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Damian Lillard Nicolas Batum and LaMarcus Aldridge
The Blazers have improved the talent that surrounds LaMarcus Aldridge (left) and Co.

Blazers need a true playoff push to give Aldridge cause to stay

By Jeff Caplan, NBA.com
Posted Oct 22, 2013 12:39 AM

Rumors of discontent started in Portland and now drip like a leaky faucet. Rumblings surround the most recent star who wants out and seeks to rediscover happiness someplace else where it must be easier to contend for a championship.

Two-time All-Star LaMarcus Aldridge, the face of the Portland Trail Blazers, hasn't actually said these things -- at least not publicly. Others are saying the 28-year-old forward, who has never advanced past the first round in seven seasons, is thinking these things. Yet Aldridge has claimed the opposite, saying he's happy, even pleased with the club's direction following general manager Neil Olshey's active second summer in charge.

Aldridge is signed through 2014-15 and therefore holds little leverage to ram a trade down the Blazers' throats a la Carmelo Anthony. An opt-out clause is also not available to him next summer like LeBron James. Still, this the horse is out of the barn.

Olshey attempted to apply the brakes at Media Day with a memorable bluster when the Aldridge question impossibly -- of course, inevitably -- was asked.

"Oh dear God," Olshey said indignantly, "would guys get over it?"

That's just the way it's going to be, and can you imagine if the Blazers get off to a slow start? More than any other pro sports league today, the NBA gets more mileage out of speculation regarding where a guy might play than where he actually does play.

So how about the here and now, Mr. Aldridge?

"I'm here, I'm excited about the season," he said at Media Day when asked about the offseason rumors trade rumors. "We're looking good, I'm in great shape, I had a great offseason of getting my body ready to go. I'm healthy and I'm happy that I had a full offseason, so I'm happy to be here, I'm here and we want to win, and that's all I have to say about that."

The actual, on-court story in Portland is one of optimism. Aldridge, arguably the league's top power forward, has a superior cast around him compared to last season's paper-thin roster that demanded Aldridge, stat-stuffer Nicolas Batum and Rookie of the Year Damian Lillard all log top-10 minutes in the league.

Olshey traded for 7-foot center Robin Lopez and forward Thomas Robinson, and signed veteran free agents Mo Williams, Earl Watson and Dorell Wright. He drafted Lehigh guard C.J. McCollum, but a fractured foot will delay the start of his season, and shooting guard Allen Crabbe out of California. Olshey beefed up Portland without infringing on the club's financial flexibility to add more in the coming summers.

The goal is to build the roster on the fly by continuing to add young, up-and-coming talent and reliable veteran role players to the core of Aldridge, Batum, Lillard and Wesley Matthews. Olshey knows if he can avoid the all-out rebuild undertaken by the Philadelphia 76ers, for example, then he'll have done all he can to make Aldridge happy.

Aldridge especially liked the trade for Lopez, giving the Blazers a true center after they had 6-foot-9 J.J. Hickson manning the position last season. Hickson played hard, but was often a turnstile defensively at the rim and offered Aldridge little protection on offense.

Lopez might not be as offensively gifted as his All-Star brother on the Nets, Brook, but he did average career highs in scoring (11.3 ppg), rebounding (5.6) and blocks (1.6) while playing all 82 games last season.

"This team looks really good," Aldridge said. "We have a better bench, we have Lopez, who is a true center so I think this year should be good for us. I played with him in open gym and he's just a dominant big man who clogs the paint, that blocks shots. I think he's going to give me single coverage because now the biggest guy can't guard me anymore, now they've got to guard him so my life should be easier."

That should be tantalizing for Aldridge considering he averaged 21.1 ppg and a career-best 9.1 rpg in a transition season under new coach Terry Stotts. Stotts took some early heat when Aldridge's shooting percentages slumped as a result of setting him up farther away from the basket as Stotts, a former Dallas Mavericks assistant, looked to implement aspects of Dirk Nowitzki's elbow game.

Aldridge matched career lows of 48.4 percent from the floor after two seasons of shooting better than 50 percent. Despite the coaching transition, no true center, a bench that provided next-to-nothing and several injuries, the Blazers remained in playoff contention until the final few weeks of the season.

Considering a better supporting cast surrounds a young and balanced core, a playoff chase remains possible. Realistically, it's the only target that matters for a player such as Aldridge, who, in his prime, is sensing his time is now.

