Inside LaMarcus Aldridge - Blazers' MVP candidate talks Portland, contract extension and life
These are the salad days for the L-Train, or L.A., or whatever moniker one chooses to bestow upon LaMarcus Aldridge.
The Trail Blazers' captain and All-Star power forward is 28, an age where physical prowess and mental maturity seems to blend and allow the best of the NBA's players to enjoy their heyday.
Aldridge hopes he hasn't yet hit his peak, but the Dallas native is having the time of his life as the leader of a Portland team with a bonafide chance to win an NBA championship.
"I'm in the best place I've been at, both physically and mentally," Aldridge says, relaxing on a bench at the team's Tualatin training facility after a recent workout. "Last season, I felt stronger physically than I'd been, the result of a lot of weight training. Then over the summer, I didn't do anything but work on my skill level.
"I feel smarter (as a player) now. When you've been in the league eight years, the game makes more sense to you. I've heard guys say that when you get older, the game slows down for you. I feel that's where I'm at now. The game isn't moving fast. I know what I want to do, and I do it. Having the teammates I have now helps me do that."
Aldridge is at peace now with his situation in Portland, a far cry from where he was at the end of last season, when the Blazers semi-tanked their way to a 13-game losing streak and a 33-49 record.
At the time, much was made of Aldridge's desire to leave the city and move on to where he had a better chance for success in the playoffs. After seven seasons, he felt he had given his all to help make Portland a winner. The future didn't look rosy to him. He felt a change of scenery might be best-suited for both sides, since the Blazers would surely land major talent in return.
Aldridge expressed his thoughts to general manager Neil Olshey, who had decided he wanted to build a foundation around Aldridge and Rookie of the Year point guard Damian Lillard.
"Neil and I talked all summer," Aldridge says now. "I was unhappy with what happened last season. He said, 'I know you want to win now. We're not going to rebuild. We're going to bring in some guys to win now.' We went back and forth. He said, 'Let me bring in some guys to help you.' And that's what happened."
At one point, Olshey asked Aldridge, "What is the one thing you really want?"
"I want a big guy next to me in the paint," Aldridge responded.
"Neil brought in a rock," Aldridge says now. "Whatever I expressed interest in, he did."
The "rock" was center Robin Lopez, who has been better than anyone, even Olshey, could have predicted.
And as Aldridge has gone about crafting a near-Most Valuable Player-worthy season, he lavishes praise when asked how much credit his 7-foot teammate deserves for his success.
"Most of it, if not all of it," Aldridge says. "Robin is very unselfish. He doesn't ask for the ball. He doesn't cry about not getting touches. He guards the center, and he boxes his man out. He's so massive, I get the power forward guarding me now. That's an advantage for us. He's a hard worker. He's in that mold of come to work, do your job and make a difference."
Now Aldridge is of a different mindset about his future. He has one more year after this on a contract that will pay him $16 million for the 2014-15 campaign. He has allowed himself to consider the possibility of finishing his career in Portland, becoming the NBA rarity of a player spending his entire professional career with one team.
"I've been here a long time now," he says earnestly. "I'm coming up on some (franchise career individual statistical) records. I never used to pay attention to those things, but I've been watching it more this year. I'm the No. 4 scorer now. That's cool. To leave a legacy with one team and win a championship here and to be here my whole career, that would be great."
The biggest part of that is the potential to win a title.
"This team is good," he says. "We can get better. This summer, we can reassess what we have and add things we need. If not this year, in the next couple of years, this team can win a championship."
For the first time, Aldridge is thinking he'd like to sit down with Olshey and negotiate a contract extension.
"I would like to re-sign here," he says. "If they want to talk about it, I would talk about it. They haven't yet, but I'm looking forward to the chance to do that."
If Olshey is prepared to make that happen, he's not revealing it to the media.
"When the appropriate time comes, which is not now, that is a conversation that will happen between (owner) Paul Allen, myself, LaMarcus and his agent (Arn Tellum)," Olshey says. "It's not a conversation that's going to play out in the media in January."
Aldridge has been as sensational as he has been consistent this season. He ranks sixth in the NBA in both scoring (23.6) and rebounding (11.0), both at a career-high pace.
