There are certain players in today's NBA that you watch and, even if you're vociferously rooting for the opposing team and you're dying to see them lose, you just can't help but respect. Guys who have been around a long time, achieved at a high level and earned a reputation as - on the court and off - one of the best.
Dirk Nowitzki is one of those players. Watching the veteran big man take the floor last night for the Dallas Mavericks against the Trail Blazers, even if you were rooting with all your might for Portland to vanquish the visitors, evoked a certain feeling of awe. Dirk is a living legend. He's a league MVP, a Finals MVP and one of the great shotmakers in league history.
He also is the Mavericks. He epitomizes that team. When you think of the Mavs' last decade and a half, you invariably think of Dirk - he's been the face of the franchise the entire time, the one cornerstone guy that everything else has been built around. Dallas has earned 13 Western Conference playoff berths in 14 years, and Dirk is unquestionably the biggest reason why.
His career arc has been an amazing thing to witness.
It also, if you're a Blazers fan, makes you wonder if we'll ever feel the same way about LaMarcus Aldridge.
Aldridge has been a standout power forward in Portland for eight years running, going on a ninth. Ever since the Blazers made him the No. 2 overall pick in the draft back in 2006, he's been one of the team's franchise players. He's been through multiple iterations of the franchise - there was a time between 2007 and '10 when the Blazers envisioned a future built around Aldridge, Brandon Roy and Greg Oden; and once that fizzled out, the team shifted its focus and instead shaped something around a nucleus of Aldridge, Damian Lillard and Nicolas Batum. Over the years, LMA has been the one and only constant.
He may see future editions of the Blazers yet. This summer, when Aldridge's contract status was called into question and the team pressed him to extend his commitment to the team past the summer of 2015, Aldridge politely declined to sign a contract on the spot, but pledged that he would re-up in Portland next summer. He told Joe Freeman of The Oregonian that his plan was one based on long-term thinking. Very long-term, in fact:
"I want to be the best Blazer - ever."
That's a loaded statement. Dirk is the best Maverick ever. He reached that point by staying in Dallas for 16-plus seasons, winning a ring and providing his fanbase with a bottomless trove of memorable moments. Can Aldridge ever reach that level?
After eight seasons in the NBA, Aldridge is still only 29. He's been remarkably consistent his whole career in terms of his durability and on-court productivity. He's in good physical shape and should age well as his game continues to evolve. The guy should be around for a long time, barring any surprising developments - if not for the next decade, then at least close.
In that time, could he ever surpass the franchise's all-time greats and establish his place as numero uno?
It's a tall order.
Let's start with some numbers. Purely statistically speaking, here are the top 10 Blazers ever, as things stand right now:
Top 10 Blazers, all time, by win shares:
By no means is this judgment final. Win shares are a good all-encompassing stat - they take the overall success of the team and attribute it to the best players, thereby rewarding productivity, longevity and winning all at once - but they're far from perfect. They're way too reliant on offensive counting stats like points and rebounds while failing to address numerous other aspects of the game, and besides, there's a bigger point here. Put simply, there's no one way to define "best." The beauty of sport is that we're all, as fans, allowed to interpret things in our own ways. I might love a player for one reason, you might hate him because you look at him in a totally different way. Neither one of us is necessarily wrong.
So how do you decide on a "best" Blazer, anyway? What does "best" mean to you?
As I see it, there are a few different angles to come at this from.
Basketball, like most other sports, is largely judged on the merit of statistics. You want to be the best player? Prove it. Pile up the points and boards, and we'll see who comes out on top.
It's easy to paint LaMarcus Aldridge in a positive light if you live by stats. Putting up numbers is in his basketball DNA - he's the quintessential "double-double guy," and he has been for years. But are his numbers good enough to establish him as the No. 1 all-time Blazer?
Short answer: No, at least not yet, but they could be someday. Let's take a look at where Aldridge stands on the franchise's all-time list in a few select categories:
Games played: Seventh all-time. Clyde Drexler is No. 1, having played 867 contests in the crimson and black, while Aldridge is a ways back at 582. Jerome Kersey, Terry Porter, Clifford Robinson, Jim Paxson and Larry Steele sit in between. Seems like a big gap, but if Aldridge plays the remaining 77 games of this season and 82 for the next few years, he'd break Drexler's record in January 2018, when he's still only 32. This presumes health and Aldridge's continued commitment to the Blazers, but neither of those seems implausible.
