It’s been a long, steady decline in the relationship between LaMarcus Aldridge and the Portland Trail Blazers – the only NBA team in nine years that he’s played for. Just under a year ago Aldridge went on record as stating that he wanted to retire as “the best Blazer ever,” while turning down the opportunity to sign a contract extension prior to his 2015 free agency. At the time, with the emerging Trail Blazers coming off of a second-round playoff run, the pass on the extension was accurately portrayed as a sound financial decision – the smart move to make more money while playing for a team Aldridge loved.
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Less than a year later, however, Aldridge is giving every indication that he’s willing to take less money to play for a franchise he’s never been a part of. According to the Columbian, Aldridge has already told the Trail Blazers not to bother to try and bring him back this summer. From Erik Gunderson:
A Western Conference executive with knowledge of the Aldridge pursuit has told The Columbian that the free-agent has already informed the Blazers that he will not return to the Northwest.
Free-agency is set to begin on July 1 but the Blazers have wasted no time in re-tooling their roster for life after Aldridge.
Another league executive told The Columbian on Wednesday that the trade of Batum looked like "a rebuilding move," and league sources say that the Blazers are "not done" dealing.
You’ll recall that, on Wednesday, the Blazers sent Nicolas Batum to the Charlotte Hornets for solid-enough swingman Gerald Henderson and power forward Noah Vonleh. Vonleh’s 2014-15 rookie campaign in Charlotte was a wasted one – he played only 259 minutes all season – but he showcased (despite shooting under 40 percent) the touch and moves in short spurts that made him such an intriguing scoring prospect coming out of Indiana.
Vonleh is hardly the finished product that Aldridge was coming out of Texas in 2006, but on the cheap he is a potential eventual replacement, and he won’t turn 20 until late July.
The idea that Portland is going to need a LaMarcus Aldridge replacement, however, remains a little stunning.
LMA wasn’t lying last July when he talked up staying a Blazer for (technical, as he was drafted by Chicago prior to being traded to PDX) life, but things have apparently gone sour in the space between. Portland made the playoffs yet again before bowing out in the first round, but running mate Damian Lillard suffered through a miserable second half of the season in 2014-15, while Batum turned in one of the worst seasons of any semi-star in the NBA.
Aldridge will have to take less money to join either a rebuilding club in the Los Angeles Lakers, or a San Antonio Spurs team that is looking to make one final championship run. Those are the obvious options, but not the only ones.
The Houston Rockets are currently attempting to move heaven and earth to drain more depth from its already top-heavy squad in order to add Aldridge – who seems straight out of central casting alongside Dwight Howard and James Harden – and there is always the chance LaMarcus could take a massive pay cut to work with a championship contender for a year (on a “two-year” deal with a player option for 2016-17) before hitting the wide-open free-agent market of 2016.
Aldridge’s game figures to age well, but he'll be 30 years old next month and is coming off of left thumb surgery. There are beware signs that buyers should be aware of.
Oddly, Aldridge’s age and Portland’s 2014-15 stasis might be the best signs for the Trail Blazers. If the team went into full rebuilding mode, it could enter the offseason with just six players on the payroll and unending cap space. If the team declines to match Wesley Matthews’ hopes, passes on retaining Chris Kaman, the Blazers could have two max-deals’ worth of salary cap space after renouncing (sigh) LaMarcus Aldridge. Acquiring Kevin Love in a sign-and-trade with Cleveland won’t work because of the Cavaliers’ luxury tax payments, but the team could sign him outright.
There are also options should the Blazers decide to take a one-year rebuilding respite, and pass on chasing any big names in July.
Even the expected maximum contract extension for Lillard won’t offset a brighter payroll future – Henderson and Vonleh’s contracts (Noah’s is a team option) could expire in 2016, and the franchise could have a clean slate and lovely city to sell to maximum-level free agents next summer.
All of this is cold comfort to Blazers fans, who watched as Aldridge not only gutted through a bum ligament injury during the regular season, saving the team’s postseason hopes, but also as he rose above during the duel and cruel disappointments of Greg Oden and Brandon Roy’s injury-curtailed careers.
He’s beloved in that town for a reason, but apparently he’s up for something new. Somehow, despite the sad parting, this could be a beneficial breakup for both sides.
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