Aldridge, Minnesota's Kevin Love and Sacramento's DeMarcus Cousins are the only players averaging 23 points and 10 boards a game.
Portland's 6-11, 250-pound front-liner also is on pace for a career high in assists (2.9), and he is shooting a solid .809 from the foul line. His field-goal percentage (.475) is at a career low, a direct result of taking an average of 20.5 attempts a game, more than ever before.
Aldridge has scored in double figures in every game this season. He has had monster performances -- 31 points and 25 rebounds against Houston, 30 points and 21 boards vs. Golden State. He has made more big shots in clutch situations than at any time in his career. He has 21 double-doubles and 15 games of at least 20 points and 10 rebounds.
"L.A. just grew up," teammate Nicolas Batum says. "He is more mature. That's it. He has been through a lot, he has had some tough stretches, and he has learned from it. The whole process has been good for him. It's the first time he's averaged 20 and 10. That shows his improvement right there.
"Now that he has been in the league eight years, he has the experience. Now he knows what he has to do when he's the main guy. He's the franchise."
Guard Wesley Matthews contends there hasn't been that much of a jump in Aldridge's game this season.
"He was doing this a lot last year, too, but we weren't winning," Matthews says. "He has improved, but he was one of the top two power forwards in the game last year, too. Now that we have wins under our belt, it's come to the surface."
Part of the added success this season has been the group of players around him -- and not just Lopez. The Blazers lead the NBA in 3-point percentage (.396), which opens the floor for Aldridge and influences opposing defenses.
"It's the best-case scenario for him here in Portland," Boston coach Brad Stevens says. "You have the best offense in the league, and they shoot 3's so well multiple guys capable of hitting five a night. So how much do you double-team Aldridge? It's hard to do when all those guys are going."
Aldridge, too, is providing more of the intangibles this season.
"He is way more vocal than he used to be, on and off the court," Batum says. "When something goes wrong, he's going to talk. A lot of times, he'll say something before the coach (Terry Stotts) will say something."
Being vocal is against Aldridge's nature. He has always been quiet, and that has carried over to his professional career.
"I'm very private," he says. "I have a small circle. My mom, a couple of guys who I grew up with, like Johnny Rockmore, a close friend since we were in middle school. They're the only ones who really know me."
Aldridge, though, has worked on that part of his personality. He is always accommodating as an interview with media and tries to be engaging with fans.
"I've gotten better with being more outgoing," he says. "I've tried to become more of a people person. I have a lot more personality than people see. I'm actually pretty funny with my family and friends. People in Portland see me as serious. I'm not always serious."
Stotts confirms as much.
"L.A. has a good sense of humor," Stotts says. "He has a great laugh. He gets along with everybody. You can have a good conversation with him. I like him professionally and personally. But he is very serious about his job."
Matthews and Batum say they occasionally socialize with Aldridge, sometimes going to dinner together on the road.
"This is our fourth year together as teammates," Matthews says. "We've developed a chemistry, a bond, a friendship. He's always been cool with me."
"He's a superstar on the court," Batum insists, "but a normal guy and a good friend off of it."
Aldridge has never made headlines for off-court behavior. Since he arrived in Portland after his one season at Texas, he has been nothing but a professional.
"I'm just chill," he says with a shrug. "I do my job; I go home."
Aldridge is extremely close with his mother, Georgia Aldridge, 51, who underwent treatment for cancer two years ago.
"She's doing great," he says. "She's healthy. The cancer is under control. She hasn't had any scares since."
LaMarcus says Georgia was pretty much a single parent for himself and brother LaVontae, five years his senior. His father is Marvin Aldridge.
"They split when I was young," LaMarcus says. "My dad wasn't around after I was 8 or 9. We don't have a relationship. No bad blood; we just don't talk to each other."
LaMarcus isn't close, either, to LaVontae, who lives in Dallas and works for a shipping company. "We're OK," he says.
Georgia worked as an insurance agent for 18 years. She is retired now, living in Dallas in a home purchased by LaMarcus.
"She's my rock," he says. "We've been through everything together, ups and downs. She did everything she could growing up to make sure I had everything I needed. Now I'm repaying her. She works for me, watching TV and eating all day."
