Portland ended the 2012-2013 NBA season with two storylines that were painful to fans in the Rose City. The Trail Blazers lost 13 straight games to end the year and LaMarcus Aldridge was openly asking for a real center to play beside, else he might want to leave when his contract was up.
Blazers General Manager Neil Olshey did exactly that, turning Jeff Withey, cash and a second-round draft pick into a brand new starting center in Robin Lopez. The result is that Portland hasn't lost more than two games in a row this season and Lopez has allowed Aldridge the ability to reach his full potential as a franchise player.
Portland jumped out to a red-hot start to the season, surprising many projections that they'd be battling for the eighth spot in the Western Conference playoff picture. Portland rattled off an 11-game winning streak in the month of November and is battling for first place in the West with the Thunder, Spurs and Clippers.
Aldridge has been a huge part of their success, producing career highs in per36 production for points, rebounds and assists. The former second-fiddle to Brandon Roy has taken control of his team, and Damian Lillard appears to be his the second-in-command to a new era in Portland.
Aldridge's ascension has led to many questions about whether he is the best power forward in the game and a dark horse MVP candidate. Portland certainly relies on him late in games, his ever-expanding selection of moves from the elbow and left baseline fueling his offensive game to new levels never before seen on the east side of Portland.
Already a potent offensive player, Aldridge changed his game this year. His baseline turnaround was already one of the deadliest signature shots in the NBA, but we've seen him push toward the middle of the lane with increasing frequency this season. He's also put a new one-dribble elbow step-back jumper that takes defenders by surprise and is yet another impossible-to-defend move.
Lopez's presence has certainly helped. Aldridge specifically asked Olshey for a true center after suffering through a season of J.J. Hickson playing out of position. It turns out that Aldridge was right, and that Lopez was the perfect match. Despite some questions about his ability, Lopez's 2012-2013 campaign in New Orleans proved he was ready for a full-time gig as a team's blue-collar five, and Olshey got him for pennies on the dollar.
Lopez doesn't fill the stat sheet with blocks or eye-popping rebounding numbers, but he does everything Aldridge needs in order to play his own game at full-strength. Now, with Aldridge guarding players his own size and with Lopez boxing out anyone and everyone on both ends of the court, Aldridge can conserve his energy for the offensive end of the floor and roam as a help defender
There have been reasons to criticize Aldridge, however small. His field goal attempts have skyrocketed to 21 per-game and his usage rate, which measures the percentage of possessions a player ends via a shot attempt, drawn foul or turnover, is at an all-time high of 29.3 percent. He could certainly shoot one or two fewer shots a game, but his effect has been positive for the Trail Blazers. In addition to being a top player in catch-and-shoot field goal percentage, according to SportVU data, he leads the team in PER, win shares and net rating. Aldridge's presence in the post draws the attention of opposing defenses off the arc, helping the Blazers bomb away from deep.
Aldridge has not been immune to struggles as teams have started to scout the potent Trail Blazers offense. However, there's no doubt that he remains one of the best forwards in the league and a legitimate franchise player as the Blazers move forward.