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Aldridge powers forward

Veteran NBA star relishes his leadership role for young, hungry Blazers


by: TRIBUNE PHOTO: CHRISTOPHER ONSTOTT - LaMarcus Aldridge, who made the NBA All-Star Game for the second year in a row, says his season has been 'up and down,' but that he has learned a lot and has grown as a leader with the Trail Blazers.By almost any standard, LaMarcus Aldridge is having another successful season. In his seventh NBA campaign, the Trail Blazers’ power forward has earned his second All-Star Game selection and captains a young, inexperienced Portland team that was a surprising 28-31 entering Wednesday’s game at Memphis.

Aldridge’s statistics are better than solid — a team-high 20.7 points per game, 8.6 rebounds, 2.6 assists, .476 from the field and .791 from the foul line. They’re in line with his numbers of a year ago, when he averaged 21.7 points, 8.0 rebounds and 2.4 assists while shooting .512 and .814.

And yet, Aldridge sustains criticism from some Blazer fans, who say he is not max salary-deserving, that he is not a No. 1 player on a championship-caliber team, that he has failed more often than succeeded in pressure situations with the game still in doubt.

Aldridge, 27, addressed these issues and more during a half-hour sit-down with the Portland Tribune:

Tribune: How do you think the season has gone for you so far?

Aldridge: OK. Not great. Up and down. It’s been a lot different for me, being with younger guys, going from having a veteran team to a really young team. I’ve learned a lot. My leadership has grown this year.

Tribune: You are going through another rebuild of the Blazer roster. How hard has that been?

Aldridge: It’s hard. But having guys like Damian (Lillard) come in and be as good as he is as fast as he has, that helps shine light on everything. We’ll have a lot of room under the salary cap this summer. It’s no fun to start over, but we’re in a really good position with young talent. Damian is probably going to be an All-Star next year. We have something great to build around, plus the money to go sign guys.

Tribune: Many of the guys you played with and against in the All-Star Game have been to the NBA finals or won championships. You’ve never been beyond the first round of the playoffs. How does that make you feel?

Aldridge: Hungry. Motivated. Makes me want to try to make us better faster, and make myself better every year. I want to become a more elite player. I want to be in the playoffs, in the finals, and win a championship.

Tribune: You tape your left thumb for games. What is the injury?

Aldridge: It happened early in the season. I fell one game, and the game after that it got caught up in a jersey. Some days it’s OK, some days it’s pretty sore. Nothing is broken, it’s just a strain.

I feel good. Everybody has little nagging injuries right now.

Tribune: How do you like Terry Stotts as coach?

Aldridge: He is very offensively gifted as a coach. He gives players the freedom to take shots and to make plays. He gives us a lot of confidence out there to be ourselves. That’s been big for myself and “Dame” — even for Wes (Matthews) and Nic (Batum). He’s had a lot of trust in all of us.

Tribune: But are you playing too much? You are averaging nearly 38 minutes a game. Would you benefit in the long term from fewer minutes?

Aldridge: I love playing. When I’m out there 42, 44 minutes, I’m not complaining. Maybe the next day I am, but in the moment I’m not.

Tribune: Do you like the direction general manager Neil Olshey is taking the team?

Aldridge: He started off well, drafting Damian and Meyers (Leonard) and bringing over Joel (Freeland) and Victor (Claver). He has cleared the deck so we can make some moves this summer. It will be interesting to see what he comes up with.

Tribune: Most pundits, myself included, predicted 35 victories max. Do you feel like the Blazers have exceeded expectations so far this season?

Aldridge: Not ours. From day one, we felt if we competed and everybody had the same goal, anything was possible. Maybe everybody else thought we’d be worse than we’ve been, but we’re not that bad. We’ve been in the playoff race all season. That seven-game losing streak killed us, but we still have a chance. If we can put together a five- or seven-game winning streak ...

Tribune: Do you feel you’re the leader on this team?

