I’ve been attempting to deceive myself this week about the Blazers. I’ve had open on my desktop a draft of a post, unfinished, detailing how glad I am that the team is winterizing for the summer; that I’m pleased to see the team take a prudent tack after wringing more wins out of their roster than anybody expected. And in some ways, this sentiment is true. Every game the Blazers have overreached to try and win late in the season has been an irrationality I couldn’t explain away; I’ve come to admire this team, this new organization, for what I perceive as an overall flexibility and lack of hubris. That they would pack up their futile playoff chase and start playing the bench with an eye toward next season fits my characterization of them as pragmatists, and so I was half-comforted to see that they were shoring up their ping pong balls. But only half-comforted. That post went unfinished.
LaMarcus Aldridge is going to play tonight. I’m thrilled. Returning from a sprain he suffered at the start of the Blazers’ present tailspin—the March 27 blowout loss to Brooklyn that ended the playoff charade—Aldridge is going to suit up with six games left on the schedule. On the face of it, it’s almost breathtakingly stupid: Aldridge is perhaps the single known quantity on the team, and his contributions are ensured well beyond the next two weeks. Whether he’s truly hurt or not, the Blazers aren’t really served by playing him. But playing him they are, and I’m grateful to them for it.
I have to tell you a bit about my evolving perception of LaMarcus to explain why I’m so happy he’s coming back for the meaningless final stretch of the season. Early this year, in my first few games covering the team, I was already sick of Aldridge. I argued that Portland would be best off trading him, perhaps to a team like Houston—I was indulging the Internet’s favorite stupid tendency to fetishize the unknown and buy into the myth of “trade him for picks.”
Aldridge seemed to represent the height of NBA drudgery. Even at his most effective, he is not an electric player, and his locker room demeanor is self-consciously staid. He is a terrible quote, quick with a cliché and obligatory humility. I knew he was a good player, but I thought that a lottery team was locked into a joyless centerpiece, and to my mind that joylessness was a cardinal sin. A team should strive to be fascinating or to contend, but dull and uncompetitive I could not forgive.
I remember when my position changed. It was after the January 13 loss to the Thunder in the Rose Garden, the one that ended with Aldridge’s woeful airball over Kendrick Perkins. That shot was the essence of the long-standing homer’s knocks on LaMarcus. He hadn’t attacked the basket, he’d settle for an inefficient shot…it just seemed too complacent. After the game, I expected an appropriately contrite Aldridge in front of his locker. That’s not really what I found.
Talking to reporters after he dressed in a customary plaid flannel, Aldridge was light-hearted about the miss. Not merely accepting of the failure, as all elite athletes are about a relatively meaningless game-winner, but actually in a good mood. He made a few jokes about how Perkins had given him a driving lane to the left, but that he couldn’t really go left, so the terrible shot was his best move. He has a tic in any mood of scratching his cheek while looking at the ground during postgame media scrums, but as he talked about his miss the familiar habit seemed a bit of calculated sheepish humor.
Aldridge is a lightning rod for criticism for several reasons. He is first of all a franchise player, and second of all that least-loved of all player archetypes: the “finesse” big man. Too many times to count I’ve watched him answer questions about why he shoots jumpshots instead of posting up, and too many times I’ve heard terse responses from Aldridge or Terry Stotts that offer little insight. On top of these pressures and criticisms, LaMarcus is the longest-tenured homegrown talent on a team with a notoriously powerful fan microscope. He is immensely scrutinized, and often unsparingly.
And yet after a play that not only lost a game, but so spectacularly matched his detractors’ caricature, he was in one of the more jovial moods I’d seen. I don’t know why, and I won’t know why, but it was then that I understood how capable Aldridge is as a franchise pillar. He was bearing the load, and not straining under the weight.
That hasn’t changed, and it doesn’t change. This season crept on, and the Blazers hung tight to their desperate attempt to shoehorn themselves into the postseason, and Aldridge has been the engine. He captured a conference Player of the Week award as the season slipped away, and he has gotten better almost every week, even as the flaws of the team have made themselves impossible to ignore. He is a steady presence on a team that set a league record for the most consecutive games decided by two possessions. He is the ballast on a blockade runner.
All of which is to say that no matter what the stakes are, the Blazers are better to watch when LaMarcus plays. The juxtaposition of a frenetic, madcap existence on the court and a tranquil locker room is unique this season to the Blazers, and Aldridge is the driving reason. Whatever this team is, he is at the center. I’m glad I get to watch that team, and not a more prudent one.