He laughs at the last thought. It tickles him that he able to take care of the person who took care of him for so long.
LaVontae was a good player who never played beyond high school after suffering a knee injury.
"He helped push me to play basketball, because he was really good when I was younger and I wasn't as good," LaMarcus says. "I'd feed off his energy, his confidence and his drive to play basketball. That drove me to go play, too."
Aldridge tried a lot of sports as a youngster.
"I played baseball but wasn't that good at it," he says. "It was too slow for me. I liked soccer. I played a couple of years when I was 10 and 11. There's a lot of running. That helped me have good footwork in basketball, helped my coordination. I played Pop Warner football. I was a quarterback. I was taller than everybody, so I could look over the line and throw."
Aldridge is now a parent of two sons. Jaylen turns 4 in April. LaMarcus Junior, or "L.J.," is two. They live with their mothers in Dallas.
LaMarcus now owns three homes in the Dunthorpe area, in Dallas and in Newport Beach, Calif. He says he is able to be with the boys "a lot. They come up and spend a week with me in Portland when we can work it out, and I get them pretty much all summer."
LaMarcus says he has found himself enjoying the opportunity to be a father.
"I like that I'm molding this little life," he says. "I'm making my boys into men. I'm teaching them values and the standards I want for themselves. I'm passing that on to them.
"Seeing how they look up to me and get so happy to be around me I just love that. Basketball is a big part of my life, but having your kids is a good balance. They don't care if you score two points or 100. You're their dad."
Aldridge has never had an issue with playing in a small-market NBA city. The bright lights don't interest him that much.
"I'm not a big partier," he says. "I'm not an overly active person during the season. This city fits me as far as being able to relax, take care of my body and focus on being a professional."
In his spare time, he enjoys watching sports, especially football and "my Cowboys," he says. "We've had some tough years lately. I'm good friends with (San Francisco's) Michael Crabtree. It's been fun to follow him."
Aldridge calls himself "a big movie guy." He enjoys reading, especially books "about faith."
In Dallas growing up, he attended a Baptist church "every Sunday," he says. "Most every Tuesday and Thursday, too. Bible study was every day, almost."
Today, he says he attends Solid Rock church in Beaverton "whenever I can."
A couple of years ago, a close friend in Portland gave him a book called "The Shack," a Christian novel written by William P. Young, who lives in Happy Valley.
"It's about going through things and learning how to believe in God," Aldridge says. "I was obsessed with it. It's my all-time favorite book."
The friend brought Young to a game. Afterward, he says, "she surprised me by introducing us. We had a conversation for about 45 minutes about the book, about faith. That was a good moment for me, to meet him and talk to him about the book."
Faith has helped Aldridge come to grips with one of the scariest moments in his life, when he was diagnosed with Wolff-Parkinson-White Sydrome, a heart ailment, in 2007. He had surgery then, and again in 2011, to correct the problem. Today, he has no ill effects, takes no medication for it and doesn't worry about it at all.
"We took care of that issue," he says. "It's fixed. My last time, we handled it. The surgeon looked at the location (of the problem) and said it's no threat to my life, that it's very unlikely I'll have another problem with it."
Aldridge has meshed well with Stotts, now in his second season as Portland's coach, after a start that began a little bumpy. Aldridge had grown used to Stotts' predecessors, Nate McMillan and Kaleb Canales.
"My relationship with Terry has taken a huge jump since last year," Aldridge says. "He is more ... I wouldn't say overly strict, but he's more strict than Nate and Kaleb were. He has more structure than they had. They knew me and knew I'd get my work in.
"Now Terry knows he doesn't have to worry about me doing what I need to do to get better. If I need it, I'll do it. We've grown to know each other, and he's grown to trust me and adjust to my game."
Stotts and Aldridge previously had a cursory relationship. Stotts spent four seasons as an assistant coach with the Mavericks. Aldridge, who spends much of the offseason in Dallas, would sometimes come to work out at the Mavericks' training facility, "so our paths crossed," Stotts says.