"The expectations," Stotts said, "are the playoffs, and beyond."

Three points

1. Mo Williams went to Utah in a trade last offseason and was asked to help the Jazz beyond the 3-point arc. He did just that. He handpicked Portland this offseason and has a chance to play a major role for a team seeking leadership and offense off the bench. Williams can play both guard positions and his value soared recently with impressive rookie guard C.J. McCollum out after fracturing his foot.

2. Coach Terry Stotts was quick to tag defense as his team's No. 1 area of emphasis if it expects to make the playoffs. The Blazers finished 26th in defensive rating last season. They believe their new center combination of Robin Lopez and second-year Meyers Leonard will help clean up their most glaring weakness of giving up points in the paint. No team allowed more points from close range than Portland (3,790), according to NBA.com stats.

3. Teams have a full year of film to study up on Damian Lillard, whose magnificent rookie season included 19.0 ppg, 6.5 apg and 3.1 rpg. The most important stat, however, might have been 38.6 mpg. With Williams and Earl Watson in the fold (and eventually McCollum), Lillard won't be pushed to the limit as much this season, keeping him fresher throughout games and the long season. His scoring average might dip a bit, but look for his assists to rise with a year under his belt and a deeper team around him.

Jeff Caplan has covered the NBA since 2005. You can email him here and follow him on Twitter.

The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA, its clubs or Turner Broadcasting.

AT A GLANCE

PORTLAND TRAIL BLAZERS

Team Site | Schedule | Tickets

Video | Fantasy | Team Store

LAST YEAR: 33-49, 4th in Northwest

FINISH: Missed playoffs

2012-13 Regular Season Standings

2012-13 TEAM LEADERS

LaMarcus Aldridge

21.1 PPG

JJ Hickson

10.3 RPG

Damian Lillard

6.5 APG

2012-13 STATISTICS

 OFFENSEDEFENSE
PPG97.5100.7
RPG40.842.4
APG21.823.7
FG %0.4480.474
3PT %0.3530.340
FT %0.7760.761
 Complete 2012-13 Stats 
STARTING FIVE

DAMIAN LILLARD, POINT GUARD

19.0 PPG | 3.1 RPG | 6.5 APG

The ROY set the bar high and now wants to be an All-Star. Shot 3s well, but can boost FG pct and FTA by increasing his paint production.

WESLEY MATTHEWS, SHOOTING GUARD

14.8 PPG | 2.8 RPG | 2.5 APG

With Lillard at the point, Matthews should continue to get great looks from 3-point range. He took a career-high 425 attempts in just 69 games last season.

NICOLAS BATUM, SMALL FORWARD

14.3 PPG | 5.6 RPG | 4.9 APG

Evolving into a stat-stuffer not unlike Andrei Kirilenko in his prime, Batum, 24, is a nifty asset but it's still open for debate if he becomes a star.

LAMARCUS ALDRIDGE, POWER FORWARD

21.1 PPG | 9.1 RPG | 2.6 APG

Means everything to the franchise. Now is the time to seize the mantle from Tim Duncan and Dirk Nowitzki as the West's best power forward.

ROBIN LOPEZ, CENTER

11.3 PPG | 5.6 RPG | 0.8 APG

Portland relied on the undersized J.J. Hickson in the middle last season and defending the rim was a monstrous problem. That's Lopez's specialty.

KEY RESERVES
NAMEHTWTPOSCOMMENT
Thomas Robinson6-9225FChance to finally contribute
Mo Williams6-6200GSolid ballhandler, streak scorer
Meyers Leonard7-1245CDevelopment key in Year No. 2
 Complete Roster 
OFFSEASON MOVES

ADDED: G Allen Crabbe, G Terrel Harris, C Robin Lopez, G C.J. McCollum, F Thomas Robinson, C Marko Todorovic, G Earl Watson, G Mo Williams, F/G Dorell Wright

LOST:  F Luke Babbitt, F/C J.J. Hickson, F Jared Jeffries, G Eric Maynor, G Sasha Pavlovic, G Ronnie Price, G Nolan Smith

MAN ON THE SPOT

LAMARCUS ALDRIDGE, POWER FORWARD

Rumors that the lifetime Blazer is getting restless have been denied by Aldridge and management. With a deeper roster, Aldridge is still the linchpin at both ends and must be the guiding force that carries Portland back to the playoffs.