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Nate McMillan, Robin Lopez Reflect on the LaMarcus Aldridge Era

Michael Pina of VICE Sports caught up with former Blazers personnel to talk about the what ifs during Aldridge’s tenure.

Cleveland Cavaliers v Portland Trail Blazers Photo by Steve Dykes/Getty Images

LaMarcus Aldridge leaving the Portland Trail Blazers will always hang over the franchise. Their star in his prime left for a San Antonio Spurs team heralded for its championship culture. With Aldridge’s departure, championship contention for Portland seemed to go with him. But it also signaled a shift in leadership and culture, with Damian Lillard becoming the franchise player — that’s worked out pretty well.

Michael Pina of VICE Sports got the usually quiet Aldridge to speak in an expansive article about his past and present. The Blazers obviously came up, starting at the beginning:

“I was really impressed with how hard [Aldridge] worked when he worked out for us,” says Indiana Pacers head coach Nate McMillan, who spent nearly six seasons with Aldridge as Portland’s head coach. “I recall LaMarcus, after an hour and a half, two-hour workout, he stayed and shot afterwards. Most guys, that was unusual for us...Most guys are icing and they’re getting out of the gym. He stayed.”

Aldridge’s two running mates, albeit not for as long as the franchise would’ve hoped, in Brandon Roy and Greg Oden created the ultimate young core. Then it collapsed suddenly:

In an alternate universe, Aldridge spends his prime thriving in a slightly reduced role on a Blazers dynasty flanked by two fellow perennial All-NBA talents. But in this one, a degenerative knee condition forced Roy to retire in 2011, while multiple microfracture surgeries limited Oden to 82 total games in a Blazers uniform. It’s one of the more paralyzing What If’s in recent NBA history. Under McMillan, Portland never made it out of the first round.

“If I’m still there and those guys are still healthy, with Brandon, LaMarcus, and Greg Oden,” McMillan muses, “If we don’t have a title by now, it would be…” his voice trails off. “Injuries to Brandon and Greg almost crippled that organization.” The Blazers moved on from McMillan during the lockout-shortened 2011-12 season, which doubled as Aldridge’s All-Star debut.

As the team drafted Damian Lillard, and acquired Robin Lopez to go along with Nicolas Batum and Wesley Matthews, Aldridge and co. were poised for contention. After a strong 2014 playoffs, the team came out on another level during the 2014-15 season before an injury to Matthews tanked any championship chances. Lopez doesn’t doubt Portland’s potential that season:

I recently sat down with Chicago Bulls center Robin Lopez, who was Aldridge’s teammate for a couple years in Portland, to chat about their brief time together. The Blazers won 105 regular-season games with those two as a frontcourt tandem, but injuries derailed the franchise’s high aspirations. I ask Lopez about that particular what if. Could the Blazers have won a championship in 2015?

“Without question,” Lopez says. “Without question. We were really clicking that year.”

Aldridge is averaging 22.2 points and 8.2 rebounds per game this season with the Spurs. He was selected as an All-Star this year (his second as a Spur) after being an All-Star four times while with Portland.

Pina also talks to Blazers assistant coach David Vanterpool about why he enjoyed coaching the big man, and gets Aldridge to reflect on his relationship with Damian Lillard that’s been described as distant. It’s worth the read.