After Stotts was named Blazers coach in August 2012, he went to dinner with every player on the Portland roster, "usually in groups of two or three," he says. "The exception was LaMarcus."
Stotts and Olshey flew to Southern California and met with Aldridge in Newport Beach.
"That was the first time I'd spent some time with him," Stotts says. "We had an extended conversation about him, about our team, about our staff, about our philosophy. I didn't have that in-depth a conversation with the other players."
It was a show of respect by Stotts, who knew how important Aldridge would be to his success with the Blazers.
"You want all your players to appreciate and respect what you're trying to get done," Stotts says. "But the leaders of the players are especially important, whether it's Magic (Johnson) or Michael (Jordan) or Dirk (Nowitzki) or LaMarcus. You're only going to be as successful as your best players are.
"I view it as a partnership with L.A. He's been here a long time. He's established himself as an All-Star. He's growing into a leadership role. That partnership with him makes everything go more smoothly and more successfully."
The first season was a feeling-out period for both coach and player. Stotts feels there may have been some resentment from Aldridge in regards to Stotts' previous relationship with Nowitzki.
"There was an adjustment period for both of us," Stotts says. "The whole LaMarcus-Dirk comparison was overblown. I had to adjust to that, because LaMarcus is his own man, his own player, with his own skill set. So me coming in and having those comparisons wasn't fair to him.
"It was an adjustment throughout the season. It's like that when a new coach comes in, brings in a new philosophy and you don't have a relationship with him. So much of this business is developing relationships."
Stotts has tread lightly in his personal relationship with Aldridge, as he says he tries to do with each player.
"I know a little bit about his family, his mom and his kids," Stotts says. "He's a quiet, private guy, and I respect that. Everybody has his life going. You have your work life and your private life. You want to have an idea of what's going on in your players' lives, but not necessarily to dive into them."
Stotts is particularly appreciative of Aldridge's increased commitment to defense and leadership this season.
"He's better this season at both ends," Stotts says. "It's easy to look at the points and the rebounds, but he has been improved defensively he has been terrific at times. He's very vocal defensively. He's committed in the huddles and the locker room as far as getting guys to commit to playing defense."
Aldridge says he is having more fun playing basketball this season than at any time in his life.
"The guys on our team are so unselfish," he says. "I've never been on a team where the ball moves as well as it does on this team. Guys make the extra pass. To have guys all with one goal to win and to have a good balance of vets and young players it's been great. To have Joel (Freeland) and Mo (Williams) and Meyers (Leonard) and Thomas (Robinson) as energy guys off the bench it's been fun to see how well this team has jelled."
Aldridge mentions the reserves on purpose.
"I don't know who said it, but I remember a quote from somebody who plays for Miami or San Antonio," he says. "It was something like, 'We have a great team because we have 15 guys who understand their role.' You have teams where a guy who isn't playing feels he should, so he don't practice hard and he brings guys down. On this team, we have guys who are positive. Guys are doing it the right way right now."
Aldridge was touched the first time he heard the Moda City denizens chant "MVP!" when he was at the free-throw line late in a game this season. He pinches himself when he thinks about his lot in life, and how far he has come.
"God has blessed me," he says. "I came from not having much to having anything I can desire. I thank God every day. At times I do feel like it's surreal.
"Running out in that arena and hearing all those fans stand up and cheer for you that's fun. Hearing that MVP chant, I mean kids dream about that playing in the park. Shooting baskets by yourself, you make those type of moments up in your head. To have that actually come true, that was just fun."
Aldridge pauses in thought. The salad days of his career didn't come without moments of self-doubt along the way. He remains appreciative of the belief held by his early coaches Robert Allen in high school, Rick Barnes in college that he would achieve greatness.
"I don't know if anyone thought I'd be this good, other than (Allen and Barnes)," he says. "They told me I'd be where I am today. Maybe I didn't believe it at the moment, either. But they've always been in my corner."
Aldridge also is appreciative of his standing with the Portland fans.
"This city probably backs me so much because they've seen me grow from my first year," he says. "Not being that strong a player, but trying to make a difference. Now being dominant in different things, and trying to be better every year."
It's a good place to be. Aldridge is going to try to ride the L-Train now as well as he can, for as long as he can.