The basketball intelligentsia has become particularly adept in recent years at sniffing out All-Star players who might be disgruntled with their lot in NBA life. It was bound to happen after LeBron James, Chris Bosh, Carmelo Anthony, Deron Williams, Dwight Howard, and Chris Paul, among others, opted to leave in free agency, (directly or indirectly) threatened to leave in free agency, or exercised their leverage as stars to find a new team that provided a better opportunity to win in the short-term.
Even though he has three full years remaining on a 5-year contract, Portland Trail Blazers All-Star forward LaMarcus Aldridge has found his name creeping onto the list of star players who could seek new digs in the relatively near future. To be clear, the evidence at this point is entirely circumstantial: the Blazers are entering a rebuilding mode with a new coach and new GM, Aldridge has yet to advance in the playoffs, he's entering his prime without a bonafide No. 2 star alongside him and he plays for a small-market team. Each of those has been a warning light in the recent past.
But Aldridge stuck totally to the script at media day on Monday, acknowledging that it's a new roster that will require patience while expressing no unhappiness with his role as the main veteran on an incredibly young team.
In a recent interview, Blazers coach Terry Stotts called his talks with Aldridge about his long-term future "reassuring."
"My conversations I've had with LaMarcus have been reassuring," Stotts said. "He wants to win. Everybody wants to win. The way that we're going to play is going to be reassuring to him.... When you have a player like LaMarcus who is a stud, an All-Star and one of the best players in the league, and you bring in a Damian Lillard, who by all accounts we're hoping will go to that next level, what happens in the future? Nobody knows what's going to happen in the future but I think what's important for everybody involved, for everybody who has something at stake with the Blazers, is that you want to see that it's going in a positive direction, where you say it's going to be OK. Give it some time, it's going to be OK."
Asked by Blazersedge whether he remembered that particular conversation with Stotts, Aldridge chuckled, shook his head and said, "No, there have been so many."
He then went on to confirm Stotts' characterization of the conversation.
"I'm fine with it," Aldridge said of the rebuilding cycle. "We have some guys who are really, really good. They're young. Give them one or two years and we should be good to go."
Early conversations between coach and player, Aldridge said, have been positive and focused on ways for the 2012 All-Star to improve.
"I'm here," he said. "I'm trying to get better every game. I'm trying to make myself better, this team better. We've talked about how he's going to use me. That's been big for us. I think we've had really good communication so far."
Stotts has talked about diversifying the way Aldridge is used on offense. Aldridge, who averaged 21.7 points and 8.0 rebounds per game last season, said he spent most of his summer working on one particular aspect of his offensive game. In past years, that was his left hand or his low block moves. This summer: he moved out from the hoop.
"You always work on the things, your go-to moves, but you always add one thing," he said. "I've added that elbow game off the dribble, getting to the basket, being able to go off the dribble and make shots... Not as much pounding. It's easier to get my shot off, I think it's easier to read double teams. I think overall it's just an easier way to play."
Aldridge, 27, has been the one constant in recent years. He's had some injury scares -- a heart issue, a minor hip surgery, a frightening infection -- but he's been remarkably reliable and durable for most of his 6-year career. Especially considering the recent circumstances. First, the other two-thirds of the Blazers' Big 3 -- Brandon Roy and Greg Oden -- imploded and then last year's veteran-laden team exploded at the trade deadline.
A key part of leadership is properly managing expectations. This is, perhaps, one area where Aldridge has grown since last season. In January, after Portland's hot start, Aldridge went on a national radio show to assert the Blazers could be the Western Conference's second-best team. The Blazers plummeted soon after, finishing No. 11 in the West.
This year? No playoff guarantees, but just the right amount of cautious optimism.
"I think anything is possible," he said. "We don't know how good Dame [Lillard] is going to be or anybody. I think anything is possible. We just have to keep working every day."