It’s been a while since a team in the Pacific Northwest has had a surefire go-to-guy to call their own. While one team has long bounced to the Great Plains, the other has already gone through two potential superstars – both now likely lost to injury. Which is why when LaMarcus Aldridge decided to have his breakout moment in his fifth NBA season, it was beyond a breath of fresh air.
Welcome to the spotlight. To the mainstream, the big show and crowds that will glorify you for your triumphs as soon as they’ll fault you for your mistakes. Welcome, LaMarcus Aldridge, to being The Guy for a franchise that has put its faith in not one, but two others of the same age before you. Welcome now because after having mixed success and confidence issues in each of your first four seasons, you have arrived as an NBA force to be both feared and revered. Your elevator has arrived – and you’re finally welcomed to ride that puppy straight to the top.
“I think LaMarcus is – I don’t want to say firmly entrenched – but he is slowly, but surely, becoming the face of this franchise,” says the Oregonian’s Jason Quick, who has worked as the Blazers’ beat writer for nearly a decade. “I think people have kind of turned the page on Greg Oden, and stopped hoping so much for him, and then I think people have a sense of the reality of Brandon Roy’s situation with his knees.”
It’s no secret, but Portland hasn’t exactly been Johnny-on-the-spot when it comes to producing a healthy starting core. In 2006, when the Blazers acquired the No. 2 overall pick on Draft Night in a trade with the Chicago Bulls, they also put their stock into another promising Lottery selection – Brandon Roy. Portland had hoped that Aldridge and the current three-time All-Star Roy would become the high-scoring duo to lead them for the next 10 years. Due to Roy’s now severe knee problems, however, that looks highly impossible. And the team’s semi-latest ace in the hole, Greg Oden, (remember, the No. 1 pick in 2007) has only gotten into 82 total games during his first four years in the League. Combine that with a slew of other team injuries, missed free agent swings and a rotating carousel at GM, and the Trail Blazers haven’t been exactly stable in a while. Still, and no matter the unfortunate circumstances, the Blazers keep finding ways to win – and Aldridge’s emergence is the major reason why.
“It was great (watching Aldridge’s breakout season), but LaMarcus always had that kind of game,” says Roy about his teammate of five years. “The biggest key to making that next step was his confidence – stepping out there to start taking big shots. To start wanting big shots in big moments.”
“I think when Brandon was the main guy (Batman), and I was Robin, I would kind of get up and down, and kind of get hesitant,” says Aldridge. “But when I became the main guy, every night I had to stay confident no matter what. If I had an off night, I just put it behind me and moved forward because I knew that if I didn’t bring my ‘A’ game – mentally and physically – then we didn’t have a chance. So, I think I just learned that you have to turn the page quickly, and that’s what most main guys do.”
“Most main guys.” A term synonymous with the University of Texas product throughout his hoops career and one that, until recently, was thought to be escaping Aldridge’s grasp. Labeled with the tag of being too soft to bang with opposing frontlines, L.A. would fall easily into the trap of settling for jumpers. Portland desperately craved the same kid that built his reputation in both high school and college with ferocious post play and a smooth complementing shooting stroke. That hesitancy to battle down low and fondness for floating around the perimeter is what seemed to frustrate fans the most. As Quick recalls, it got to a point where Blazer Nation would refer to him as “LaMarsha.” This now, of course, is ridiculous. Aldridge has erased any past concerns of softness and replaced it with consistent crunch time buckets and highlight reel dunks. And in the process, witnessed that same rabidly passionate fan base back him up.
“I think (the fans) definitely embraced me and what I did last season,” says Aldridge. “I felt that they showed me a lot of respect and a lot of love from stepping up and doing the things that I did. That was definitely fun for me. The city’s definitely made it easier for me to be confident in my skills and to just go out and play.”