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LaMarcus Aldridge and Damian Lillard: the Symbiotic Trail Blazers

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Could Damian Lillard's new-found fame become an issue for Trail Blazer superstar LaMarcus Aldridge?

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Dave,

Recently, Chris [Lucia] wrote an article on how Damian Lillard's superstardom affects the Blazers. It got me thinking about LaMarcus Aldridge. He was in Brandon Roy's shadow for a number of years and is now enjoying the roll of the leader, best player and face of the franchise. Lillard is everywhere now, and even though Aldridge is still clearly the better player, I can see Damian's star casting a shadow over Aldridge. How do you think that affects Aldridge, negatively or positively? Do you think if he feels that he is playing second fiddle again he will be more apt to look to sign elsewhere? Also, does this cause a dilemma with Blazer management/PR? I would imagine they would love to capitalize on all of Lillard's fame, but if they thrust him into the forefront, does that cost them Aldridge? Seems like a great problem to have, but a bit of a sticky situation.

Aaron

Only one person knows the answer to that question: Aldridge. Everybody else's musings are guesswork at best. Since we're not above a little guesswork, let's examine the issue more closely.

The Damian Lillard Phenomenon is real. If you ask a semi-serious NBA fan to name a member of the Portland Trail Blazers, Aldridge will probably still roll off the tongue first. Switch to a more casual fan and Lillard will overtake LaMarcus. He's touched a nerve in the popular culture. He's become one of the most recognizable young players in the league, let alone on the Trail Blazers. The kid is hot.

I don't think Blazers management is losing a wink of sleep over the situation either. It's a godsend. Lillard will rally folks who would have otherwise ignored the team. Sponsors will follow in their wake. Plus Lillard is a bona fide Neil Olshey draft pick...a major success story. They're going to ride this wave for all it's worth, and appropriately so.

As you've stated, the publicity machine skipping past Aldridge to embrace a teammate hearkens back to LaMarcus' early years in Portland. Technically Aldridge objected to coming third in the pecking order back then, not second. (By custom his name was mentioned behind both Brandon Roy and Greg Oden.) But the sentiment's the same. One could argue that after his sophomore season, Lillard's star is already outshining Roy's at its peak. Brandon was considered an "in the know" fan's favorite, a basketball purist's delight. Damian's more like, "If you don't know, you better ask somebody." Either way--looking upward at two pretty big guys or at one emerging giant--Aldridge ends up closer to the penumbra than the podium.

Similar-looking circumstances don't necessitate a carbon-copy reaction from Aldridge, however. His approach in 2014 could differ from 2007 for a host of reasons.

Age is the most obvious variable. 28 feels different than 21 did for most of us, doubly so in a profession where good careers don't last much more than a decade.

An All-Star, All-NBA player entering his 9th season has much less to fear and much less to prove (reputation-wise, anyway) than a rookie. LaMarcus may not get a 9-figure shoe deal but the guys who cut the NBA checks know his name and his value. He'll have a job in this league as long as his body can handle it. With all the elbow room and minutes he could ask for, with money in the bank, and with a max-level contract on the horizon, Aldridge is less apt to look at teammates as competition now than he did 7 years ago. They'll be judged by their ability to help him reach his unfulfilled career goals: deep playoff run, World Title, memorable legacy.

Aldridge and Lillard have reason to make each other comfortable. They live in symbiosis. If Aldridge leaves, Lillard's sitting on top of a 30-win franchise. There's no playoffs, no miracle finish against Houston, no Play of the Year, and far less recognition. To the extent that Lillard brings extra attention to the Blazers, Aldridge knows that those observers will be looking at him as well. They can't avoid it. Anybody with one good eye will see that the franchise centers around LaMarcus. If Aldridge freezes out Lillard, then he's risking the 30-win curse himself, flushing away those dreams of greater glory.

Aldridge, Roy, and Oden all needed to establish themselves. Like three sun-soaking saplings planted in the same plot, nature decreed them half-neighbors, half-competitors. Aldridge and Lillard are a tall fir and a young hemlock growing in its shade. The latter will eventually supplant the former but not for a while yet. In the meantime they need each other to keep the ecosystem healthy.

Yes, Aldridge could get around his relationship with Lillard by signing with another team. But how will that change his situation? If he goes to a franchise where he'll be the clear #1 option (on and off the court) he's not going to find greater success than he did in Portland. If he joins a team with enough established stars to make a title run he's not going to outshine them, leaving him in the same situation he faces playing alongside Lillard. Either way, nothing changes but the scenery.

Feelings don't always follow logic. Perception can be tricky and the heart wants what it wants. But from the outside there's more incentive for Aldridge to view Lillard--and the attention Lillard draws--as a benefit than a curse. That might not have been true 7 years ago, but everything around Aldridge has changed so radically that the earlier situations are barely recognizable.

I'm guessing that warm feelings will carry the day as long as the Blazers continue to win. The old cliché about "the best deodorant" holds true. As long as the Blazers run a strong playoff race everybody on the team will look good. Minor inconveniences and pangs of jealousy will fall by the wayside. Slipping backwards could exacerbate faults, changing the story. But we won't know until it actually happens, which hopefully it won't.

None of this guarantees that Aldridge will remain a Blazer. We won't know that until he inks a new contract. But if he did leave, I'd be surprised if the attention paid to Lillard was anything more than a minor factor in his decision.

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--Dave blazersub@gmail.com / @DaveDeckard