The Portland Trail Blazers are about to enter a chaotic, potentially torturous and franchise-altering postseason. None of this was ever supposed to happen.
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Most factored the Blazers to be just a slight skip below the litany of Western championship contenders entering 2014-15, but nobody would have been shocked had the team taken three series’ on its way toward its first Finals berth in 23 years. Damian Lillard and LaMarcus Aldridge took turns dominating the Houston Rockets in a first round win last year, and the team’s ever-expanded supporting cast appeared to have enough to keep Portland in the thick of it while slogging through an 82-game turn.
The facts check out – another Northwest Division win, a fourth seed because of that win, the sixth-best record in the West and All-Star appearances for both Aldridge and Lillard. Nobody could have guessed that heart and soul swingman Wes Matthews would tear his Achilles midseason, though, or that Aldridge would gut through almost half the season with a painful left hand injury. Or that Lillard would struggle mightily coming out of the All-Star break, or that replacement swingman Arron Afflalo would battle injury and shooting woes down the stretch.
Nobody could have guessed, as April turns to May and the Blazers are out of the first round again at the hands of the Memphis Grizzlies, that Aldridge would be giving every possibly hint that he plans to make an exit after “a great nine years here.” LaMarcus hasn’t ruled out re-signing with Portland in the offseason, as the Blazers still have the best chance to sign LMA, but his open change of tone is in stark contrast to what he was telling reporters about his future in PDX prior to the season.
Should Blazer fans be worried about this? It’s hard to say – Aldridge also said several times during goodbye interviews on Thursday that he hopes to continue his relationship with the team and city, he praised general manager Neil Olshey, and the Blazers have the upper hand in several areas. They can pay him more money over a longer deal, he can eventually retire as “the greatest Blazer ever” as he mentioned wanting to do last summer, and the two sides can agree to a deal with alacrity on July 1, something that is right up LMA’s alley:
"I'm definitely not one to prolong things or drag it out,'' Aldridge said. "That's not really my personality."
New York and Los Angeles will likely send offers Aldridge’s way that will be laughed out of office. What are worth considering are potential offers from Dallas and San Antonio. Dallas’ would come after they get a feel for Aldridge’s interests and following Monta Ellis’ decision on whether or not to opt into the final year of his contract. San Antonio’s, sadly, would come after Tim Duncan makes a decision on retirement.
Those are string-along decisions that fly in the face of Aldridge’s insistence on ending the free agent turn quickly, although even LaMarcus somewhat contradicted himself by (completely understandably) pointing out that he’d “be lying if I said I didn't want to be wanted.”
Aldridge isn’t alone on the free agent front.
Portland will have to make a tough and potential cruel decision in what it offers to Matthews. Wesley is beloved in the locker room and Achilles tears are by no means career killers, but his game will not be the same upon return, and he’s going to need a significant portion of 2015-16 to get his groove back. A two-year deal with a player option to opt into the wild free agent summer of 2016 would seem to make sense.
The team has to sign Lillard to a contract extension as soon as the rules allow on July 1. Lillard had a terrible defensive year at times but he remains a top-flight offensive point guard and you just can’t tussle with that in the modern NBA. Backup Steve Blake has a player option to decide whether or not he wants to become a Blazer for the 492nd time. Robin Lopez, an unrestricted free agent, will be chased by several teams looking for a 7-footer that can walk and chew gum at the same time and Robin can do that sometimes.
Arron Afflalo, weirdly, could opt out of the last year and $7.7 million of his contract, giving the Blazers even more room to play.
What’s worrying is if everyone comes back at expected rates. Aldridge turns 30 in the summer and has a game that figures to age well, and it would be nice to give this crew another shot, but with an approximation of Matthews at the off guard spot – is this a championship team? Before his thumb injury LaMarcus was once again working as one of the league’s more unheralded superstars, but could Terry Stotts somehow find a way to work together four rounds of magic as his soulmate (and boss at the time) Rick Carlisle did with the Dallas Mavericks in 2011?
They’ll have to get there with an intact roster, first. That could be all shot to hell by the time the fireworks go up on July 4.
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