See how difficult it is to become a franchise star? LaMarcus Aldridge is on the verge of meeting that high standard, with more work still to do. In the closing seconds of the Trail Blazers' game against the Thunder on Monday he rode Kevin Durant's right shoulder and blocked his game-tying drive before the ball touched the glass.
For a variety of reasons, both within and beyond his reach, 6-foot-11 Aldridge isn't an elite player yet. His block was misjudged by an official 30 feet from the basket. Goaltending was called on behalf of the visiting Thunder, and instead of celebrating a win in which he would score 39 points, Aldridge found himself discussing a 111-107 overtime loss to the league's winningest team. (The NBA on Tuesday said that the
"We definitely played well enough to win this game," Aldridge told reporters. "We had some tough calls and then we had some bad bounces late in the game. We have to learn from it."
Setting aside the result, this game showed why Aldridge will be named to his debut All-Star team Thursday. Blazers point guard Raymond Felton was sidelined, and yet Aldridge carried the Blazers on 14-of-28 shooting. The rest of his teammates were 27-of-69 for 39.1 percent from the field, and they were unable to finish possessions around Aldridge while their six-point lead vanished over the last two minutes.
Which goes back to the harsh difficulty of trying to carry a team: Their mistakes become Aldridge's responsibility too. He was 3-of-11 in the fourth quarter and OT, ensuring that coach Nate McMillan will continue to help Aldridge improve his decision-making against extra defenders.
"Part of having success on the post is making reads," McMillan said recently. "Sometimes you have to kick it out, and sometimes you have to make plays. It can't confuse you to where you get passive and you're not looking to get deep post position. He's looking to pass out of double-teams and make the right reads, but when he gets better at making the right reads as far as where to kick the ball to and making teams pay, he's going to be really hard to guard."
Consider the improvement of Aldridge since he was drafted with the No. 2 pick in 2006. When the Blazers chose Greg Oden No. 1 overall the following year, Aldridge was viewed as the No. 3 option on a potential championship team. But Oden hasn't been able to play, and All-Star Brandon Roy has retired at age 27. In the meantime, 26-year-old Aldridge has transformed himself from a perimeter big man to become one of the league's best young players in the post.
"I always knew I could do it," he said. "It's a factor of getting stronger, getting more comfortable, getting used to playing in a league of grown men who are strong. When I was first coming into the league I wasn't as strong as most of the guys. Now I'm as strong as any guy I go against.
"I take pride in being that guy down low. It definitely was a difficult transition for me, but I love to go down low and be that guy that demands double-teams."
Would Aldridge have toughened himself so quickly if not for the injuries to Oden and Roy? Their absences forced him to accept the discipline of playing with his back to the basket in order to become a go-to scorer in the half court. But McMillan doesn't see it that way. He believes the injuries have limited Aldridge from showing his full array of skills.
"I think he would have been a good player regardless, even with those guys," McMillan said of Roy and Oden. "I think it would have taken a little bit more pressure off him. Not having Greg and not having Brandon has forced us to control his game, as opposed to freeing him up and letting him play and do all of the things he can do. He can shoot the three-ball, but because we don't have a low-post presence and Greg has been injured the last few years, we've had to force him down into the paint to establish a paint presence for us. If Greg were here, you could post him up, run pick-and-roll, and do a number of things. But without Brandon and Greg, we've controlled how we've developed him."
McMillan has often compared Aldridge to Tim Duncan, who is a superior defender and rebounder.
"But LaMarcus has more range," McMillan said. With that in mind, McMillan has been coaching Aldridge to face up in order to fend off double-teams. "When you face the basket, it's much harder for teams to trap you when you're looking at them and you can see the floor and the cuts and the spacing better," McMillan said. "What we want him to add to his post-up game is a face-up game like Tim Duncan, where he catches the ball and faces the defense right away before the double-team can come."
Aldridge showed that skill against the Thunder, facing Kendrick Perkins to drive the ball from the top of the key and finish a running hook over him and Serge Ibaka for a three-point opportunity. The persistent references to Duncan are fortified by the Blazers' stubborn appearances in the last three postseasons despite their run of injuries.
"He was always a guy that was quiet and didn't want to ruffle any feathers as far as challenging teammates," McMillan said of Aldridge. "But now he does. Now he challenges his teammates about the way the team's playing or how we need to play. I don't think he had a lot of that confidence in himself a couple years ago, but he's a much more confident player now."
His undermanned Blazers are in playoff contention after a 14-11 start, with room to improve as they learn from the several fourth-quarter leads they've failed to protect this season. On Thursday he'll receive another vote of confidence from the Western coaches, who served to inspire Aldridge when they bypassed him a year ago. "Last year it was a motivation," he said. "Now I'm to the point that I'm just trying to be consistent for the team and trying to lead."
In other words, the coaches' vote will be an important validation. But a loss like this one Monday shows that he has more room to ascend. All-Stars are greedy that way.