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As Blazers drop, Aldridge stands tall

Marc J. Spears
Yahoo Sports
As Blazers drop, Aldridge stands tall
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LaMarcus Aldridge has become the Blazers' top offensive option with Brandon Roy out

LaMarcus Aldridge(notes) has one request for the Portland Trail Blazers these days: No one is allowed to call him a center. Not even if the Blazers' thinning ranks sometimes make him the biggest player on the court.

Aldridge has seen Greg Oden(notes) lose another season to a knee injury. He's watched Joel Przybilla(notes) have to work his way back into the lineup after recovering from his own knee injury. And on Thursday, Marcus Camby(notes) underwent an arthroscopic procedure on his right knee which is expected to sideline him for three weeks. All of them are centers, and that's not including Portland's tortured history of injuries with Sam Bowie and Bill Walton.

So it's no surprise that the only "C" Aldridge wants listed next to his name on the roster is that for "captain."

"We've been in a horror movie for three years," Aldridge said. "Any guy that has played center has gone down for us. If you look three or four years, Joel went down, Camby went down now, Greg went down. That's why I'm always a power forward.

"Everyone just knows it: Don't call me center; call me power forward. That center position is just scary right now."

It was an injury to the Blazers' All-Star shooting guard, however, that has thrust Aldridge into the biggest role of his career. With Brandon Roy(notes) sidelined indefinitely after having surgery on both of his knees, Aldridge has become the team's top offensive threat. The Blazers now follow his lead.

In the 18 games since Roy has been sidelined, Aldridge has averaged 25.9 points on 53.7 percent shooting along with 10.1 rebounds per game. He scored a career-high 37 against the Minnesota Timberwolves on Jan. 17, and credits his improved explosiveness and physicality to weight lifting and better training after a lackluster performance in last season's playoffs.

Even with all the injuries, Aldridge is confident he can help carry the Blazers into the playoffs.

"It's a lot on me right now," he said. "But I think if I continue to do what I'm doing – playing solid, being that guy down low and playing with confidence – everything should be OK."

Were Aldridge actually listed as a center, his strong play would make it easier for him to make the Western Conference All-Star team. Instead, he's competing with a long line of talented forwards including Kevin Durant(notes), Carmelo Anthony(notes), Tim Duncan(notes), Dirk Nowitzki(notes), Kevin Love(notes) and Blake Griffin(notes). Aldridge figures the last spot on the roster could come down to him, Love or Griffin, and he isn't optimistic about his chances – even if he's the only one of the three playing for a winning team.

"I don't think they are going to pick me," Aldridge said. "You got Kevin Love, who is the leading rebounder. You got Blake Griffin, who's a dunkfest highlight show. If they keep the [unspoken] rule of teams about .500, I should be there. I think this will be the first year they take guys with losing records."

Aldridge has begun to realize the potential that made him the second overall pick of the 2006 draft, but his improvement comes at the same time injured teammates Roy and Oden are at a crossroads in their careers. When the Blazers made Oden the No. 1 overall pick of the 2007 draft – one year after Aldridge and Roy were taken – Portland looked to have the core of a young team that could eventually challenge for a championship.

"I was really, really excited to have [Oden] on the team," Aldridge said. "I felt that he was going to be that piece that we needed to go for it. I was younger and felt we could all grow together.

"I felt like we could win a championship."

Oden, however, has spent more time in the training room than on the floor, and it's uncertain if the Blazers will re-sign him even when he recovers. Roy might never regain the level of play that made him a two-time NBA All-Star. Still, Aldridge is optimistic that Roy will be back this season, and with all three being 26 and under, he's hopeful they will get another chance to do what they were projected to do.

"I've been through the fire with Brandon. We came in together. To see him not out there is really, really tough," Aldridge said. "Not seeing Greg play a whole season yet and showing the world what he can do, I feel bad for him."

With so much unknown about the Blazers' future, Aldridge has become one of the few bright spots for the franchise.

"I'm a Trail Blazer until they get rid of me," Aldridge said. "We're just going through a really tough time right now, but we should bounce back."

With that, Aldridge bent down and rapped his knuckles on a piece of wood. As one of the few big men still standing for the Blazers, no one can blame him for being superstitious.


Will Bird leave the Pacers?

