In the summer of 2013, the Portland Trail Blazers were faced with a dilemma about their star big man. Should they force an unhappy Aldridge to play out the season for a middling team, or capitulate to a trade that would get them about 40 cents on the dollar for their star?
By electing to keep Aldridge, the Blazers were gambling that their unproven supporting cast could rally around him, and turn the team into a surprise contender. Their risk paid off, resulting in two consecutive 50 win seasons, and the franchise's first playoff series victory since 2000. But coming off a 2015 season that saw much of the team fall to injury before being bounced in the first round, the concerns surrounding Aldridge have returned again. As the summer approaches, no other free agent has a more uncertain future, or a greater potential impact.
Aldridge is no stranger to uncertainty surrounding his NBA future. After being selected 2nd overall in the 2006 draft, he was promptly traded for Tyrus Thomas,Viktor Khryapa, and a bag of chips. He entered the league along with the 7th pick in that draft, Brandon Roy. In one year, the Blazers added two future stars and created their nucleus for the next 5-10 years.
Their luck continued into the 2007 draft, where they beat 1/19 odds and won the right to pick between Greg Oden and Kevin Durant, eventually deciding on the surefire big man from Ohio State. This was it, the final piece to an already strong core.
The Blazers were now everyone’s favorite young team. Following the draft NBA insider Chad Ford said, “The Blazers are on the path to an NBA title with Oden, Brandon Roy and LaMarcus Aldridge.” In retrospect, it is easy to say that the Blazers should have seen Oden’s flameout coming, but at the time he was billed as the missing piece to a team that would run the West.
Despite Oden’s failure the Blazers finished 54-28 in 2009, as Roy made the All-NBA 2nd team and led the Blazers to the playoffs. With Roy as the charismatic leader, and Aldridge as the soft-spoken second man, the Blazers were a contender, making the playoffs in both 2010 and 2011.
When Roy’s disintegrating knees led to his retirement from the NBA during the 2011 lockout, the Blazers lost their star and leader, and quickly declined. Aldridge was forced into a leadership role, and ‘led’ the team to 11th place finishes in 2012 and 2013. The public began to see him as a ‘good stats-bad team’ guy, and someone who could never lead the Blazers back to the playoffs.
A rift between Aldridge and the Blazers front office grew, as he blamed them for not surrounding him with an adequate supporting cast. In the summer of 2013, Chad Ford said, “I think that the Blazers will listen to Aldridge offers. Seriously listen. Given how good he is, there's a solid chance he's played his last game in a Blazers jersey.”
But the trade never materialized, and the Blazers entered the 2013-2014 season with an unproven roster and unhappy star, hoping that they could convince Aldridge that the future wasn’t so bleak.
In 2014, Aldridge was finally the leader of a contender, and the Blazers rolled to a 24-5 start to begin the 2013-2014 season. Their hot start rolled all the way through the playoffs, where Aldridge starred against the Rockets. He averaged 29.8-11.2 on 48% shooting in the 6 game series, but his heroic performance was overshadowed by Lillard’s incredible shot. Entering the 2015 season, he was once again the second banana on the team. Lillard is a charismatic leader, and the voice of the Blazers. His penchant for big shots caught the attention of fans, coaches and peers.
As Lillard's legend grew even his coach, Terry Stotts, began to gravitate towards him. When asked about Lillard’s character, Stotts said, “The thing about Damian is that anytime a question comes up, whether going back to summer league, going to exhibition season, whether he’s going to hit a rookie wall or not, he answers the bell every time.”
Steph Curry also heaped praise on Lillard when they played together on Team USA this past summer saying, “His composure is always just there. He never seems to be rattled. You forget he's only going into this third year. He's established himself already and he just has that solid composure every time you see him play. Loves big moments, and that says a lot about his game”
Lillard is the consummate leader, one who is vocal on the court, and steps up his play when it matters most. Fans, coaches, and other players love that kind of player. In contrast, Aldridge flies under the radar. He’s not animated on the court, and has never had a signature moment like Lillard. Unsurprisingly, Aldridge has been forced to give up much of the spotlight in Portland to his point guard.
