on the court, but too often settles for jumpers and takes possessions off. That's the kind of versatility that can be a detriment to your team.
By contrast, Aldridge provides versatility that makes everything easier. On offense, very few players can post-up, run pick and roll and shoot from the perimeter. Aldridge can do all of those things. According to Synergy Sports, Aldridge is the 25th-most efficient post-up player in the league and the fourth-most efficient player in pick and roll situations. Throw in the fact that he shoots 50 percent from 16-23 feet -- traditionally the least efficient area on the floor -- and he's capable of doing pretty much anything offensively. Defensively, Aldridge is capable of locking down the league's best power forwards, can switch to cover centers in small lineups and is one of the few big men that won't make a coach cringe when he's forced to switch and defend a guard.
All that versatility is great from an individual standpoint, but its real value is in how it helps his team. Because of Aldridge's ability to shoot from deep, the Blazers can get away with starting two non-shooters in Gerald Wallace and Marcus Camby alongside him in the frontcourt. On another team, their lack of shooting range would be exposed. On this team, their other contributions shine. Aldridge's ability to play center at an elite level allows Nate McMillan to play so many different lineup combinations. He can go small in the backcourt with offensive threats Raymond Felton and Jamal Crawford and not worry about them being exposed defensively. He can play Wallace and Nicolas Batum together to shut down teams with a top wing player just as easily as he can play Aldridge with either Camby or Kurt Thomas to shut down teams with a top post player. It's no accident that Aldridge was fourth in the league in adjusted plus/minus last year, behind only Chris Paul, Steve Nash and Dwight Howard. His versatility is that valuable to his team.
Aldridge also almost never has a bad game. Sure, he has rough shooting nights like anyone in this league, but because he touches the game in so many different ways, he's always making an impact. In Aldridge's last 52 games, dating back to last season and including the playoffs, he has scored in single digits one time and had a plus/minus below -10 just eight times. The same kind of dependability he's provided to his family, as wonderfully profiled by Chris Mannix of Sports Illustrated last year, is the kind of dependability he brings to his team every night.
All this begs the question: why did it take so long? There are so many theories, all of which have lots of validity. He bulked up during the summer of 2010, giving him enough strength to stop settling for fadeaways. He is a big man, and big men often take time to come into their own. But the theory I like the best can be found by a close reading of Mannix's profile, specifically this passage about his reaction to his mother having breast cancer:
The next day she called LaMarcus and his older brother, LaVontae, over to her house. She took them into the living room and told them everything. She cried. LaVontae cried. LaMarcus didn't flinch. He walked over to his mother, draped a long arm around her shoulder and told her everything was going to be all right. Later he pulled LaVontae aside and told him it was their responsibility to keep her spirits up. If we're just feeling sorry for her, LaMarcus said, she might not fight as hard. "He was probably as hurt and scared as everybody else," recalls LaVontae. "But he wouldn't show it. He's a rock."
Comparing the state of a sports franchise to the health of a family member may seem irresponsible, but I think it applies here. At the beginning of the 2010-11 season, the Portland Trail Blazers were in a state of crisis. Their former superstar, Brandon Roy, was dealing with debilitating knee injuries that made him a shell of his former self. Their superstar of the future, Greg Oden, was in the midst of missing yet another full season with his own knee troubles. With nowhere else to turn, Portland called on Aldridge, the man expected to be the third banana in a trinity of youngsters that would take the world by storm. Just like he did with his mother (who made a full recovery), he stepped up when he was needed most, doing exactly what his team needed him to do to raise their spirits.
That's the thing about dependability. You only see it when you need it most. The Blazers needed Aldridge to realize his promise more than ever given the disarray surrounding the rest of the franchise. Aldridge filled the void and raised his game, and now, the Blazers are one of the best teams in the West.
If that doesn't define a superstar, I'm not sure what does.
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