Now in his eighth season as an executive with the Indiana Pacers, Larry Bird still enjoys watching the team's young players develop – but he also isn't certain to return next year. His contract as the Pacers' president expires on Aug. 1, and he said he'll sit down with the franchise's owner, Herb Simon, before then to address his future.

"You never know," Bird said. "The owner might want whatever he thinks. I might not want to come back. I really don't know at this stage, but I do enjoy it.

"I tell everybody I got one of the best jobs in the world. You got to take the good with the bad, but once it turns, it's going to turn good.

"I'll talk to [Simon] about that after the season. But we have a great owner. I respect him. He's great for the league and has been very good to me. I've been with him 11 years. But whatever he thinks, we'll sit down and talk about it."

Bird ran the Pacers with current New York Knicks president Donnie Walsh until Walsh stepped down in March 2008. Bird has made some strong moves since Walsh's departure, re-signing forward Danny Granger(notes), acquiring point guard Darren Collison(notes) and drafting center Roy Hibbert(notes) and promising rookie guard Paul George(notes). But with a 16-23 record, the Pacers are barely hanging on to the Eastern Conference's eighth seed. Bird sat through another close loss this week at Golden State.

"We'll learn, but it's painful right now, no question," Bird said.

Bird is hoping to land a power forward prior to the Feb. 24 trade deadline. He has discussed dealing for Anthony Randolph(notes) of the Knicks.

"If I had an opportunity to get a player we really liked, I'd go ahead and do it," Bird said.

The Pacers expect to have $24 million – not including what they spend on their first-round pick – to use in free agency. Indiana also could be hiring a new coach in the offseason because Jim O'Brien is in the last year of his deal. Those close to Bird say his competitive nature, strong relationship with Simon and the players, and intrigue about the franchise's future are all expected to bring him back.

"This is really going to be the first year we are really going to have some money to go out and take a look," Bird said. "We've sort of been hamstrung. We got a lot of guys in the last years of their deals. We got some good young players we really like. We're trying to get better the rest of the year and develop a little bit, get a couple pieces and hopefully be better next [season]."


Prospect watch

NBA fans probably know more about Klay Thompson's father than they do the Washington State swingman. But give him time. The way the son of former Los Angeles Laker Mychal Thompson has been playing, NBA scouts are becoming more and more familiar with him.

"They at least know about me in the Northwest," Klay Thompson said. "I don't know about the East Coast. There is a lot of East Coast bias. That's why we got to get to the tournament so they know who we are."

The 6-foot-6, 202-pound junior is averaging 22.9 points – high in the Pac-10 – 5.2 rebounds and 4.0 assists while shooting 44.1 percent from 3-point range through 18 games for the Cougars. He has yet to score fewer than 15 points in a game this season and scored a season-high 36 points against Cal last week. NBA scouts have compared him to Allan Houston(notes), Rip Hamilton and Anthony Parker(notes).

"He absolutely has NBA skills," one Eastern Conference scout said. "He can shoot the basketball, is smart, has a high basketball IQ. He's a little thin, but he's the type of kid that will play better with better competition. I think he is a solid mid-first-rounder because he can flat-out shoot the basketball and moves well without the ball. He needs to tighten up his handle, but he's gotten better."

Thompson said a possible lockout won't impact his decision on whether to enter this year's draft. If he's projected as a first-round pick, he'll likely go.

"If I'm ready, I'm going to make the jump," Thompson said. "I'll just have to examine my options at the end of the season. I think I'm playing good. I just got to continue to be aggressive, take good shots.

"The NBA is my dream, but I'm trying to put that in the back of my mind and try to get to the NCAA tournament."


Tip-ins

The Los Angeles Clippers were open to trading Eric Gordon(notes) in a package for Carmelo Anthony last offseason – until they saw how well Gordon played for Team USA in the FIBA World Championship. Now, Gordon and Blake Griffin are both off-limits, and the only way the Clippers would consider a trade for Anthony is if they didn't have to part with either of their young cornerstones. … Visitors to Las Vegas could find a few more hotel rooms available if the NBA enters a lockout on July 1 and cancels its annual summer league in the city. The summer league accounted for 10,000 room nights over 15 days last July as well as money from bus transportation, food and entertainment and about 4,000 ticket sales per day. To fill some of the missing dates, league organizers have considered inviting some international teams to train and play, including Team USA, and a squad of Development League players who don't have NBA contracts. The start of the summer league also could be pushed back as late as September if the league and players union reach agreement during the summer.

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