It wasn't supposed to be this way. LaMarcus Aldridge wasn't meant to be the Trail Blazers' star.
"I was the glue guy when I came in," said Aldridge, who at 28 is in his eighth season now and finds himself as the best player on the second-best team in the Western Conference.
The Blazers have played with a sense of urgent composure that is unusual for such an inexperienced team. Those qualities come from Aldridge, a two-time All-Star power forward who is averaging 22.6 points and 9.2 rebounds. He is in a hurry to win now because he knows -- better than any star of his relatively young age -- that the future is unreliable.
Aldridge's perspective is the parting gift left to him by former teammates Brandon Roy and Greg Oden. When Oden came to Portland as the No. 1 pick of the 2007 draft, one season after Roy had emerged as the franchise leader and Rookie of the Year, there was no intuition that the future of the Blazers hinged on Aldridge.
"They definitely didn't think that I'd be their go-to guy one day," he said of the Blazers. "I think they felt that I was a fit-in guy, pick-and-pop, that I needed guys to create a shot for me. I was supposed to fit in with Greg and Brandon and Andre Miller.''
Miller arrived in 2009 in the middle of the Blazers' three-year playoff run.
"They were even shopping me at one point," Aldridge said. "So I went from that, to this. That is crazy.''
He has gone from being dispensable to indispensable within these last few unpredictable years.
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"It was rumors," Aldridge said of the trade talk, "but my agent was hearing the same thing too. They didn't pull any triggers, of course, but it definitely hurt when I heard about them shopping me -- it was for an older guy that needed less of a role, didn't want as much as I wanted. Because I was still young, I wanted more. Maybe they wanted a guy that could just fit in and pass and not want more.''
Aldridge finds all kinds of motivation whenever he looks back over his shoulder. The urgency of his play is influenced by his memories of Oden, who was supposed to be the NBA's next dominant big man before knee injuries limited him to 82 games over five years with Portland. Roy had been an All-Star for three straight years before chronic knee issues overwhelmed him at 26.
"He felt like he could do it, and his body wouldn't let him do it," Aldridge said of Roy. "He couldn't accept it, actually. He would tell me he wanted to play more. He would do this and that out there, he wanted more minutes, but he just couldn't do it.
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"It was an emotional roller coaster because he had that one game where he played 30 minutes, he felt great, and that's who he is. And then he tried to do it again and he just can't move. It was just up and down. That took a toll on him."
It's one thing to hear sad stories of stars whose careers end or get derailed prematurely, but Aldridge saw it happen. Twice. He is a star today because of the vacuum of floor leadership created by the injuries to Roy and Oden. Their absences enabled him to show that he could be more than a complementary player. Aldridge became the rare healthy star in his mid-20s who realized that the end of his career would arrive faster than he could imagine. He remembered how he used to believe he was invincible.
"I don't think that no more," he said. "I've seen some pretty tragic things happen in Portland. Guys think they have forever to play this game, their health is guaranteed, but I've seen guys go from being a top-two player, 2-guard-wise, to can't even practice.''
The 9-2 Blazers reached No. 2 in the West this week after ripping off a seven-game winning streak that included five victories on the road. The hot start has showcased Aldridge, which means there promises to be much speculation about his future in Portland as he approaches free agency in 2015, but Aldridge was sounding as if he wanted to build on his investment with the Blazers.
"A lot of guys in my position come into the league as go-to-guys," he said. "I had to really earn my way, and I had to really show them that I am that. Now that the whole league sees me in that light, I'm not so quick to just run. I feel like I've grown here with this team, and I've made this team better."
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Aldridge is receiving plenty of support from his teammates. Point guard Damian Lillard, last season's Rookie of the Year, is scoring 20 points per game and shooting 40 percent from three-point range. Shooting guard Wes Matthews is among the league leaders in three-point percentage (52.6) while averaging 16 points. Small forward Nicolas Batum is chipping in 13.5 points, 6.4 rebounds and 4.9 assists. Guard Mo Williams, power forward Thomas Robinson and swingman Dorell Wright have contributed after general manager Neil Olshey acquired them to boost the bench. Aldridge has appreciated sharing the front line with another newcomer, 7-foot center Robin Lopez, who came to Portland from New Orleans in a three-team trade.
"I've never played with a center," Aldridge said. "I played with Greg on and off; it was great. I played with [Marcus] Camby, who blocks shots and rebounds, but he doesn't play the paint like Rob. So this is really my first time having a consistent dose of big men next to me. I like it.''
Aldridge will potentially face a provocative decision after next season. He can leave as a free agent, or he can stay knowing that the Blazers can have cap space, deep pockets from the NBA's richest owner, Paul Allen, a coach in Terry Stotts who assisted the Mavericks' to their 2011 championship, and a star point guard in Lillard.
"There's a lot to like right now, a lot of positives that we can build off of," Aldridge said. "Coach is definitely growing with us. The team's getting better every game. Paul wants to win, so he's going to do what he needs to do to win. You have Neil, who can spot talent, who's willing to make moves. We're good.''
Much can change over the next two years. When he thinks of Oden and Roy, Aldridge is reminded to not think too far ahead.
"I want to get back to the playoffs and I want to make that next step and get to the second round or try to go further," he said. "I think this team can do it.''