1. LaMarcus Aldridge's first great season began when Brandon Roy's last great one ended. Roy, drafted sixth overall the same year Portland traded Tyrus Thomas to the Bulls for the privilege of drafting Aldridge second, was a three-time All-Star and a local—well, Seattle, but the whole Pacific Northwest is local, even when we act like it's not—product who arrived in Portland fully formed, walking upright and eating solid food and having full conversations and drilling clutch shots. But his knees were plaster bridges and 2010-11 was when they finally crumbled into the river.
The team looked like it would fall apart without Roy, but the offense shifted towards Aldridge, and he delivered 21 points and eight rebounds a game, floating the team to 48 wins and the sixth seed in the West. It was all very exciting, especially after the Blazers traded for maniacal flex-forward Gerald Wallace. Wallace whipped around the court, boarded and defended like a maniac, and generally played like someone totally unconcerned with maintaining a functioning body, let alone a long athletic career. He was beloved for it.
Aldridge, for his part, missed the All-Star Game that year. He was not selected by fans or coaches, and Commissioner Stern chose Kevin Love to replace an injured Yao Ming.
The Blazers lost to the eventual champion Mavericks in the first round: you probably remember Brandon Roy singlehandedly bringing the team back from the brink in the fourth quarter of a closeout game in that series. Aldridge's thunder was made to be stolen.
2. LaMarcus is leaving now. Fans are very sad, angry, and confused, although that is generally how fans are. People that care about the Trail Blazers get attached to nearly everyone who comes through, and LaMarcus was here for eight years; he's the team's second leading scorer all time, and ranks third in minutes played, fourth in games played, and first in rebounding. "He said he wanted to be The Best Blazer Ever," they say, tears flowing from their hearts.
This is not just a joke. The team is a fixture of everyday life in PDX Metro, but also a signal light of the past, a thing that was here before soaring prices in San Francisco and New York sent creative-class types to the city and shoved working-class types out of town. It hasn't always been Portlandia, L-Train West, or whatever. This used to be a place where loggers lived, and the Blazers are that city's NBA team.
In Aldridge's time with team, the Blazers were prosperous but not terribly spectacular. When he was drafted, they were still nursing a Jail-Blazer hangover, and the community was alienated from the team, fairly and unfairly. Roy revitalized the Blazers in the community, but Aldridge maintained that progress, and advanced it. He did this by being scrupulously, unrelentingly boring.
3. The ongoing efficiency revolution and Three-Point Era is washing out entire types of players, and some are mourned more than others. The deadeye midrange guard; the clever, post-up big man; the hustlin' tough guy power forward. "They just don't make players like that anymore," people will say sadly, although it's more accurate to say that no one has any use for them. But oversized jump-shooting forwards that don't bomb from three? They are nobody's heroes. They exist to be complained about, the older people asking "Why doesn't he get in the post or take it to the hole," the younger fans facepalming at the persistent refusal to take one measly step back and take a three-pointer instead. This is what LaMarcus Aldridge does, and it's not much more aesthetically pleasing than it sounds.
Aldridge also may well might be the most boring interview pro sports, although that of course doesn't tell us anything about what he's really like. Aldridge is guarded and private—lord only knows why the Lakers tried to sell him on bright lights and big exposure—and understated even amongst his teammates. When the team fell apart in '11-12, Aldridge wasn't equipped to lead the team out of the morass on his own. Everyone got traded, including fan favorite Gerald Wallace, in a deal that brought back the pick Portland used on Damian Lillard.
4. All this heat, all that crazy noise: I am loathe to wax on the dynamics of a specific fanbase, but, Christ, the Rose Garden can be like a jet engine during some of the most meaningless moments in meaningless games. That manic energy, the fervid BlazersEdge comments, were all funneling at a dude whose game and personality is so chilly and risk-averse.
Unsurprisingly, the loyalties of the fanbase swung to Damian Lillard the second he arrived. Lillard wears 0, which might seem like a Gilbert Arenas tribute but is actually an invocation of the letter O. That's O for Oakland, where he grew up (another working class city changed by "creative class" migrants), and O for Ogden, Utah, where he went to college, and O for Oregon, where he plays professional basketball. Lillard knew that people in Portland would devour this sort of commitment to A Presence In A Place. He plays to reporters, is a spectacular quote, and while he might not succeed at everything he does—watch Lillard defend a pick and roll sometime, or don't—he plays with panache and swaggering performance, always. There are echoes of the old Shaq/Penny dynamic in Orlando, here. Shaq left, too.
5. (Andre) Miller-Matthews-Batum-(Gerald) Wallace-Aldridge was the best offensive lineup in the NBA over a 300-Minute threshold in 2010-2011. Miller, Batum, and Wallace were dynamic playmakers, Matthews was finding his stroke, Andre Miller could throw a successful lob to a particularly mobile watermelon. They clocked 1.22 Points Per Possession. This is very high!
You will notice that Aldridge plays center in this very productive lineup. He is a born small-ball center, a skilled enough shooter to pull opposing big men away from the basket, big enough to make a go at protecting the rim, strong enough to defend the post as needed.
6. So, WHY DIDN'T HE PLAY CENTER!? My lord, it was maddening. If someone called Aldridge on it he would peddle excuses about it being tiring, or uncomfortable, or whatever, which it probably was! It was also a good idea that worked, and the alternate solutions were mostly a nightmare.
In Lillard's first season, '12-13, the Blazers relied on J.J. Hickson to play center. Hickson is not taller than Aldridge and a miserable defender; he was washing out of the league, but was willing to do a shitty job at something Aldridge wouldn't even try. Hickson was replaced the next season by Robin Lopez, who became the backbone of the team's defense. But the weirdness of Aldridge NEVER playing center remained. His strident refusal was doubly strange in contrast with his cool social exterior and conservative approach to the game; he carries himself like the least strident person in the world. The team rolled with it, at the expense of spacing and strategic flexibility. The same went for the passive enabling of Aldridge's infuriating love for 22-footers.
Aldridge was a man at war with modern basketball. He devoured possessions—he had a whopping 30 percent usage rate last year—and put up a respectable .532 True Shooting percentage; even in the context of NBA players, this is a monumental accomplishment. Aldridge was the focal point on some excellent offensive teams. But if he just did some things a little differently, he would have been a better player, playing for a better team. In signing with the Spurs, he has definitely figured out the second part, and probably made the first a lot less urgent.
7. This is too negative. I will recount Aldridge's finest moment as a Blazer, when his battle against modernity basically won the Blazers an entire playoff series. In the 2013-14 playoffs, the Blazers were the submissive seed in a four/five matchup against the Houston Rockets, the bellwethers of the NBA's pure analytical style. They are an entire team that shoots almost exclusively from behind the three point line, at the rim, or at the free throw line. They are an expression of everything Aldridge rejects.
Their strategy for guarding Aldridge was to let him shoot from midrange and guard him with a smaller defender who could shoot. Who cares? They're worth two points! Let him go in the post, it's not efficient! Aldridge did everything the Rockets want their opponents to do.
And Aldridge absolutely lit the Rockets up in the first two games of the series, 46 points in Game 1, 43 in Game 2. The Blazers came home with a 2-0 advantage, and Aldridge delivered a massive head start to a team that was great at home and mediocre on the road.
Of course, all anyone remembers is this:
Aldridge's thunder was made to be stolen.