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LaMarcus Aldridge Ends an Underrated Career of 'What-Ifs'

One of the best midrange shooters of his generation retired on Thursday due to an irregular heartbeat, another uncontrollable factor in a career full of them.

In 2010, four years into a rapidly blossoming NBA career, LaMarcus Aldridge faced a health crisis. His mother, Georgia, was diagnosed with breast cancer, a diagnosis she shared with her youngest son just days before he was set to report to training camp in Portland. Aldridge, family members told me back then, was a rock. He told them it was his responsibility to keep her spirits up, a role he took as seriously as he did his duties as the Trail Blazers' budding franchise player.

Aldridge retired from the NBA on Thursday, citing an irregular heartbeat he felt during Brooklyn’s game against the Lakers last Saturday, a rhythm that got worse later that evening. Aldridge is no stranger to heart issues: In 2007, he was diagnosed with Wolff-Parkinson-White syndrome, a rare condition that causes a rapid heartbeat. A procedure caused him to miss the final nine games of that season. He needed another in 2011, costing him a week of training camp.

Aldridge signed with Brooklyn last month to compete for a championship, the missing piece to an impressive résumé. There are the 19,951 points and 8,478 total rebounds. There are the seven All-Star appearances and five spots on All-NBA teams. There’s his status as one of the best midrange shooters of his generation, his 6' 11" frame and high release creating one of the NBA’s most unblockable—and surprisingly efficient—shots.

Aldridge’s legacy is complex. His nine years in Portland were successful but turbulent. His insecurities could get the best of him, first with Brandon Roy, then with Damian Lillard, two teammates Aldridge often felt he was competing with. "The issue you have with two competitive guys being brought up the same way is that you don't have one person who goes out of his way to make a relationship," Aldridge told me in 2015 when we met in Los Angeles shortly after his decision to sign with the Spurs. Aldridge and Lillard have since buried the hatchet. “We had some great times,” Lillard said. 

LaMarcus Aldridge #12 of the San Antonio Spurs and Damian Lillard #0 of the Portland Trail Blazers talks before the game on March 16, 2019 at the AT&T Center in San Antonio.

On Thursday, Lillard took to social media to call for the Blazers to retire Aldridge’s number. And they should. For nine years Aldridge was a mainstay in Portland. “My second and third year, we overachieved, primarily because of him,” said Blazers coach Terry Stotts, who coached Aldridge for three seasons. When Roy and Greg Oden battled injuries, there was Aldridge. When Lillard was coming up, there was Aldridge. Asked about Aldridge’s place among greats in Blazers history, Stotts noted Lillard, Clyde Drexler … and Aldridge.

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“I think he’s top-five all-time with the Blazers,” Stotts said.

Lillard would agree. On Instagram, Lillard posted a picture with Aldridge with the hashtag #WhatCouldHaveBeen. Aldridge’s exit has long gnawed at Lillard. “LA is one of the greatest players to play in Portland,” Lillard said. “He was at the peak of his career when I got here. He was at his best. I was a two-time All-Star. With my development, had he stayed, with CJ [McCollum’s] development, who knows what that could have turned into?”

Indeed. Aldridge defected to San Antonio, where he helped the Spurs advance to the conference finals in 2017. Kawhi Leonard’s injury—and eventual exit—killed any championship hopes, but Aldridge continued to produce, averaging 21 points in ’18–19 and 19 points in the pandemic-shortened ’19–20 season.

Lillard lamented Aldridge’s inability to go out on his own terms. But in a way he is. Aldridge played 15 years, collecting nearly $200 million in on-court earnings. He was a franchise player in Portland and a chief support in San Antonio. His teams made the playoffs nine times, with just four losing seasons. He chased a championship in Brooklyn, but a ring as wingman to Kevin Durant, James Harden and Kyrie Irving wouldn’t have significantly enhanced a legacy that could eventually see Aldridge in the Hall of Fame.

He retires, healthy. His mother beat cancer, and now Aldridge, a father to two sons, can move forward with his life. “You never know when something will come to an end, so make sure you enjoy it every day,” Aldridge wrote on social media. “I can truly say I did just that.”

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