When the fan-selected starting lineups for February's 2014 NBA All-Star Game in New Orleans were announced on Thursday night, LaMarcus Aldridge was not one of the three frontcourt players picked to represent the Western Conference. The Portland Trail Blazers power forward finished with the fifth-highest vote total among Western forwards and centers, trailing starters Kevin Durant of the Oklahoma City Thunder, Blake Griffin of the Los Angeles Clippers and Kevin Love of the Minnesota Timberwolves, as well as fourth-place finisher Dwight Howard of the Houston Rockets.
Aldridge remains a virtual lock to hear his name called when the All-Star reserves chosen by each conference's coaching staff are announced next Thursday, and we're sure he'll appreciate receiving his third consecutive All-Star berth when the confirmation comes down. Still, though, given Aldridge's brilliant work this season for a Blazers team that's made a shocking surge to the top of the Western Conference — averaging a career-best 24.7 points and 11.6 rebounds per game (only he and Love rank in the league's top five in both scoring and rebounding), taking advantage of all the defensive attention he draws to dish assists on a career-high share of his teammates' baskets, turning the ball over on a microscopic (and career-best) 6.8 percent of possessions he uses, and on, and on — it had to have been fairly disappointing not to receive top-three treatment from NBA fans.
By now, you know how Aldridge handled his disappointment:
Aldridge took out his frustrations out on the Denver Nuggets to the tune of a career-high 44 points, 13 rebounds, five assists and two blocks, sealing a 110-105 win by scoring Portland's final 15 points, which was one more than Denver managed in the entire fourth quarter. The eight-year veteran told reporters after the game that his dominating performance wasn't about making a statement to voters — "It was nothing about that. We lost two games and we needed this win." — but later, according to Ben Golliver of Blazersedge, he spoke a bit more about falling outside the top three:
"I've kind of gotten used to those things happening," Aldridge told Blazersedge afterwards, when asked about missing out on a starting spot. "Everybody around me was more upset than me. I came in tonight and [Nicolas Batum] was pretty fired up about it. My mom was pretty heated about it. Me, I was like, 'OK, this is happening again.'"
But he didn't leave it there.
"I think I definitely should have been a starter," Aldridge told Blazersedge. "But it's over with now, basically."
"Basically" is right, because a Western starting spot could still open up.
Los Angeles Lakers star Kobe Bryant, who has been limited by injury to just six games this season and is still working his way back from the left knee fracture he suffered last month, reiterated Thursday that he'd prefer not to play in New Orleans and would like to see the league a younger, more deserving player get the chance to start in his stead.
If Bryant's knee injury precludes him from returning before the All-Star break, it will be up to newly minted NBA Commissioner Adam Silver to name a replacement for the Western roster, and for the head coach of the Western squad to choose someone to take Bryant's starting spot. While Bryant was chosen to fill one of two backcourt slots, it wouldn't be outside the realm of possibility for the coach to tap an additional frontcourt player as his fifth starter; in fact, Miami Heat head coach Erik Spoelstra did so just last year, choosing big man Chris Bosh to take the place of injured Boston Celtics point guard Rajon Rondo alongside Kevin Garnett, LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony and Dwyane Wade in the East's starting five.
The final call, then, could rest with whoever winds up coaching the West; who that will be depends on which team has the best record in the conference through games played on Sunday, Feb. 2. It can't be Gregg Popovich of the San Antonio Spurs, who's ineligible after coaching the West last year. That means it's down to Scott Brooks of the 33-10 Oklahoma City Thunder ... and Terry Stotts of the 32-11 Blazers. As you might expect, he (and several of his players) are pretty big supporters of the idea that Aldridge should get a starting nod. More from Golliver:
"I stand by my belief that he's the best power forward in the game," Stotts said. "I think he showed it again tonight. It's not the first time he's shown that. The starters are voted by the fans, but I think LaMarcus has the respect of the coaches and the players and the general managers in the league. He's going to be in the All-Star Game and deservedly so. I think he just proved, once again, that he's the best power forward [in the NBA]."
The chorus continued from there.
"We feel like L.A. should have been a starter," said Damian Lillard, who finished with 11 points (on 5-for-10 shooting) and 3 assists.
"I don't know why he doesn't start the All-Star Game," added Batum, who tallied 6 points (on 1-for-5 shooting), 7 rebounds and 10 assists. "With this guy, I don't know what he needs to do to prove to everybody that he's the best. I don't judge anybody [else] but he proved it again tonight."
Aldridge's plight is, to a certain extent, reminiscent of Andre Iguodala's continual struggle for popular recognition of his contributions. The Blazers big man has far more impressive counting stats, but at base, the issue the same — the things they do so well, and that make them so valuable, aren't really the kinds of things that generate memorable highlight clips.
To be sure, we're getting better at displaying and quantifying that stuff — Matt Moore's 2013 piece on Iguodala's defensive impact comes to mind, as does Dane Carbaugh's recent breakdown of how the defensive attention Aldridge draws creates openings and opportunities for the rest of the Blazers offense. But that sort of deep-dive exploration of play-by-play performance is more a four-course meal for die-hards and obsessives than an easily digestible morsel for John Q. Casual Fan to snack on as he pulls up his All-Star ballot. Elite footwork, top-flight long-two jump-shooting and a knack for effectively contesting shots don't stand a chance against GIFable dunks in a popularity contest, and they never will.
As a result, players like Aldridge and Iguodala might always have to take solace in the knowledge that, even if the rest of us don't always see how good they are, their peers damn sure do. There's value in that, a certain pride associated with being craftsmen whose work can only truly be appreciated by other craftsmen. If nights like Thursday help a few more of us come around, well, so much the better.
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