There was a time when LaMarcus Aldridge, when asked about being a leader, would note he was the type of person who preferred to let with his play, rather than his words, do the talking. And at the time, it wasn’t that big of a deal. Brandon Roy was around to say what needed to be said, both on the court and in the locker room, and that gave Aldridge the luxury of being the strong, silent type.
But these are different days. Roy isn’t around to pipe up anymore, and Nate McMillan, like every coach in the NBA, can only say the same thing so many times before players start to lose interest. It has to come from Aldridge, and this season, it has. Monday’s victory against the Hornets in New Orleans provided a perfect case study in why it’s no longer good enough for Aldridge to walk the walk but not talk the talk.
For whatever reason, Aldridge wasn’t feeling it when the lights turned on at New Orleans Arena. It might have been the once-a-year abnormally early start, which always seems to give the Trail Blazers problems on the east coast. NBA players thrive on routine, and when you have to play at noon, a time in which players are typically taking their pregame naps, it throws off rhythm more than people realize. And you could see it in Aldridge’s play in the first half. He was unusually tentative and visibly winded, two traits not often associated with the 6-11 power forward.
“I wasn't feeling great tonight,” admitted Aldridge after the game. “Was feeling a step slow, but I told myself 'I'm not going to lose four in a row.'”
So when the team came out for the second half, Aldridge did what leaders need to do: he set an example with his actions while rallying his wards with his words.
“I've been on teams -- I've been here -- where you could lose three and everybody starts thinking too much and everybody starts getting down and it can go to four (losses),” said Aldridge. “It's like 'No, I'm not letting that happen.' It's like 'Ya'll miss shots, ok, let's just keep shooting.' I just want everybody to stay confident. Like, even I was hesitant in the first half. I was like ‘If I'm hesitant, then how are they going to be confident?’ So I'm just talking like 'Just keep shooting, keep shooting.' Cause you know, it's tough on the road. We've played so many on the road in so few days, so I was trying to tell guys to stay confident and keep shooting.”
When backpedaling in anticipation of the next defensive possessions, Aldridge was constantly talking up his teammates, telling them to keep working, that there was no way they should drop their fourth straight to anyone, let alone to a team that had lost nine of their last ten.
On one such occasion, Aldridge was so determined to keep Nicolas Batum’s spirits up after a missed shot that a cross-court pass that would have yielded an easy bucket startled him. He was able to get back in position before any damage was done, but even if he hadn’t, the impact of buoying his teammates’ spirits might have been more important than allowing two points.
Now make no mistake: Aldridge has been doing this for a while now, but this is the first time that, from the start of the season, everyone in the locker room knows it’s LaMarcus’ team. The result is that his teammates, be it subconsciously or otherwise, expect to him to be where the buck stops. So with the adversity of a four-game losing streak looming as a very real possibility, Aldridge became emphatic in his vocal leadership.
“I thought (Aldridge) was trying to get the team fired up,” said McMillan. “That's what we need from each other. It can't just come from the coach; it has to come from the guys. This is a game we needed. (New Orleans) certainly needed the game, but we needed this game to get confidence, to go into this next game with a little more confidence.”
“I was trying to give us a spark,” said Aldridge. “It's a team effort but I figured if I kind of gave us a spark then everybody would try to pick it up. I went a little bit harder then everybody else went harder too.”
And that made things much easier for the rest of us.