Basketball games can be broken down into a collection of related but seemingly unique moments. Basketball seasons can be broken down into a collection of related but seemingly unique games. And professional basketball careers can be broken down into a collection of related but seemingly unique seasons.
One moment doesn’t define a game, just as one game doesn’t define a season, or one season a career.
When LaMarcus Aldridge stepped to the free throw line needing one shot to ice the reigning Northwest Division champion Oklahoma City Thunder, and the Moda Center crowd treated him to wave after wave of a rhythmic "M-V-P!" chant, it was a hallmark moment in a memorable game that is part of a pretty remarkable run.
Hearing the home crowd suggest that Aldridge might be the best player in the league must have been nice (LaMarcus called it “humbling”). But the story of LaMarcus Aldridge neither starts nor ends with full-throated fan appreciation, just as Portland’s amazing opening run has not and will not be defined by LA dropping a season-high 38 points on Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook.
But even though these games, and the moments encompassed within, are not season- or career-defining, the Trail Blazers and their resident All-Star are at an interesting time in their shared history. And if last week’s “M-V-P,” chant can be taken to mean anything specific, it’s that things in Portland and things with Aldridge are fixing to get a whole lot more interesting before it’s all said and done.
LaMarcus Aldridge is kind of a mystery. A bona fide superstar since high school and an NBA millionaire coming up on a decade in the league, Aldridge has been the best player in a Blazer jersey for longer than he hasn’t been. In case you forgot, he broke in with Brandon Roy, and though L.A. was drafted higher and, like Brandon, made the All-Rookie First Team, of those two, Roy was the team’s unquestioned leader, even when Brandon’s knees started to go and the Blazers’ primary option on offense was Aldridge.
At various times in his Blazer tenure, Aldridge has ceded the media spotlight to the likes of Marcus Camby, Andre Miller, Gerald Wallace, Jamal Crawford and, for better or worse, Raymond Felton and Greg Oden. Certainly, LaMarcus always outplayed that laundry list of former Blazers, but he never had the force of personality to make himself the organization’s focal point.
And then, when the smoke cleared on the Nate McMillan era and the stage was set for LaMarcus to be the man, a young fellow from Ogden, Utah, by way of Oakland, made his professional basketball debut. Damian Lillard just recently played his 100th NBA game, and in a little over one season he’s taken the step into the spotlight that LaMarcus Aldridge has spent his entire seven seasons being reluctant to take.
But here we are in early December, and even after a heartbreaking home loss against the Dallas Mavericks, the Blazers have the best record in the Western Conference. LaMarcus Aldridge is probably playing the best basketball of his career, and the list of better power forwards in the NBA than the one we have in Portland is rapidly diminishing.
And that’s where the story of LaMarcus Aldridge and the Blazers starts to get interesting. Aldridge has been recognized and appreciated by front office executives and his fellow pros for years, but his relationship with Blazer fanatics has been frosty. He’s been called "soft" since his rookie year, and faced scrutiny on levels Brandon Roy only faced when his career really hit the skids.
L.A.’s contract is up in 2015, as most of us know, and when he hits the free-agent market, which he might, he’ll be on the top of a lot of lists. Not only will there be many other marquee players available during the free agent summer of 2015, chief among them (probable) future Laker Kevin Love, by then the Blazers will have to re-negotiate a deal with Wesley Matthews while also planning for the end of Damian Lillard’s rookie contract and the possibility of Nicolas Batum’s pending free agency the next summer.
The goal of this season, playoffs or no, should have been to find a way to convince LaMarcus Aldridge to devote whatever remains of his prime years hooping in the Pacific Northwest. What has happened is basically the best first quarter in recent Blazer history. As the Blazers have played their way back to relevance, LaMarcus may have just moved himself out of Portland’s price range.
It’s likely that if the Blazers hot streak continues (and L.A.’s level of play doesn’t decrease) he should have his absolute pick of suitors when the time comes. We could have hoped beyond hope that Portland would be the only team interested in Aldridge, which was unlikely in almost any scenario, and that, by default ,he would return to the Blazers. But there’s almost no chance at this point that LaMarcus won’t get a bundle of incredibly lucrative contract offers.
Speculation on Aldridge’s next move has slowed from the fever pitch it reached heading into the season (there are other things to talk about in Blazer-land these days), but just as he is refusing to say whether or not this Blazer team is headed for 50 wins, he’s keeping it pretty close as to which way he is leaning with regards to his future.
The fact is it may not matter how this miraculous run shakes out, L.A. is going to get his pick of places to play after this season, and there’s a chance his pick might not be Portland—or, at least, that’s the theory of this correspondent.
And so, the advice from this correspondent is this: Keep cheering for LaMarcus Aldridge, keep claiming he’s the best power forward in the league (which he is), and that he should be MVP (he’s not at that level really, but hell, it’s awesome to hear).
There’s nothing wrong with admitting that we all love LaMarcus, and his feathery, high-release, turnaround jump shot. But we should all prepare for the possibility that our love might not be enough to keep him in a Blazer uniform forever. So enjoy him while he’s here.