During his final season with the Los Angeles Lakers, Shaquille O’Neal placed a phone call to the coach of one of the nation’s top high school prospects, requesting a dinner with the young man. The subject? Experience.
It weighed heavy in the mind of an 18-year-old LaMarcus Aldridge. To go, and provide? Or stay close to home, to hone his game and prepare for an even higher payout in a year or two. O’Neal, once a top high school recruit himself, told the budding star the value of time spent at university.
“He said if I didn’t go, those were years I couldn’t get back,” Aldridge told the New York Times in 2006.
The 2004 draft had a bevy of talent in the waning years before David Stern would initiate a 19-year-old minimum for NBA Draft eligibility. It featured fellow high schoolers Dwight Howard and Shaun Livingston, as well as collegiate upperclassmen Emeka Okafor, Ben Gordon, and Luke Jackson. There was no guarantee the Seagoville High School product would rank high enough to be a top ten selection — some even had him out of the first round.
Going to college would mean added experience on the basketball court; national exposure, more time to work on his defensive game, and action as a leader at the next level. For Aldridge, skipping straight to the pros would mean missing out on all of those valuable components of what would eventually make him a franchise NBA player.
Aldridge chose to sign his final letter of intent to play basketball at the University of Texas at Austin in April 2004. For the Dallas native, and the team that would eventually call him their star, the Portland Trail Blazers, things could have turned out much differently.
John Paxson, then-General Manager of the Chicago Bulls, was in an enviable position in the spring of 2006. The only playoff team with a lottery pick, the Bulls were poised to add another piece to their championship puzzle with the second selection in that years draft. But for Paxson, the blessing was more complicated than most would know.
First, he had the dubious choice of taking skill and potential over athleticism and on-court results. Tyrus Thomas, a 6′ 9″ forward from LSU, was neck-and-neck in Paxon’s mind against the Texas forward. While Aldridge was taller, more offensively skilled, and lacked a definable post presence, Thomas was wildly athletic, and in their Elite Eight matchup during the NCAA playoffs in March of 2006, had been the victor.
Paxson’s decision was also affected by Jerry Reinsdorf, owner of the Bulls. Infamously scrutinous over salary decisions, Reinsdorf would put pressure on Paxson to be fiscally prudent. The No. 2 overall pick that year would command a $4 million dollar-per-year salary, a mark that would limit Chicago’s financial mobility in free agency.
Portland executives Steve Patterson and Kevin Pritchard were keen on Aldridge, and saw an opportunity with the Bulls. The Blazers offered Viktor Khryapa, a jack-of-all-trades forward, and would select Thomas at No. 4 if the Bulls would agree to select Aldridge at No. 2 for Portland. The move would get Paxson what he wanted — a young, athletic power forward, and a savings of almost a million dollars in rookie salary.
The teams agreed to the trade, and the Blazers came away with what was one of the most productive drafts in team history, nabbing Aldridge, Brandon Roy, and Joel Freeland.
As a rookie with Portland, Aldridge played behind Zach Randolph, the last remaining star of the dreaded ‘Jail Blazers’ era. While Brandon Roy rose to the top of national headlines that year, Aldridge slipped quietly below the fold until Joel Przybilla injured his knee, forcing him to the starting lineup.
His numbers spoke volumes about his usefulness, and immediate comparisons to Tyrus Thomas answered Portland’s questions about the 20-year-old from Dallas. In per-minute production, Aldridge topped Thomas save for a slight edge in rebounding and steals.
When his first season came to a close, it was Roy who took home R.O.Y. honors. But Aldridge was first team All-Rookie, and news that June of Zach Randolph’s trade to New York put him square in the starting lineup for Portland — something he had hoped would pay off a few years earlier as he ate dinner with one of the game’s greatest centers.
For a moment, the future was bright in Portland. Greg Oden was drafted No. 1 overall. Brandon Roy was a legitimate All-Star. Credit came to Aldridge when it was due, a secondary-but-necessary piece of the Blazers puzzle. He was part of the team, but he was not its leader. That’s why, when things came crashing down in Rip City, Aldridge seemed almost lost in the fray.
After four years of winning basketball under Nate McMillan, things in Portland had turned decidedly dark. Greg Oden played just 82 games for the Blazers. Portland lost three straight years in the first round of the playoffs, and Brandon Roy’s knees betrayed him.
