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As the Nets try to close out their first-round series against the Celtics Tuesday – sitting as the prohibitive betting favorite to win it all – it’s easy to forget that they could’ve been even better. It’s easy to forget they’d actually plugged their Achilles heel with a potential Hall of Famer – until he was forced into retirement.
LaMarcus Aldridge and the Nets were perfect for each other; a contender looking for a traditional center to vie with 7-footers, and a seven-time All-Star seeking to cement his legacy with his first title. That is, before a heart condition led his abrupt retirement in April.
It’s probably no coincidence that as the Nets take a 3-1 first-round series lead into Game 5 vs. Boston, Aldridge has opened up about how depressed he’s been in the wake of his retirement, with the worst part being missing out on an opportunity for his first championship.
No, make that a golden opportunity.
“I’ve been depressed, and I’m trying to figure out how to navigate through not competing on the floor, learning not to be depressed,” Aldridge told The Athletic. “I still love basketball. I still feel like I have a lot to give. But even now, I’m still trying to find myself. When you go from doing something you love for so long and you lose it overnight, it’s a shock.”
Despite the fact that Aldridge had been dealing with cardiac issues throughout most of his 15-year NBA career, it was a shock for him to suffer from an irregular heartbeat in an April 10 game vs. the Lakers.
Days later, Aldridge announced his retirement after a stellar career, averaging 19.4 points and 8.2 rebounds over 1,029 games. But what galled him most was that just five of them came with the Nets.
After never having reached an NBA Finals in his years in Portland and San Antonio – bought out by the latter this season – Aldridge is convinced he could’ve earned a ring in Brooklyn.
“That was the hardest part,” Aldridge said. “It was a chance for me to make that next step, a chance for me to add to my legacy and see what it feels like.”
Aldridge spoke of wanting to “add to my legacy.” After signing in Brooklyn to play alongside Kevin Durant, James Harden and Kyrie Irving, he could’ve been the perfect rebounder and interior defender to complement the Big 3.
“I felt if I stayed with the group, we definitely could get to the Finals and do something special,” Aldridge said. “Those guys rooted for me just as much as I rooted for them. That’s what makes the game fun; when you have a bunch of guys with no egos and everyone’s cheering for each other to do well.”
Aldridge said as much recently on ESPN, reaffirming that he was a perfect fit for the Nets, and they for him.
“It’s still hard. It’s tough,” Aldridge said. “I think at some point in your career, you pick your health and your family first. I think that it was my time. It was definitely tough, because I feel like that team needed what I brought to the table. They were excited to have me there on that team, and I was having fun. So it was extra tough.”
Brooklyn comes into Tuesday’s Game 5 at Barclays Center dead last in the playoffs in defensive rebound percentage (64.9%). Their 72.6-percent mark during the regular season was just 23rd, and worst among all the teams that reached the playoffs.
They’d face far bigger tests than Boston’s Tristan Thompson should they advance, from second-round foe Milwaukee with Giannis Antetokounmpo to potentially 76ers star Joel Embiid.
“For us one of the big things is that rebounding is a team effort for us. We don’t have that one guy that’s dominating the glass per se, but you can do it by committee and everybody’s got to be able to come back,” Joe Harris said. “It’s a team effort, especially with somebody like Tristan. You’ve got to put multiple bodies on him just to limit him on the offensive glass, and it’ll be the same thing going forward for us.”
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