Posted Jan 20 2012 11:58AM
Long before LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh made it fashionable through free agency, the Trail Blazers created a Big Three the old-fashioned way: home grown.
They pulled Brandon Roy and LaMarcus Aldridge from the 2006 Draft and took Greg Oden the following year. Seemingly the pieces for a future championship run were in place. One was a scoring guard, the other a double-double power forward and the third a center with a tendency to rebound and defend. Pretty much everything was covered. The Young Three was diverse in talent, filled important roles and had room for growth and greatness.
And yet, almost five years later, the Big Three is reduced to a Big One-Third after having that group literally sliced apart by a surgeon's scalpel.
Oden is down, Roy is out. But fortunately for the Blazers, Aldridge is solidly on the way up.
Aldridge is one of the 10 best players of the last calendar year, his confidence and numbers soaring since it was evident Portland's Big Three was done. He made the selection pool for USA Basketball and is all but assured his first All-Star team spot next month. Best of all for the Blazers, Aldridge has stayed healthy and kept the team competitive in the wake of those terrible injuries to Oden (whose career is in jeopardy from multiple leg surgeries) and Roy (who retired with degenerative knees).
"He's given us everything I've asked," said coach Nate McMillan. "We're a better team because of the player he's become."
Yes, the Blazers have managed to move on and even thrive. They're on pace to be a top three team in the West and, if things break right for them as they did for the Mavericks (a No. 3 seed) last summer, anything can happen in the playoffs. The beauty of the Blazers is how quickly and rather efficiently they re-invented themselves, most recently getting Gerald Wallace, who brings an athletic scoring factor to the front line.
Mostly, this is about Aldridge dodging the same black cat who ruined two-thirds of a good thing. Even though the Blazers are winning in spite of that, you'd be forgiven for wondering how good they'd be if their Big Three stayed healthy and intact.
"I've thought about that," Aldridge said, smiling. "A few times, actually."
Well, probably more than a few. The wonderful part about Oden, Aldridge and Roy, and the hardest to accept in hindsight, is how well they would have complemented each other. All they needed was a smart point guard who knew how and when to deliver the ball. With Shaquille O'Neal having left Kobe Bryant and the Lakers, and Tim Duncan beginning to age in San Antonio, the Blazers at that time saw themselves as the next possible dynasty in the making. Or at least a force in the West.
If the basketball gods had any mercy, Portland's Big Three would be in their prime and ready for a run of West titles. Really: Wouldn't a team with a healthy Roy and Oden have beaten Dallas last spring? And wouldn't the Blazers be favorites to win this year, in a compacted season that favors young teams? That's all pure conjecture now, a painful topic for Blazers fans to wince about, along with Sam Bowie over Michael Jordan.
But Portland's Big Three played together for only 82 of a possible 328 games. That dynasty proved fleeting.
In a weird way, Aldridge didn't become a better player until the other two went down. Aldridge began his breakout last January. Before then, he had nice numbers (18-point average from 2007-10) and also a reputation for being laid back and rarely assertive, especially near the rim -- curious for someone 6-foot-11. But with the Blazers needing a star, he took the opportunity to become a better leader and more consistent player. He was a tough omission from the All-Star Game.
"That definitely left a bitter taste with me," he said. "In the month leading up to the game, to do everything right, to lead your team and then not make it, was tough. And then to make third team All-NBA was worse."
Well, LeBron James and Kevin Durant were the first team forwards, while Pau Gasol and Dirk Nowitzki made second team. He probably had a point about missing the All-Star Game, given that he was twice the Player of the Week the month before.
Anyway, that seems like ancient history now.
"In my opinion, he already is a star," Wallace said.
Blessed with an effective mid-range jumper, Aldridge began to score more off the dribble and in the paint while becoming the Blazers' first option. Rebounding and defense remain a work in progress, but they aren't a weakness. He's averaging just under 23 points a game, which puts him in the conversation for the league's best offensive power forward.
"In the Dallas (playoff) series when Brandon couldn't go, coach came to me and said it was my time," Aldridge said. "At that moment, that's when my mindset changed. I knew I had to be the guy. I had to play bigger and better."
Aldridge doesn't say that to sound vain; it was true. He had to think of himself as more than just a complimentary player because the dynamics of the team changed. Besides, the Blazers had already given him a max contract, along with Roy, so they saw him as someone with the ability to be a top five power forward.
They just never knew their cup would be one-third full.
"I knew I had it in me, I just had to bring it out," Aldridge said. "Before, I just played my role. But I worked hard to be in this position."
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