Before we can figure out how the Portland Trail Blazers should spend their assets this off-season, we need to figure out where the team stands. We know about the 33-49 record, a presumed "core", and a vague sense of promise for the future. What about the nuts and bolts? How did Portland's players do this year and what are their prospects for the future?
We're going to begin the process with the two unquestioned stars of the roster, LaMarcus Aldridge and Damian Lillard. We'll look at Aldridge today and Lillard tomorrow, then take the rest of the roster in larger groups.
There's little doubt that LaMarcus Aldridge has matured into one of the finest power forwards in the NBA, if not the finest. He finished 9th in the league in points per game, 16th in rebounds per game. For perspective, the latter number put him just one-tenth of a point behind Denver's Kenneth Faried, widely consider a monster rebounder. Aldridge also showed good sense passing out of pressure and the ability to play in the new, movement-oriented offense.
The Blazers relied on Aldridge this year more than they have in any single year to date and he came through for them, proving his legitimacy as a #1 option and All-Star in this league. He's Portland's best player and it's not even close.
Here's the catch, though. We're measuring total numbers and total effect. That's legitimate, because at some point a player's worth has to be judged by the sum of his actual work on the court instead of guesstimated by projecting the average of his production into minutes he didn't play. Aldridge played a ton of minutes this year and produced well, the strongest explanation of his season.
When you start looking at per minute efficiency, though, Aldridge slips. Only rebounding and fouls went in a positive direction. Assists and turnovers stayed mostly level. Everything else--shooting percentages, points, fouls drawn--went south, drastically in the case of his shooting. Playing in a new system with far less talent around him provide convincing explanations for the drop. Maybe those numbers will rebound next year when those conditions no longer apply. But if there's one thing the Blazers don't need from the guy at the top of their roster, it's another "maybe". They have too many maybes at other positions. They need an unqualified "YES!" from LMA.
The question the Blazers most need that "YES!" answer to is whether Aldridge is the guy to lead them deep into the playoffs and perhaps to a championship level. Is he truly among the league's elite players?
The response depends on your definition of "elite". How big is that circle? That he's perhaps the best, certainly among the top 2-3, power forwards in the league could be indicative. But that's kind of a canard as well. Championships aren't won by the best players at each position. The NBA is not going to hold a drawing and say, "Let's give the trophy to the team with the best power forward." Title are won by the teams with the best players, period. The glory of having the best power forward in the league dims a little when you consider 15 or 16 other players might be better overall...far more depending on which metric you favor. That's still pretty good in a league of 400+ guys, but another way of looking at it is that half the league has a head start on the Blazers in the championship chase when you compare most valuable players.
Can Aldridge take a team to the Promised Land? His performance certainly puts him into that discussion. But he's not going to do it alone in a league that features not only LeBron James and Kevin Durant, but James Harden, Kyrie Irving, Russell Westbrook, and a handful of other guys who could claim to play at or above Aldridge's level.
LaMarcus Aldridge confirmed this year that he's a legitimate star in this league regardless of the circumstances surrounding him. Blazer fans need never question whether he's great. He also confirmed that he's unlikely to be the kind of luminous, transcendent star who takes a team on his back and leads them to victory night after night, ripping away games from the jaws of defeat. He's not that kind of scorer, that kind of leader, or even that kind of all-around player. He's going to need help from a player nearly as good as he before the Blazers are taken seriously in a league dominated by Miami, Oklahoma City, San Antonio, and a few others. Alternately he's going to need a roster as deep, well-matched, and relentless as that of the Denver Nuggets.
The Blazers are a long way from either of those goals, illustrating again how high the bar sits for this summer's moves and the continuing rebuilding process.
What do you think? LaMarcus Aldridge is Portland's most valuable player. Is that going to be enough or should the Blazers be looking to go another direction, if not now then a little bit down the road? Also share your perceptions of the evolution (or de-evolution) of Aldridge's game this year in the comment section below.
Aldridge's Year-to-Year stats from BasketballReference