There’s something wrong with LaMarcus Aldridge. Putting words to it is difficult, though many have tried. He’s been called aloof, thin-skinned, unclutch, unconvincing, moody, and soft. The Blazers have an inordinately vocal and lively fan presence online, and every time LaMarcus comes up small in a playoff game or posts thirty-five and twelve in a meaningless one, they pipe up on Twitter with recriminations and mockery. They do this in part because he abandoned them a couple summers ago, but they ragged on him when he played in Portland too. To be precise, they were upset that Aldridge’s production left town; they never liked the actual dude all that much. Brandon Roy and Dame Lillard are the heroes of recent Blazers history. Aldridge was, at best, an amply qualified sidekick.
And it would seem Spurs fans, after two years of twenty-footers and evasive post-game quotes, view him the same way. They’ve spent enough time with him by now to realize that Aldridge, as my dirtbag NBA blogger kinfolk and occasional Blazers journalist Corbin Smith once explained it, only wants to do what’s comfortable. He can defend the rim, but he doesn’t like to. He can make long twos as well as anyone, but on nights they’re not falling, he won’t go down to the block. He’s a great rebounder, but only when he wants to be.
This past season was a particularly rough one for Aldridge. His shooting percentages, scoring numbers, and rebounds all dipped below his career averages and the Spurs tried to move him over the offseason but failed to locate a suitable landing spot. He couldn’t find anybody to guard when the Warriors swept his team in the Western Conference Finals, to the point that Gregg Popovich played him only twenty-five minutes per night over the last three games of the series. He’s thirty-two. He might bounce back a smidge this year, but it’s hard to see him making significant alterations to his game at this advanced basketballing age. The Spurs, who change players all the time to fit their needs, haven’t even been able to get him to take an extra step back and start shooting threes.
Maybe this inflexibility is Aldridge’s fundamental flaw. Part of the joy of following sports is watching players develop new skills, get rid of bad habits, and fill different roles as they join new teams or the roster around them changes. Dwyane Wade was the master of his domain for his first seven years in the league, then LeBron James and Chris Bosh joined him in Miami and he learned, after the three stars’ first season together, that he needed to cede the offense to LeBron and play off the ball as a slasher. Blake Griffin came into the league as a powerful, Shawn Kemp-like forward. By his mid-twenties he had become an impressive secondary playmaker due to his decent ball-handling and excellent vision both in transition and from his favorite spot on the left elbow.
There are numerous other examples. The league’s best players tend to be the most talented and physically gifted, but they are also the guys who evolve the most, sometimes well after they’ve established themselves. Mike Conley has been a steady, good-at-everything floor general for the Grizzlies basically since they drafted him in 2007. Last season, at twenty-nine, he saw that Zach Randolph had been in decline for a while, and Chandler Parsons wasn’t going to be the athletic bucket-getter Memphis thought they signed over the summer, so he took it upon himself to be a higher volume scorer—specifically to create more three-point shots for himself—and he pulled it off. Conley put up twenty a game for the first time in his career without sacrificing his assist numbers or letting his above-average defense slip.
Aldridge isn’t like Wade, or Griffin, or Conley. He’s much more similar to perhaps the most hated player in the league, Dwight Howard, who has fallen mightily from his circa 2009 peak due mostly to injury but also because he has a terrible attitude as far as being the player his team needs him to be rather than what he believes he is. This goes all the way back to his Orlando days when he was an MVP candidate who regularly complained about Stan Van Gundy sticking him in too many highly effective pick and rolls as opposed feeding him dodgy post-up opportunities. Nevermind that Orlando made an NBA Finals because LeBron’s Cavaliers had no defensive answer for Howard diving to the hoop with the rest of the Magic spread out along the three-point line. Dwight got dunks and Rafer Alston and Courtney Lee got wide open triples. It worked splendidly, but Dwight remained skeptical. This impulse has only gotten stronger and more corrosive as Dwight has aged and his body has further deteriorated. He’s now on his third team in three years because he refuses to be the moderately useful rim protector, rebounder, and dunker he could still be.
LaMarcus isn’t nearly as interpersonally abrasive as Dwight. His personality is quiet; folks who have had a harsh thing to say about him usually describe him as more inscrutable than unlikable. But nice guy, bad guy, or enigma, we tend to resent rigid players because basketball is a game that requires give and take among teammates. If you can crash the boards but you’re reluctant to for whatever reason, you’re kind of killing everybody else’s vibe. If you can shoot out to twenty-one feet, you should really try to extend your range out to twenty-three; it gives the squad a better chance to win. LaMarcus Aldridge won’t go out of his way to solve his team’s problems. That doesn’t make him lazy or a villain. He simply is what he is, lamentably and otherwise. He’ll give you what he can be bothered to, which is typically a lot, but throughout his career, it’s never been enough either.
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