Minutes played: Fourth. At 20,631, he's already put in a great deal of time, but he's still behind Drexler (29,496), Porter and Kersey. To make up 8,865 minutes at his career average of 35.5 per game, he's looking at just about 250 games to go, or three seasons. Again, within range.
Field goals made: Second. Drexler's at 6,889; LMA sits for the moment at 4,506. Give him four years.
Blocks: Sixth. Mychal Thompson holds the all-time mark at 768, ahead of Clifford Robinson's 726; Rasheed Wallace, Joel Przybilla and Kersey are all in the 600s and Aldridge is at 595. This mark looks to be about three years off.
Rebounds: Fifth, but closing in fast. Clyde had 5,339 career boards with the Blazers, more than Kersey, Thompson, Buck Williams and - so far - Aldridge. At 4,739 and counting, LMA is only 600 away. He had 765 total rebounds last season alone. He could hold the franchise record by April.
Points: All right, here's the big one. Drexler, one of the greatest scorers of his generation, is obviously the man to beat. And the margin isn't small:
Top 10 Blazers, all time, by points scored:
Aldridge has always been a steady scorer, but he's never been a league-leader type. He's content to get his 22 and call it a night. In his career, he's never had a 2,000-point season; Drexler had two, and a third one in the 1,900s. But he also played less than 12 seasons with the Blazers and left when he was 32; Aldridge might surpass him in longevity. And, given four or five more seasons in a Portland uniform, he might outscore him too.
If Aldridge is a standout Blazer for another half-decade or more, he could easily emerge as the top dog in every single one of the above categories. If he did, would you automatically christen him as the best player in franchise history?
Don't worry - this isn't a trap. You're allowed to say yes. You can also say no if you want - there are plenty of other possible criteria.
To some, Bill Walton will always be viewed as the best player in Portland history. The reasoning is pretty simple, really - the team has only won one championship, in 1977, and Walton was the heart and soul of that '77 team, leading them through Kareem's Lakers to win the West and over Dr. J's 76ers in the Finals. No other Blazer has ever been the catalyst for winning a ring, and for some, the debate begins and ends with that.
Who am I to disagree? The entire point of professional sports is the quest to win a championship, and Walton's Blazers were the only ones to do it. They had a good chance to win the next one, too, as they were 50-10 in 1977-78 before a broken foot derailed Walton's season. If you're looking for a great Portland team, it's hard to find one better than Walton's group in the late '70s. The team also achieved success with Drexler in the early '90s, winning the West twice, and reached a couple of conference finals during the Rasheed years around the turn of the century, but still just the one ring.
Winning a championship is, besides being the ultimate goal, also the most memorable thing you can achieve in the NBA. Fans can tell their kids and their grandkids about the time they saw their Trail Blazers hoist the trophy. There's no substitute for that.
There are, however, lots of other criteria people use to define "best."
There are all kinds of other factors, really.
For some, it's a matter of offering memorable moments. For example - who can forget Damian Lillard's series of buzzer-beaters that won several games for the Blazers last year, most notably his "Point Nine" miracle that knocked the Rockets out of the playoffs in May? If Lillard rises a few spots on your "best Blazers" list because of his last-second heroics, it's hard to blame you for that.
Some fans like their Blazers to be not just basketball players, but cultural icons for all of Portland - Walton earns a few bonus points in the eyes of some because of what he represented socially. He was an outspoken liberal who personified the counterculture of the Pacific Northwest in the 1970s. You could argue that his all-around impact came from what he gave Portland off the court as much as on it.
Still other Blazer faithfuls want their favorite players to have a little edge to them - a little attitude. Rasheed (full disclosure: I love Rasheed and have used his likeness for years in my Twitter avatar) had a reputation as a "bad boy" in the late-1990s NBA, picking fights with players and referees and piling up technicals with impunity. The entertainment value earns him a little extra credit.
What are your criteria? I'm sure there are some I've missed.
There's really no one way to answer the question. Years from now, if and when LaMarcus Aldridge walks into a building wearing a Portland Trail Blazers uniform, you might look at him and think of him the same way you thought of Dirk Nowitzki in Dallas - as a franchise icon, as the best player his team ever had. You might not. I can't tell anyone what to think or feel.
But I can say, pretty definitively, that this conversation has earned the right to live and breathe. We can spend years debating it, and we may never arrive at a conclusive answer, but the topic is in play. LaMarcus Aldridge isn't the best Blazer ever - not yet, anyway - but he's earned the right to say that perhaps, maybe, someday, he just might be.