These glimpses of seasons past barely give mention of the story no one focused on until they had to. For four years, a star was born while others were too busy concentrating on those burning out to give him the attention he so sorely deserved.
In December of 2011 Portland amnestied Brandon Roy, and three months later they waived Greg Oden. Attention quickly turned to creating a narrative for Aldridge. Where the injury concerns — and playoff miracles — created questions within the organization, they already seemed to have the answer: LaMarcus Aldridge.
From 2007-2011 the Portland Trail Blazers were 193-135. They made the playoffs three seasons in a row. They had an All-Star on their roster, and outside of fan voting, Aldridge was too. It’s a time looked at wistfully with regard to untapped potential. Looking at the list of accomplishments under McMillan, that doesn’t seem just.
It would appear that the Blazers of Roy era reached their pinnacle, however unfortunate and difficult to swallow that may be. They crested, stacked high with youth, standing tall in the West, only to topple onto — and due to — their knees. That’s what made the 2012-2013 NBA season so difficult for LaMarcus Aldridge. He’d seen the top of the mountain, and slowly made his way back down the other side.
Last season in Portland, Aldridge became the de facto leader. With Roy gone, and the team’s second-best player a burgeoning rookie in Damian Lillard, the Blazers needed him. They needed him more than they’d known they’d needed him all those years with Brandon Roy handling the ball late in games. Reluctantly, he said he “forced” himself to be vocal during a year most knew was simply preparation for the next.
This year, Aldridge has been comfortably in charge. In an interview with the Oregonian before the start of the season, Aldridge said:
“…I feel like this group of guys is perfect. Everybody, they respect me and I feel like when I talk, they listen. I think now I’m to the point in my career where I want to win and I don’t care how a guy takes what I say. I don’t care because I want to win. I’m going to do the things that I’m going to do or the things I need to do to win.”
His leadership has no doubt allowed Portland their hot start, and Aldridge is happy after a summer in which rumors around the trading block were numerous, and tiring.
“Basketball has actually been fun this year,” Aldridge told CSNNW’s Chris Haynes.
So let’s call it an attitude adjustment. That’s what Aldridge gave Portland this year, not only with regard to his position within the franchise, but for the city itself. The journey to Aldridge’s certain All-Star voting, and his leadership of this team, hasn’t been an easy one.The original circumstances which found Aldridge on the Blazers were through no small amount of serendipitous coincidences, independent of each other and for one reason or another, correct.
How Portland has come out smelling like a rose, with a 16-3 record to start the 2013-2014 season, is as overlooked as Aldridge himself. Two crucial franchise centerpieces gone, it’s taken many teams years to rebuild themselves after such devastation. The Blazers have fallen, and risen, and done it all once again over a very short time. So short, in fact, that some teams have yet to complete even one part of that cycle over the same period.
At the core stands LaMarcus Nurae Aldridge. For a franchise with significant instability over the last five years, Aldridge hasn’t received enough credit for being one of the most stable stars in the NBA. I won’t discount how meaningful he has been in the hearts of Portland fans, for that would be rude to the city; dismissive. Inconsiderate.
Yet as he stands as the star of a brand new team, one which does not share a single remaining player from the team he was drafted to. It’s a wonder that the narrative surrounding the Blazers has not centered around Aldridge more than it has. Or sooner.
Now, as things have unfolded in Multnomah, the tumultuous ride seems to have settled to a stable climb. An incredible, unpredicted climb at that. It’s Aldridge’s time spent in Portland that guides the Blazers forward, the talent around him pressed into service and into community by his consistency.
He’s no longer a second-tier rookie waiting to score sufficiently in the shadow of another. Now, Aldridge is the one casting the shadow. There’s something about him, something battle-hardened and understanding. It certainly doesn’t hurt that teammates ears are more akin to hearing his soft baritone more often.
Nothing has been easy for Portland, or for LaMarcus Aldridge the last eight years. When he sat down for dinner with Shaquille O’Neal there was no way for the Hall of Fame center to prepare him for the journey he would take as a professional basketball player. If there’s one thing that’s going to lead the Blazers into a new era — the Aldridge era — it’s something he didn’t have until now. Something he needed when O’Neal urged him to go to college and work on his game.
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