- J.A. Adande, NBA
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The scout notices a difference in LaMarcus Aldridge that wasn't there when Aldridge entered the NBA 4½ years ago.
"I see something in his eyes," the scout says. "I can see he's really motivated.
"I think he's hell-bent on getting the chance to get an All-Star spot."
The scout couldn't be more right. And the scout has no idea why.
Perhaps if the scout had been in Portland for the Trail Blazers' game against the Miami Heat last Sunday he would have seen the reason. He would have seen Aldridge's best stat line of the season, with 31 points, 14 rebounds and seven assists. He would have seen Aldridge score six of Portland's final eight points in regulation, on a night Aldridge said he "had a little more energy."
The story could be found in the stands. Aldridge's mother, Georgia, was at the Rose Garden. Usually she'll pick spots on the schedule when the Trail Blazers have a cluster of home games and leave her home in Dallas to come watch her son play. The Heat game was her first of the season. Traveling has become much more difficult.
"She has cancer," Aldridge says. "It started out as breast cancer. It spread under the lymph nodes under her arms. She's fighting cancer."
She was diagnosed during the preseason, and Aldridge received permission to leave the team to be with her. Even after he returned to Portland his mind was still back in Dallas. He scored only eight points in the season opener against Phoenix and shot 38 percent in the first three games.
"At first it did kind of get to me a little bit," Aldridge says. "I wasn't playing as good. [Now] I've taken it as motivation to go out and play hard and taking out my frustration on the court. The other thing is to do as much as I can to put myself in the All-Star light. If I make it, that would give her something to look forward to other than having chemo."
Ordinarily a blatant push for the All-Star Game would be considered selfish, a quest for individual recognition in a team sport. This is different. It's about a son's desire to reflect a little glory on the woman who raised him mostly on her own, the mother who (as recounted in this TexasSports.com story) gave him guidance on everything from chewing his food properly to choosing the University of Texas.
Aldridge's All-Star case is getting stronger by the month. In November he averaged 18.9 points on 46.1 percent shooting and 8.0 rebounds. In December he shot 49.8 percent with 20.4 points and 8.6 rebounds per game. In six games this month he's shooting 50.8 percent and averaging 26.3 points and 11.3 rebounds. He has racked up 19 double-doubles this season, eighth-most in the league.
The numbers are the result of an unusual mix of preparation, necessity and motivation.
Aldridge bulked up by 20 pounds this summer. He had Blazers assistant coach Bill Bayno come to Dallas to work with him, focusing on developing moves with his left hand. Then Aldridge became the team's primary option with Brandon Roy limited and then kept out entirely because of aching knees.
"They're running more stuff for him," the scout says. "Nate [McMillan] has to go to him. There's a pattern here that he's more involved and gets more post touches."
Aldridge can also run the floor for transition baskets or get put-backs as the team's leading offensive rebounder. Rather than produce numbers from selfishly monopolizing the ball, "it's the opposite," the scout says. "He's getting it in the flow of the game."
Some of it is simply a byproduct of maturity for a player who is still six months shy of his 26th birthday. He's finally fulfilling the wishes of Blazers fans who wanted to see the 6-foot-11 forward go inside instead of settling for jumpers. His shot chart is starting to resemble a closed fist rather than spread fingers.
"As we get older in this league you start to figure out things more," Aldridge says. "I think I've figured out how to get to the basket more, how to do things in the paint more. Not having Brandon, I had to figure out ways to give us offense in the paint. Playing without him, my confidence has grown a lot. The team looks at me more."
Aldridge and the surging Wesley Matthews have enabled the Blazers to win eight of their past 13 games without Roy -- not to mention the absence of the perpetually injured Greg Oden, amid the woe-is-us fan base that has been waiting to catch a break for more than three decades.
"At first, Greg was a big blow for us," Aldridge says. "We felt bad for him. Brandon was a big blow. We play through him, he creates our offense. For the city of Portland it was like a great sadness. For us it was a big adjustment period to learn how to play without him, to learn how to close out games. He's a big part of what we do. It was big for us to figure out how to win.
"We have a bunch of guys that won't give up. More than that we have a bunch of guys who can play. Brandon went out, Wesley's played good basketball. He's had some big basketball for us to win games. He might not be Brandon Roy, All-Star, but he's given us enough to get wins. Rudy [Fernandez] has stepped up his play."
If I make it, that would give her something to look forward to other than having chemo.
”-- LaMarcus Aldridge on his motivation to make the All-Star team for his mother
Matthews and Fernandez are bonuses; Aldridge is a necessity. He still has four years and $54.1 million remaining on his contract. If he's making All-Star money he has to produce All-Star stats for the Blazers to be functional. Now the question is whether he'll be rewarded with an All-Star appearance.
Kevin Durant and Carmelo Anthony are the leading Western Conference forwards in the fan balloting. Among potential reserve forward selections, Dirk Nowitzki, Blake Griffin, Kevin Love, Rudy Gay and Michael Beasley are averaging more points than Aldridge's 20.4. But Aldridge's team has a better record than all of the reserve candidates except Nowitzki's. Lamar Odom deserves consideration for his role in helping the Lakers to the second-best record in the conference. (Pau Gasol is listed as a forward on the ballot but has started more games at center this season while Andrew Bynum was injured and would be a logical choice to replace injured center vote-leader Yao Ming in the All-Star starting lineup.)
Anthony could be traded to the Eastern Conference before All-Star weekend. Former Western All-Stars Amare Stoudemire and Carlos Boozer already migrated East via free agency last summer. The Blazers' usual representative, Roy, is out of commission. And Aldridge is having the best season of his career. It's his best chance yet.
Still, the only way I could see him on the All-Star team is if Carmelo gets traded to the East. That would leave a lineup of Kobe Bryant, Chris Paul, Durant, Gasol, Nowitzki, Deron Williams, Russell Westbrook, Manu Ginobili, Tim Duncan and two guys from teams with losing records, Love and Griffin, whose seasons are too strong to be ignored.
That would leave one spot for Aldridge to squeak past Odom and Monta Ellis. And a chance to bring a little joy to one courageous woman in Dallas.
If it looks like LaMarcus Aldridge has picked up his intensity on the court, it is because he has.