Aldridge: I do. Coach has put me in the position to lead, to talk to guys, to make decisions. Everybody on the team looks to me as the leader.

Tribune: Are you comfortable taking the big shot at the end of a close game?

Aldridge: I am comfortable. Being comfortable and making that shot all the time, those are different things. I’ve had the ball in my hands this year a lot more. Earlier in my career, I had the ball in my hands going down the stretch, so I’m getting used to it. I’m used to it. You miss some, but as I do it more and more, I’m going to get better. I go back to Kevin Durant’s rookie year, he took a lot of those shots and didn’t make a lot of them. As you take them more and more, you learn something and become better at it.

Tribune: Does it bother you that some fans are critical of your performance in the clutch?

Aldridge: I don’t want to be rude, but I don’t care. There’s always going to be someone who doesn’t like your game. Just like when I make 12 of 14 jump shots, I played great. And when I make 2 out of 12 jump shots, I’m taking way too many. I can’t worry about those things. I have to do what’s best for this team.

Tribune: Do you want to have the ball in your hands in those situations?

Aldridge: I do. I can honestly say this year, I’ve grown in that aspect in that I want the ball in my hands. I want to make plays with the game on the line. I might not always make the best play, but the way for me to become that player is to be in those moments.

Tribune: Do you consider yourself the top power forward in the game?

Aldridge: I do. My team depends on me more than any power forward in the league.

Tribune: Do you feel like you’re still improving as a player?

Aldridge: I do. It’s more mental. As you’ve been around the game as long as I have now, you understand the game better. That helps you get to the next level.

Tribune: Do you try to add a particular skill during every offseason?

Aldridge: Normally I do. Last summer, I was coming off (hip) surgery, so it was more about getting in shape. The previous summer, it was about going left and going to the baseline. They charted it, and I went left more that year than any year. I’ve seen the hard work pay off. This next summer, it will be working on being at the elbow, being able to make plays for myself and for my teammates. Being more dominant in the elbow-area isolation is what this offense needs.

Tribune: You seem to have improved your passing out of the double-team.

Aldridge: Yeah, that’s night and day. I’ve seen every double-team in the world now. I watch film after every game. I’m seeing all my options. As you get older, the game slows down. I’m seeing things coming and passing it better.

Tribune: On the other hand, your defense doesn’t seem as sharp. You look slow to the ball at times this year.

Aldridge: Having the offseason surgery limited me to working on my mobility. I haven’t been as good laterally this year. This summer, I’ll get into my training and get my step back, but I’ve noticed I’m not as quick moving left and right. When I’m healthy, knock on wood, I’ll get back to playing the kind of defense I’m capable of.

Tribune: Are you happy playing in Portland?

Aldridge: It’s been fun. I have more fans who like me than don’t like me. There are always those fans who don’t like what you’ve done and feel like you haven’t done enough for this city. But the fans who appreciate what I’ve done are the ones who make me love it here.

Tribune: Your oldest son, Jaylen, is almost 4. Your younger son, LaMarcus Jr., is almost 3. They live in Dallas with their mother. How have they changed your life?

Aldridge: I love my kids. I love when they come to visit me. It’s helped me not be so immersed with basketball. When I was younger, if I played a bad game, I’d be in the gym for eight hours, and the next day I’d be tired. It would be a domino effect. My kids have given me balance. If I play bad and everybody’s talking bad about me, I come home to my kids, and they still love me. They’ve been great in giving me balance, something to take care of outside of basketball. They come up every month with my mom. That’s my time to relax.

Tribune: Your mother, Georgia, was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2010. How is she doing now?

Aldridge: She just went to the doctor today, and they said everything looks good. She goes every four months. Clean bill of health right now.

Tribune: You have two years left on your contract. Would you like to retire as a Blazer, or are you open to making a move when your deal ends in 2015?

Aldridge: Of course I would love to play for one team my whole career, which is rare, but things change. The organization could go a different direction. As of now, I’d love that, but I’m going to cross that bridge when I get there.

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Twitter: @kerryeggers