On an old, shambolic warehouse in Portland, there once hung a banner — massive and black save for the facades of three people and the words “Rise With Us” emblazoned across the bottom.
Front and center was Brandon Roy, the face of the franchise, unnaturally poised and gifted with a game at once methodical and graceful. He was the herald of a new age in Portland, one that would erase the foul taste of the Trail Blazers
To his left was Greg Oden, weathered, sullen, destined for defensive greatness. If Roy represented the coming of a brighter era, Oden represented its beginning.
On Roy’s right was LaMarcus Aldridge. Unlike Roy and Oden, Aldridge never embodied some grandiose ideal. He was an extraordinary talent, to be sure, but he never shouldered the expectations of the city like Oden or Roy. He was there to complement both, serving as Roy’s pick and roll partner and safety valve on offense, while being Oden’s weak-side help on defense.
This was the triumvirate of young talent meant to lift the Blazers and the city of Portland from the depths of despair and into a brighter future.
Of course, we now know how that all worked out. Oden and Roy’s bodies betrayed them – Roy is no longer in the league, and Greg Oden is now a reclamation project of the Miami Heat.
Aldridge is all that remains of that once-promising core. Yet despite his tenure and continued growth, Aldridge remained in the background, never fully embraced as anything more than a solid building block. When Damian Lillard arrived in 2012, shades of Brandon Roy in his poise and style on the court, it was he, not Aldridge, who assumed the mantle of “face of the franchise.”
It makes a certain amount of sense. Lillard’s butter-smooth game is one packed with theatrics, from his dazzling forays into the lane to his dramatic three-pointers. His laid-back yet charismatic persona is magnetic, and is a big reason why he’s found himself the new owner of the third-highest shoe contract in the NBA. The face of the franchise isn’t just the best player on the team (in fact, he doesn’t have to be), but the one most easily marketable to the fans and general public.
Aldridge, by contrast, does not inspire such wonderment. Though only 28, he is a product of a bygone era, one of finesse and mid-range jumpers. His game in many ways resembles that of Rasheed Wallace, especially his turnaround fadeaway that rainbows through the rim. Unlike Wallace, who entertained as much with his mouth and antics as his talent, Aldridge carries a quiet, subdued demeanor. It’s not that his game doesn’t have personality, quite the opposite; it mirrors his persona perfectly.
Perhaps it was this demeanor or his decided lack of on-court panache that prevented a city and league-wide apotheosis of Aldridge. That’s slowly started to change this season as Aldridge finally emerged from his well-reinforced shell both on and away from the court. Portland’s dramatic slide late in the season likely had something to do with the city’s strengthened embrace of the lanky forward, as it coincided with Aldridge’s absence. He recently told the Oregonian that “This is the first time I felt where 1 through 15 on the roster is happy for me. And this is the first time where 1 through 15 knows when I’m going, they want to ride that wave.”
Let us not forget that while Lillard may be the subject of so many highlight plays, Aldridge is the keylog of Terry Stott’s flow offense. And while it’s unlikely that Aldridge continues to decimate Houston in such efficient fashion (he’s shooting 51% from mid-range, up nearly eleven percent from his regular season clip, according to NBA.com/stats), the city of Portland won’t soon forget his consecutive 40+ point performances.
Aldridge never obtained the immediate adulation Oden received from the public. He was never bestowed with the star status of Roy. Though he’s come out of his cocoon, he’s still not as alluring as Lillard. He’s worked for every inch of respect, and now, in the playoffs, with his back-to-back historic outings leading the Trail Blazers to a 2-0 series advantage, he’s proving his worth to the league, his team and his city.
Statistical support provided by NBA.com/stats