LaMarcus Aldridge was bracing himself for the issues that have beset his Trail Blazers recently.
"I had a talk with myself, and I just told myself it's going to be an up-and-down year," he said. "I didn't think that we would be doing as well as we are now, but I just told myself that if I try to get better every night and try to lead and try to help the young guys and do what I can, then this season can be good for us."
It has turned out to be better than good. As surmised by Aldridge himself, the Blazers had no right to imagine their young, thin roster would be in playoff contention with a 25-23 record as recently as three weeks ago. An ensuing seven-game losing streak has damaged their postseason chances for the short term. But it hasn't lessened the resolve of Portland's best player.
"I told myself to not expect what we're doing now," he said of Portland's surprising success. "I told myself, don't look for that. Look for times of trouble and more struggle, which we've had a little bit of. I think the guys have been great. I think when you have guys that buy into a system and a team that's as unselfish as we are, you can win games."
The initially pessimistic analysis of the Blazers' roster has given way to optimism under first-year coach Terry Stotts. Small forward Nicolas Batum has proved himself worthy of the four-year, $46.1 million offer sheet he received last summer from Minnesota (which was matched by the Blazers, controversially). Point guard Damian Lillard is favored to be Rookie of the Year. Wesley Matthews and J.J. Hickson (who is averaging a double-double on a one-year deal) are valuable contributors. Most important is that all of these players are 26 or younger.
Aldridge, 27, has reason to believe the Blazers may build a long-term winner around him sooner than later. He acknowledges that those hopes depend mainly on him.
"I realized that I had to be more vocal, more demanding -- and that I have to still do that more, I think," Aldridge said. "I have a tendency to roll with the punches. But this year, especially with things getting rougher, I call my own play. I think that's the start of me being more of the leader. I can still shoot it, but if they double-team me, I can still make the right pass and we can score. So I think that's part of my growth, knowing when to take over, knowing when to be more dominant, and knowing when to just flow with it.
"When you're seven years in, you're not going to change who you are. At that time, you are who you are. I can maximize who I am, and just keep getting better, keep adding things to my game each year.''
The 6-foot-11 Aldridge has turned out to be more productive than many thought he would be. He was derided as a passive big man entering the 2006 draft, when he was picked No. 2 as part of a prearranged trade with the Bulls that sent No. 4 pick Tyrus Thomas from Portland to Chicago.
"I remember everything from the draft," he said without resentment. "They said Portland shouldn't have taken me at [No.] 2 because they could have gotten me at [No.] 14. They basically said I wasn't going to help. I wasn't a go-to guy, I wasn't going to make them better, it was all that type of stuff.
"I've been that chip-on-my-shoulder guy, because why else would I still know what they said on draft night, word for word? I am that guy who has that chip on his shoulder, because it's needed. That's what motivates me. It fuels me. But also I'm older. I'm a lot older now, and I'm starting to feel it. So as you get older, you realize people are always going to say things that you won't like or things that might not be true, but if you go out and you do your job, all of that goes away."
He spent his early years trying to fit in constructively: as a rookie alongside Zach Randolph, then with emerging team leader Brandon Roy. "I was a sidekick," recalled Aldridge, who disagreed -- without saying so publicly -- when he believed Greg Oden was being featured ahead of him.
"I saw myself as No. 2," he said of his role behind Roy. "But when Greg would get back healthy, I would become No. 3. They would give Brandon plays, Greg plays, and then me, so I would kind of fizzle out when Greg got healthy. And then he would get hurt again, and I would get more touches. It would kind of go back and forth every year.
"I understand Greg is a really good player, and I've seen him dominate games, so I kind of understood it. But I think you had to keep going with what was getting you wins. Myself and Brandon and us playing off each other is what was getting us wins, and that's what got us into the playoffs. So I felt that [coach Nate McMillan] should have brought Greg along even more slowly and made him mesh with us, rather make him No. 2 and me No. 3."
Aldridge recognized that the Blazers were under pressure to establish Oden after making him the top pick of the 2007 draft.
"Of course that was a big part of it," Aldridge said. "You can't have the No. 1 pick being a third option. You have Kevin Durant, who is killing it at the No. 2 pick [for the Sonics/Thunder]. You want to justify your No. 1 pick. I think, too, that Nate saw him as a really dominant player, and I'm not 7-foot, 280. So he didn't see me as that same type of player. But I can dominate in my own way."
While Aldridge was viewed as a face-up scorer early in his career, he has gained strength (keeping his weight between 255 and 260 pounds during the season) to become a threat in the post.
"It wasn't that I didn't want to be physical," he said. "It wasn't that I was soft and didn't want to do it. But when you're not strong enough, you're not strong enough. I was 185 in college, so that's tiny. I wasn't strong enough, so I would take fadeaway jump shots the whole game. But now I'm strong enough that I can back a guy in all the way into the paint. I couldn't do it then, but I can do it now."
He realizes how much he's grown when he happens across some of his old clothes.
"The stuff from my first year, my shoulders, chest -- I can't even button it," he said. "My first two years I went through that, then my third year I changed stuff again. My fifth year is when I really changed everything out because that's the year I hired my trainer. We went twice a day, lifting tires, ropes, cleaning a lot of weight. He literally killed me the whole summer, and that's when I really noticed a big change in my body and my chest. Now I have all new stuff.
"I'm more physical, I rebound better, everything is better because of my strength. People take it that if you're soft, you're not capable of doing it. I always knew what I wanted to do, but I just never could do it."
Aldridge isn't going to be the kind of know-it-all leader who lectures his younger teammates.
"He's a quiet leader who does what he's supposed to do when he's supposed to do it," Stotts said. "When things are going the wrong way, we go to him. I don't even have to call the plays. They know if the other team has scored two or three times in a row, or if we haven't scored two or three times in a row, they're going to call a play that's designed to get LaMarcus the ball."
Aldridge has averaged at least eight rebounds for four straight years and at least 20.8 points for the last three seasons. Stotts doesn't anticipate those numbers becoming inflated.
"If you look at his stats and wins and losses and home and road and what he's done in his career, it is remarkably consistent," Stotts said. "Sometimes people view that as boring or that there's no growth. To me it's like ..."
"Exactly," Stotts said. "I can count on him every night."
As Aldridge approaches his peak years, his career goals have become more focused and significant.
"I want to be more of a dominant player down the stretch," he said. "I've had times where I've been more dominant in the fourth quarter, and I can get us a bucket, or I can get fouled, or my teammates get a really good pass to me. I've had moments where I've been good or bad, but I want to get it to where it's the fourth quarter, five minutes to go, tied game, down two, I've got the ball -- I'm going to make something good happen every time. That's what I want to get to.
"I've wanted to grow as a leader, be more vocal, but always be doing it by example. I've never been that selfish guy. People always say I'm passive, but I'm not. I'm very unselfish, and I just want to win."