There was an interaction that occurred in the second quarter of Portland’s 96-86 victory against Utah on October 11 that was a sure sign of the progress the Trail Blazers have made during training camp. Of course there was no television coverage of that game, so the only people who saw it happen were the fans in attendance at CenturyLink Arena in Boise, and even those who were in the building probably didn’t pay it much mind.
Early in the second quarter, Mo Williams lost control of the ball, leading to a steal by Utah’s Dominic McGuire and a fastbreak opportunity for the Jazz. Utah center Enes Kanter received the ball in the paint and went up for a layup, but was met at the rim by Trail Blazers power forward Joel Freeland, who was able to block Kanter’s attempt. Unfortunately, there was no Trail Blazer in position to grab the loose ball, which allowed Kanter to get his own miss. He went back up and was once again met by Freeland, though this time, Freeland was called for a foul, sending Kanter to the line for two free throws.
The important part is what happened next. After the whistle blew, LaMarcus Aldridge walked up to Freeland and said something to him while patting on Freeland’s chest. Come to find out, Aldridge was not only praising Freeland’s defense while also holding himself and the rest of the team accountable for not fulfilling their responsibilities.
“(Aldridge) said ‘We have to have your back for the second challenge,” said Freeland. “I actually challenged the first one but I got the foul for the next one.”
After the game, Aldridge would make a point of singling out Freeland for praise to his teammates, coaches and the media for Freeland’s effort on the defensive end.
That simple acknowledgement was something we haven’t always seen from Aldridge. During his seven seasons in Portland, Aldridge has sometimes struggled with being vocal in his leadership, as he’s often noted in the past that he generally prefers to lead by example, letting his play do the talking rather than his voice. According to Aldridge, that will no longer be the case.
“Not this year, I’ve been opposite,” said Aldridge regarding transitioning from leading by example to being more of a voice on the court and in the locker room. “I’ve done the most talking in this training camp than I’ve ever done. I’ve been talking to guys. Even during the last game (against Utah) I stayed on Robin about being that dominant force in the middle, blocking shots, clogging the lane. I was talking to Joel about being dominant as far as coming weakside, so I’ve definitely done more talking this year.”
Aldridge says there are numerous reasons he’s made a conscious effort to be more vocal this season, from changes in his own personality to the group of players general manager Neil Olshey has surrounded the two-time all-star with.
“It was just time for it,” said Aldridge. “Just being comfortable, being older. I think we have a great group of guys here that definitely respect me and listen to me, so that makes it easier. It’s just that next step for me.”
While being more of a vocal leader isn’t something Trail Blazers head coach Terry Stotts has asked Aldridge to do, it has been a welcomed surprise.
“In the relatively short time I’ve known LaMarcus, I think he continues to grow,” said Stotts. “I didn’t know him for the first four or five years of his career and what his interactions were with his teammates, but I’ve been pleased. He’s taken the leadership mantle as far as being a vocal leader. I think he’s always been a good leader by example and I think a lot of times that’s underrated by people. But now he’s taking the next step, because when he speaks, people listen.”
Stotts has talked at times during training camp about holding the team more accountable, which is easier to do when your best player buys in. It’s also worth considering that holding players accountable doesn’t always mean pointing out the negative. As in, by pointing out Freeland’s effort against Kanter, Aldridge held both himself and Freeland accountable in a positive way.
“I think too often, people want that accountability to be disciplinary and negative in nature,’ said Stotts. “I think you can have accountability going both directions. Good play needs to be acknowledged and reinforced, whether it be by me or by the players themselves.”
Which is one of the reasons why Aldridge is stepping out of his comfort zone to engage his teammates more often this season. In past years, maybe Aldridge felt like his words fell on deaf ears, but that no longer seems to be the case. It could be that Aldridge has improved when it comes to expressing himself or perhaps his teammates are more receptive to his message, or a combination of both. What is certain is that Aldridge has found a better balance between verbal and non-verbal leadership.
“I can see that when I talk, guys listen,” said Aldridge. “I feel like, I go out and play hard every day and I’m going to practice every day, I’m going to block shots. I think because I do it, they listen. If I was one of those guys that just talked about it and didn’t do it, I don’t think it would carry as much weight.”
Aldridge has certainly been “doing it” during the preseason. His game has always possessed a certain effortless quality, but the ease with which he’s operated, both on offense and defense, in limited minutes during the three games he’s played during the preseason has been impressive. And when he hasn’t played, he’s stayed engaged, choosing to join the team in uniform on the bench rather than wearing a suit and sitting behind the bench. Aldridge says it’s easy to offer encouragement and suggestions from that position.
“Just talk to them about things I see during the game,” said Aldridge of how he stays engaged from a vocal leadership perspective while on the bench. “If I see something that guys are doing well or something they could do better that they don’t understand, just trying to talk to them and let them know what I see from the sideline.”
Aldridge is expected to play in Portland’s final preseason game Thursday night in Oakland against the Warriors, which will be the first and only game this preseason that all of the expected regular season starters will have an opportunity to play alongside each other before the start of the regular season in Phoenix against the Suns (though Wesley Matthews did leave practice early on Wednesday and his status for Thursday is not yet known). Unfortunately, Thursday’s game won’t be televised so you likely will have to wait until October 30 to see the difference in Aldridge’s on-court leadership.