He's been a dynamite interior scorer in the Pacific Northwest for the better part of eight seasons, but as the Portland Trail Blazers struggled to stay competitive in the brutal Western Conference amid organization-shifting injuries and leadership changes, questions persisted as to whether LaMarcus Aldridge would remain a franchise centerpiece. They reached a fever pitch this past summer amid myriad depends-who-you-believe reports about the two-time All-Star wanting a trade out of Portland, which eventually ended with Blazers general manager Neil Olshey exasperated and Aldridge back in the fold to give it another go with a reconfigured roster around him. As you might have heard, that's worked out pretty well for all parties.
After being picked by many (including us) to finish outside the West's top eight teams, Rip City has roared its way to a second-best-in-the-conference 28-9 record behind a league-leading offense propelled by Stotts' free-flowing offensive system, scintillating 3-point shooting led by guards Damian Lillard and Wesley Matthews, and a revamped bench bolstered by Olshey additions like Mo Williams, Dorell Wright and Thomas Robinson. At the heart of it all has been Aldridge, who's leading in word and in deed while also playing the best ball of his life.
The power forward is averaging career highs in per-minute scoring and rebounding, taking advantage of the summer import of massive center/box-out champ Robin Lopez to grab a career-best 25.4 percent of opponents' misses while on the floor (14th-best in the league) and using his combination of low-post dominance and long-two sharpshooting to provide a near-MVP-caliber offensive weapon that has enabled the Blazers to go toe-to-toe with anybody. Portland's gone 13-5 against teams presently in the playoff bracket, including a 7-4 mark against Western squads, with wins over Oklahoma City, San Antonio, Indiana, Houston and the Clippers, as well as a closing-seconds loss to Miami, on their increasingly impressive resume.
With the good times rolling and the Blazers looking closer to being a legitimate postseason threat than they seemed during a frustrating 2012-13, Aldridge now says he's open to sticking around for the long haul, if Olshey, owner Paul Allen and the rest of the Blazers' braintrust will have him. From an in-depth interview with the normally circumspect Aldridge by Kerry Eggers of the Portland Tribune:
Now Aldridge is of a different mindset about his future. He has one more year after this on a contract that will pay him $16 million for the 2014-15 campaign. He has allowed himself to consider the possibility of finishing his career in Portland, becoming the NBA rarity of a player spending his entire professional career with one team.
"I've been here a long time now," he says earnestly. "I'm coming up on some (franchise career individual statistical) records. I never used to pay attention to those things, but I've been watching it more this year. I'm the No. 4 scorer now. That's cool. To leave a legacy with one team and win a championship here and to be here my whole career, that would be great."
The biggest part of that is the potential to win a title.
"This team is good," he says. "We can get better. This summer, we can reassess what we have and add things we need. If not this year, in the next couple of years, this team can win a championship."
For the first time, Aldridge is thinking he'd like to sit down with Olshey and negotiate a contract extension.
"I would like to re-sign here," he says. "If they want to talk about it, I would talk about it. They haven't yet, but I'm looking forward to the chance to do that."
If Olshey is prepared to make that happen, he's not revealing it to the media.
"When the appropriate time comes, which is not now, that is a conversation that will happen between (owner) Paul Allen, myself, LaMarcus and his agent (Arn Tellem)," Olshey says. "It's not a conversation that's going to play out in the media in January."
Aldridge's willingness to discuss an extension is in keeping with, but a step beyond, the stance he took in a recent interview with Jim Rome, in which he said he's "going to cross that bridge [of extension talks] after the season."
While Olshey's response might seem a bit pointed, one would suspect he'd much rather be dealing with questions about re-upping an in-his-prime All-NBA-caliber power forward who wants to stick around than inquiries about shipping said low-block stud out of town due to irreconcilable disgruntlement. That seems like a better problem to have, all things considered. Still, it's understandable that Olshey would defer publicly negotiating an extension for a player who's still under contract through the end of the 2014-15 season.
As noted by Blazersedge cap guru Jeff "Storyteller" Kramer, the league's collective bargaining agreement limits a potential extension to four total years, including whatever's remaining on Aldridge's current deal. That means delaying extension talks to this summer would likely result in the team offering Aldridge a three-year deal worth approximately $55 million that would run through the end of 2017-18 season, his age-32 season. He could elect to eschew an extension now in favor of playing out the '14-'15 season, reaching unrestricted free agency and seeking a longer, more lucrative deal; in that scenario, the Blazers would still retain his Bird rights and have the ability to offer him one more guaranteed year and significantly more money than any prospective suitor, should they choose to do so. Should things turn around, though, and the current climate of good vibes and winning ways dissipate, Olshey might prefer being able to market him as an expiring contract rather than a multi-year, eight-figure cap-eater. There are plenty of contingencies to consider, and an awful lot can change in a relatively short period of time, as Aldridge's move from "frustrated and possibly trade-seeking" to "content and wanting a long-term deal" has shown.
The Blazers will face other long-term team-building issues, too. While they carry a very clean cap sheet going forward, they'll soon have to work out a long-term extension for point guard Lillard, a reigning Rookie of the Year and likely All-Star who will become eligible for a re-up of his rookie deal after the '14-'15 campaign. Starters Matthews and Lopez are in line to be free agents come the end of next season, too, and whether/how much the Blazers want to commit to them will likely depend on whether/how much young pieces like Robinson, reserve center Meyers Leonard, recently returned lottery pick C.J. McCollum and fellow 2013 draftee Allen Crabbe develop over the next year. As it's been on the court during this stellar start to the season, though those other questions orbit around the heavy-mass star of Aldridge.
Whether both sides can come to an agreement that keeps the sweet-scoring big man in Oregon for the foreseeable future remains to be seen, but after scores of stories about him seeking an exit strategy, Blazers fans must take heart in hearing that the centerpiece of their rise to prominence would like to stick around for the long haul, if nothing else.
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