While Aldridge has never said anything negative about Lillard or his situation in Portland, it must be affecting him. He turns 30 this offseason, and has never really been the alpha dog on a great team. As he heads into free agency, he will surely be paid the max by somebody, but he will need to decide how much he values his role as a leader.
Aldridge’s fit on a contending team is similar to Chris Bosh’s last year, as he is a 4 who can shoot from 18-22 feet, and rebound at a high rate. Aldridge’s 3 point shooting skyrocketed this past season, taking 105 threes (his previous season high was 28) and converting them at a 35% clip, putting him 12th amongst all power forwards. In addition, Aldridge led all forwards in made shots (as well as shot attempts) between 16-24 feet, converting at a 42% rate. In fact, he shot a higher percentage on these shots than Klay Thompson, Blake Griffin, and even Steph Curry. He is the most prolific mid-range scorer in the NBA, regardless of position.
The Spurs are undoubtedly a team starved for mid-range scoring, especially from a big man. No forward on the Spurs attempted more than 150 shots from 16-24 feet (by comparison Aldridge made 207). Being able to roll out a Parker-Green-Leonard-Aldridge-Duncan lineup would allow for increased room to operate in the paint for Parker.
Here, Splitter and Duncan have both drawn defenders away from the paint, allowing Parker a free run to the basket. Plays like this would become commonplace with Aldridge in the lineup, showing his impact on a defense without even scoring. In Portland, Aldridge’s shooting ability gives open lanes for Damian Lillard, who was 5th amongst all guards in made layups, converting at a higher percentage than Russell Westbrook, and James Harden.
While Aldridge may fit best on the Spurs, his suitors are hardly limited to San Antonio. The Mavericks, Rockets, and Suns are all other contending teams that could all offer him max deals. And as we’ve learned many times, the ability to offer a 5th year on a max deal will make the Blazers a very attractive option. But as someone who was born and raised in Texas, and attended UT-Austin, it’s fair to assume that the three Texas teams have the inside track on Aldridge.
On the Mavericks, Aldridge would be a ball-dominant forward, like Dirk in his prime. He would be able to spell Dirk for long stretches, and be the star free agent that Cuban has desperately pursued the past three summers (Howard, Deron Williams, Bosh, Carmelo, etc.) However, his fit in the Mavericks offense remains murky. He would be another mid range shooter on a team full of them, as both Monta Ellis and Dirk attempted more shots from 16-24 feet than from anywhere else on the court. Even if Ellis leaves, Aldridge would be hard-pressed to find a niche in a crowded Mavericks offense.
If Daryl Morey can work his magic once more to free up cap space and the Rockets land Aldridge, this may be the most clear fit for him. His role would be strictly spacing for James Harden to drive, and Dwight Howard to operate in the restricted area. In addition, Aldridge can create space for Houston’s shooters with his ability to attract double teams before entering the paint.
Here, the defense is forced to collapse on Aldridge immediately following his post up, allowing Lillard a wide open 3. With his versatile game of mid-range shooting and back to the basket plays, Aldridge would give Houston’s snipers wide open looks. It would be a welcome relief to an offense that was severely limited when Harden was not on the floor.
While Aldridge’s fit is rarely in question, few teams will have the cap space to pursue him. The first year of a max deal for Aldridge would be approximately 19.9 million, assuming the deal is normally backloaded. Very few teams will have the wherewithal to offer a full max, outside of Portland, Dallas, and possibly San Antonio and Houston. Aldridge’s choice may very well swing the West, and I fully expect every possible suitor to wholeheartedly pursue him, even if it means not re-signing their own free agents.
Aldridge’s next contract will most likely be his final as a star player. He will be 33 or 34 by the time his next deal expires, and will no longer be the top 15 player his is now. It’s easy to say he will go wherever he can win a title, but after Carmelo decided the extra year was worth being on the Knicks, one can no longer say NBA players value winning more than money. That said, I think we’ll be calling Aldridge a Spur next season. They have the ability to offer max money to both him and Kawhi, and will back 5 of their top 6 in addition to Aldridge. The allure of Portland and the extra $35 million may be strong, but Aldridge can return home to Texas, and be the final piece on a championship team.