NBA / Oct 17, 2012 / 12:00 pm

LaMarcus Aldridge, The Ghost of Brandon Roy And Portland’s Still-Vacant Leadership Role

LaMarcus Aldridge

LaMarcus Aldridge (photo. Hance Taplin)

LaMarcus Aldridge is an All-Star, a top-5 forward in the NBA’s Western Conference and the epitome of the player — the perfect melding of character and game — Portland searched for to escape its Jail Blazers era. This season he will be the rock to which the likely Lottery bound Trail Blazers cling. In a city that prides itself on its all-local mantra, he’s managed the near impossible by becoming the rare import with universal popularity. Whether under the Rose Garden’s roof or over a microbrew’s pint, countless prayers will be offered this season by Portland’s faithful to keep him healthy, as he is the only No. 1 option. He is not, however, a natural-born No. 1 player. Aldridge, one of the league’s best surprises over the past season and a half, believes he is the player Portland needs to complement as its keystone instead of searching for the next Brandon Roy. He told Comcast Sports NW:

“I think every team in this league feels that I’m a number one and that’s why they double-team me and they scheme me the way they do it,” Aldridge told CSNNW.com. “If I wasn’t a number one, teams wouldn’t double-team me and teams wouldn’t try to take me out.

“So I don’t think there’s no need to bring in a number one. This organization can do whatever they want to do, but I think it’s definitely good to keep putting really solid pieces around myself, Dame [Lillard], Meyers [Leonard], and J.J. [Hickson]. But I don’t think it’s no need to bring in a number one, but if they do, I’ll play my role.”

It isn’t an issue of statistics, and it’s not for a lack of effort, either. Whether because of temperament or something else entirely, Aldridge lacks what the best leaders use as evidence for why franchises build around them. Leaders aren’t created years into the process when the taking is the easiest, such as the situation Aldridge has faced in the post-Roy time. Now, so that there isn’t an understanding into my respect for his game, he did yeoman’s work in the void to increase his statistics and keep Portland afloat as much as it even was a season ago. Nate McMillan still would be fired without Aldridge’s spike — up to at least 21.7 each of the last two seasons, career highs by more than four points, while shooting a career-best 51 percent last season from the floor — and the give-me-the-ball-late change in attitude, but even worse Portland would be mired in an identity and confidence crisis.

I’m unconvinced, however, that this is Aldridge’s true identity. It’s probably an error to term, as I did, his ascension to leadership as his “taking” of such a role, because I’m more inclined to believe he was pushed into the spotlight like a person with stage fright. Usually in coups — or after a state funeral, as seemed Portland’s mood last December upon hearing the news Roy was retiring, Greg Oden officially became a paperweight and Aldridge had heart surgery  – there is a struggle and confusion about where power rests. The only confusion surrounding last year’s team was why no one made a rush for the throne at all. The locker room was too toxic to ultimately save but it doesn’t much excuse the bizarre turn of events insiders described, like a crash caught on slow-mo, where Aldridge kept his cachet close to the vest instead of cashing it in and taking responsibility. The Oregonian‘s Jason Quick gave this haunting look into the lip service that was Portland’s self-policing last season.

If there were a leader, the players’ discontent with coach Nate McMillan never would have spread to the point where the team flat out quit on him. The whining whispers of Raymond Felton, in particular to Gerald Wallace, would have been stopped. The sulking of Jamal Crawford would have been stifled. And the indifference of Marcus Camby would have been challenged.

Instead, they all raged, with the players eventually reaching consensus that their problems were rooted in McMillan, not themselves. And by accepting that stance, the Blazers soon became a broken group, mostly unlikable, wholly irrelevant.

It’s why I cornered LaMarcus Aldridge shortly after McMillan was fired. I told him that I was disappointed in him. I said that part of the responsibility of being a star is leading. I expected him to tell Felton to zip it when the point guard was making his poisonous locker room rounds. I expected him to tell Crawford to quit worrying about where he was playing and focus on how he was playing. As not only a star but an All-Star, it was his job to get guys focused on the team.

“I have an answer for that,” Aldridge interrupted. “I have an answer. I went to everybody, and I said what you are saying. I went as far to say, ‘Look, we’re not playing for (McMillan), let’s play for each other.’ The thing about when you say how stars or the main guys have to do that — these guys were telling me all the right (expletive). I went to Ray and I’m like, ‘Hey, forget Nate. I know you don’t like him, but let’s play. Do you want to be here for five years? Then show us.’

“And to me, (Felton) was like, ‘I’m with you.’ So the stuff you are saying I should have done, I did. But they are like, ‘Oh yeah, oh yeah,’ then it was like you say: They go in their little corner and they are like, ‘Yeah, whatever.’ I don’t know what they are saying, but they are probably saying that they told me this, but they are going to do something else. I even challenged ‘Mal (Crawford). I was like, ‘I know you aren’t playing (shooting guard), but just play basketball. You love basketball; just play.’”

Aldridge said many on the team blew him off and ignored his message because, as the franchise player, he was getting all the playing time he wanted, all the shots he wanted.

That’s a non-answer answer. For decades, the league’s biggest stars have willed their teams to wins and cohesion despite holding all the cards when it came to playing time and a coach’s leash. Something is missing. How else to explain how a player who went from 18.9 points per game in November 2010 to a whopping 27.8 in February 2011 saw his leadership attempt just a year later treated like stadium security before a field rush? As his star has risen, his ability to inspire hasn’t kept quite as quick a pace. That he has earned the respect of his peers and the NBA on the court is an immutable fact, of course. David Lee can believe that he would have been an All-Star over Aldridge last season had their records been reversed (when it was actually only a difference of five wins) but the big Texan’s honor was not only obvious, but overdue.

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