With Tim Duncan and Kevin Garnett’s careers winding down, the future of the power forward position is wide open. Because they were usually the more skilled of a team’s two big men, power forwards had traditionally been shorter than centers: Karl Malone was 6’9, Charles Barkley was 6’6. But along with Dirk Nowitzki, the tandem of Duncan and Garnett revolutionized the position: they were seven-footers who had the skill-sets to play away from the basket.

Their teams could play two seven-footers at once, a huge advantage considering that many teams struggle to have one big man that size. It’s a blueprint the Lakers perfected in their last two championships: bullying teams with a super-sized front-court of Pau Gasol, Andrew Bynum and Lamar Odom. Los Angeles has gone 12-2 in playoff series since acquiring Gasol, only losing to frontcourts equally as long: Garnett and Kendrick Perkins in 2008, Dirk and Tyson Chandler last season.

So in evaluating the next generation of power forwards, the importance of size, especially height and length, shouldn’t be underestimated. That’s why LaMarcus Aldridge, whom ESPN’s Chris Palmer didn’t rank among the top 5 at his position, is one of the most underrated players in the NBA.

At 6’11 240 with a 7’5 wingspan and a vertical over 30 inches, Aldridge has an incredible combination of size, length and speed. He can defend low-post scorers, move his feet on the perimeter and protect the rim. While young players tend to improve on defense as they get older, there’s almost no chance that Kevin Love and Blake Griffin, both with wingspans under seven feet, will ever have the same defensive impact as Aldridge.

Both made the All-Star team over him last season, primarily because of their flashier offensive contributions. But Aldridge, the primary offensive option for a 48-win Portland team, has become an elite contributor on that side of the ball as well.

With Brandon Roy battling career-threatening knee injuries, Aldridge’s role in Portland’s offense increased dramatically last season: his usage rating jumped from 22.7 (third on the team in 2010) to 25.9 (first). But despite becoming the focal point of the Trail Blazer offense, his efficiency actually increased as well, as he shot 50% from the field.

A 79.1% foul shooter, he has great touch out to 18 feet. But last season he began a transition similar to the one Dirk Nowitzki made in Dallas: using his jumper less and playing more with his back to the basket. In 2010, 49% of his shots near the basket were assisted; in 2011, only 35% were. With a release point well over seven-feet high, his turn-around jumper in the post is nearly unstoppable.

His stat line -- 22 points, 9 rebounds and 2 assists on 50% shooting -- is all the more impressive considering that he plays on the NBA’s slowest-paced team. Portland has the fewest number of possessions in the league, so Aldridge doesn’t have as many opportunities to shoot the ball or rebound it as Griffin (on the 12th fastest paced team) or Love (the fastest).

All four of Palmer’s top-4 power forwards -- Griffin, Dirk, Amare and Love -- need to be paired with an athletic shot-blocking center to make up for their defensive flaws. It’s no coincidence the best playoff run of Dirk’s career came when he was paired with an All-Defensive team center in Tyson Chandler. In contrast, Aldridge would thrive playing next to an offensively-minded big man like Al Jefferson, who didn’t mesh with Love in Minnesota.

He’s the most complete big man in the NBA, and his versatility is a huge asset for Portland. He’s capable of playing elite defense at the power forward and center positions, while also being a threat to score from the low block or the high post. Pau Gasol is the only other big man in the NBA who can say that, and he isn’t nearly the athlete Aldridge is. The Trail Blazers can go big with Aldridge at the 4 and Marcus Camby at the 5, and they can go small with Aldridge at the 5 and Gerald Wallace at the 4.

Size and shooting ability age well in the NBA, so despite Griffin’s jaw-dropping aerial exhibitions and Love’s rebounding prowess, don’t be surprised if Aldridge becomes the NBA’s next great power forward.