No post players took bigger leaps this year than LaMarcus Aldridge and Zach Randolph. For LA, it was about taking control of a team that desperately needed leadership once Greg Oden and Brandon Roy were both lost to injuries. For Z-Bo, it was about changing a perception that he was selfish, a guy who never passed once the ball came down to him.
While only one of them is still playing, both had the best seasons of their careers. Now, the next step is making the leap to perennial All-Stars. Which power forward is better? That’s a tough question.
We argue. You decide.
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There’s a notion that the time to judge a draft class is after three to four years, in which case, we’d still would have been wrong about LaMarcus Aldridge. In his fifth season, Aldridge has taken the considerable potential he came with to Portland as the No. 2 pick and broken through with his best season. First, the vitals: 21.8 points, 8.8 boards, both career bests for the 6-11 forward with superior speed for a player his size. We all knew Aldridge could play. But now, the hard-to-pin-down part about Aldridge. This season has answered the other questions about Aldridge, answers that tip the balance toward the Texan versus Memphis’ Zach Randolph.
Aldridge is unquestionably tougher mentally and physically this season after it was asked — demanded? — that he take over Portland’s leadership role after Brandon Roy’s knee injuries at midseason.
After Roy went down in December, Aldridge answered the bell, averaging 23.8 points and 9.2 rebounds in the next four months, crossing a line between effort and hate-to-lose in that span, something I’m not sure Randolph had ever done in Portland. Randolph came into the league with unquestioned scoring touch, but “leader” isn’t something you expect to pop up in a game of Z-Bo word association. And it’s Aldridge’s continued production and potential that makes this an easy call over Randolph. Four years younger, Aldridge has flourished playing the third-most minutes per game (39.6) in the league with a newfound confidence that the Blazers are his team. Even after the best basketball of his career this year, it could still be too early to judge his ceiling.
Few players his age had such a burden this year — carrying a team for months with a revolving cast of teammates with varying health — and played so consistently with such narrow room for error. It started immediately, putting up 35 on Dallas in December the game before Roy left for surgery. It continued into the big stretch games of spring, where put up 42 on Chicago, after scoring 40 just six days earlier. He scored more than 30 points 11 times this year, after doing it just twice in 2009-10. While still too prone to take the 15-to-18-foot jumper rather than barrel inside the key, Aldridge does get to the free-throw line more often, and is the reason why Portland led the league in alley-oops. (Everyone knows he’ll spin hoop-side when a defender plays high — so why can’t they stop it?)
Aldridge seemed fine playing in Roy’s shadow, if quietly chafing at the number-two status in the past. This year, he’s earned the title of “Big Man On Court” in Portland. And maybe there’s a hard-to-quantify aspect here, that he wants to dominate. Snubbed as a West All-Star in February, Aldridge was genuinely bothered before coming out with the PC responses. It’s almost like he had heard how people had judged his career to that point, and wanted to show them they’re all wrong.