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Can Blazers keep 'LA' happy?

On Sports


by: TRIBUNE PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - LaMarcus Aldridge is being asked to lead the Trail Blazers vocally, and with his offense.For the first time, LaMarcus Aldridge looks like a veteran. Feels like one, too.

Even last season, his sixth with the Trail Blazers, Aldridge seemed a younger player on his way to bigger and better things.

Now Aldridge is 27, the dean of the Portland club, an All-Star and a third-team all-NBA selection last season, in the third year of a five-year contract extension paying him $65 million.

Is the Blazers’ 6-11 power forward still on to bigger and better things?

I’m not so sure Aldridge, who should be entering his peak years as a pro, will ever again be as productive as he was last season, when he averaged 21.7 points — seventh in the NBA — and 8.0 rebounds before shutting it down and undergoing April 12 surgery on his right hip.

Will Aldridge stay motivated as the young, inexperienced Blazers fall out of the playoff picture sometime after the All-Star break?

Will he tire of the constant double-teams that will dog his every move in the post?

Will he get frustrated as most of his West teammates in the 2012 All-Star Game — guys such as Kobe Bryant, Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, Dirk Nowitzki and Kevin Love — play into the postseason?

Might he desire a trade at some point soon?

Maybe he’ll be fine with another rebuilding team.

“I’m here,” he told me after Tuesday’s opening training-camp session. “I’m here to try to win, to try to compete, to get better every night.”

Pundits are predicting a second straight run to the lottery for the Blazers. Does that bother Aldridge?

“That’s normal when you have so many young guys,” he said. “We’re all here, we’re working hard. Anything’s possible.”

Even making the playoffs?

“I can’t make any predictions,” he offered. “If we go out and do the best we can be defensively, then yes we can.”

Aldridge said he is “100 percent healthy” from the hip surgery. I’m wondering if he is entering the stage of his career when injuries are going to be a constant issue.

He said he’ll try to provide more vocal leadership this season. New coach Terry Stotts has already asked him to address his teammates about expectations.

“Coach has me talk more,” Aldridge said. “It’s different, but I don’t mind it. I think I’ve been pretty good so far.”

Stotts was Rick Carlisle’s “offensive coordinator” the past four seasons in Dallas, developing ways to get Dirk Nowitzki the ball in position to score. Stotts told me after his hiring one of his priorities was to do the same kind of things for Aldridge — in part by bringing him higher at the elbow to take advantage of his mid-range shot. It will also require Aldridge to improve his passing skills in order to find open teammates.

“Dirk was already a phenomenal player, but (the Mavericks) did an unbelievable job moving him around the floor, finding multiple scoring areas for him,” Portland general manager Neil Olshey said. “They found ways to punish teams that double-teamed Dirk because they had him at different spots in the floor. That will help.

“ ‘LA’ was predominantly a left-block, left-elbow, mid-post player. Terry has watched a lot of (video) with him. What he has in mind is putting teams under duress if they’re going to come double LaMarcus.”

Aldridge said he spent time in September watching video with his new coach.

“We talked about putting me in the elbow and things like that,” Aldridge said. “I feel like teams won’t be able to double-team me as well. I feel like I’ve gotten better at (passing out of double-teams), too.”

Starting alongside Aldridge in the frontcourt is 6-9 J.J. Hickson, a natural power forward pressed into duty because the Blazers have nobody else starter-worthy at the position. He’s a player who pounds the boards and is effective diving to the basket and converting off of pick-and-rolls.

“That makes him a nice complement to LaMarcus,” Olshey said.

It’s true that Aldridge’s strong mid-range shooting game off the pick-and-roll could work well with Hickson.

“You have to have a pop guy like LaMarcus and a dive guy to open the rim up,” Olshey said. “As J.J. dives to the basket — not unlike Tyson (Chandler) and Dirk were in Dallas, or the way Blake Griffin played with Chris Kaman (with the Clippers) — you have the rim free. J.J. can finish at the rim through contact, and it opens up the floor for guys like LA.”

More important will be how rookie point guard Damian Lillard’s game meshes with Aldridge’s. They spent three weeks getting used to each other in pickup games at the training facility before camp.

“We were on each other’s team every day when we scrimmaged,” Lillard said. “We’re developing that chemistry we’re going to need.

“I’m learning how to play off of him, because I know we’re going to do things through him. As long as we keep getting better at that, we’ll be fine.”

I don’t think the Blazers will be fine in the short term. This season could be a major struggle. There is almost no veteran depth unless guard Ronnie Price and forward Jared Jeffries suddenly have a game transformation. Rookies Lillard, Meyers Leonard, Will Barton, Joel Freeland and Victor Claver will experience baptism under fire. It’s probably not going to be pretty.

All the while, Aldridge won’t be pleased with losing games with any regularity. Maybe he’ll be a happy camper, anyway, taken care of financially with promise for better times ahead with the Portland franchise.

I’m not convinced of that. I see clouds overhead, with the possibility of stormy weather as we move through what could be a difficult season in Blazerville.

kerryeggers@portlandtribune.com

Twitter: @kerryeggers