LaMarcus Aldridge occupies an entirely unique place in the game of basketball, full of juxtapositions — if not contradictions. Everyone who follows basketball agrees that he is one of the very best power forwards in the NBA, but he has possibly the least mainstream fame of any player at his level.
He’s unquestionably the best all-around player on his team, but he isn’t the biggest star — that’s Damian Lillard, whose rapid rise to fame cemented him as the name above the title for Portland. Even though Aldridge had a pair of dominant performances that led the Blazers to two road wins in last year’s first round series against the Rockets, Lillard’s iconic buzzer-beater is the one thing everyone remembers about that series.
Aldridge is the longest-tenured Blazer, but when Wes Matthews went down with a torn Achilles’ tendon, LaMarcus himself called the shooting guard the “heart and soul of this team.”
He is a prototypical power forward in the classical mold, with possibly the best mid-range shot in the league and a good post-up game, but the NBA values his skill set less and less as the game speeds up and spreads out. He was drafted the same year as Brandon Roy, but while Roy’s star burned far more brightly before being extinguished too soon, Aldridge grew steadily and reliably and is comfortably at the peak of his career at age 29. (Brandon Roy is 30 now.)
He publicly stated his desire to remain in Portland and ambitions to be the best Trail Blazer ever. Despite those strong words, rumors have swirled all season about potential destinations for Aldridge when he’s an unrestricted free agent this summer, and they’ve gotten louder recently.
After one story cited an anonymous teammate saying Aldridge was only 50-50 on coming back to Portland and CBS Sports’ Ken Berger reported that Aldridge is keeping his options open, it’s officially time to discuss Aldridge’s future.
Initially, Aldridge said that his reasons for not signing an extension before this season were purely financial – a completely legitimate statement considering he would have left two years of security and $50 million on the table had he extended his existing contract. But when he declined to sign the deal, he allowed the possibility for events of this season to change his mind.
Here’s what happened in 2014-2015: Lillard got even more famous though he only made small improvements to his game (and remained a liability on defense), Matthews tore his achilles and is also an unrestricted free agent (and as a result has the most unpredictable offseason of any player ahead of him), Nicolas Batum regressed horribly, and the Blazers are currently getting waxed by the Grizzlies in the first round of the playoffs (though the Blazers haven’t played any home games yet). All of those factors would force a reasonable person like Aldridge to wonder if Portland is the best place for him.
Let’s leave aside Aldridge’s feelings about Lillard’s fame, because we don’t know them, and focus on the court. Lillard’s poor defense has been put in the spotlight without Matthews to cover for him, and Batum’s garbage year calls into question the upside everyone imagined for him following 2013-2014.
Aldridge has to have legitimate questions about this team’s potential to contend for a championship, especially because Matthews returning is no sure thing and his recovery even less so. Wanting to be the greatest Blazer ever is one thing, but he’d probably say winning a title somewhere is even more important.
Then there’s the question of where he’d go if he left Portland. Aldridge is from Dallas, so the two teams most commonly associated with him have been the Mavericks and Spurs – both because of their location and their status as teams built around a dominant power forward who might not return next year. But the “might” is a key factor; no one actually knows if Dirk Nowitzki or Tim Duncan will be back next season, and if they do return, Aldridge won’t join either of them – it just doesn’t make sense. If Duncan returns, then the Spurs would have to pull off some serious cap gymnastics to bring in LMA. Kawhi Leonard, Duncan, Manu Ginobili and Danny Green are all impending free agents, and Kawhi is all but assured to receive a maximum deal. Bringing all of them back plus Aldridge would require a lot of pay cuts or some tough either/or decisions.
The Mavs’ future is uncertain, period — Dirk, Chandler Parsons and Devin Harris are their only players guaranteed under contract for next year. If Dirk stays, then bringing in Aldridge would almost certainly push the Mavs legend to the bench, since they occupy the same floor space. If he retires, then Dallas is in the same boat as the Lakers and Knicks, with tons of cap space and no clear path forward.
The Knicks and Lakers join any conversation about a high-profile free agent because they have cap space and the markets to make him a star. I have doubts about his willingness to join teams as bad as L.A. or New York on the promise of a rebuild, though, especially with each team having established ball-dominant stars that present some questions of fit. And if Aldridge is truly on the market, plenty of teams would be willing to move things around for a chance at a player like him.
Sticking with the five contenders we know, the Blazers still look to be the favorites as long as they can keep Matthews (and convince Aldridge that he’ll be good enough post-injury – no sure thing). They can offer him more money and an extra year, and they showed championship-level upside when at full-strength. It’s still extremely rare for players of Aldridge’s caliber to switch teams in free agency at this point in their career, but rumors about it happening are far more common.
However, if Duncan retires and the Spurs push for LaMarcus, San Antonio could find itself with a new front-court All-Star for years to come.