NBA Sunday: The Flight of LaMarcus Aldridge

With another first round exit likely, LaMarcus Aldridge may finally decide to move on, writes Moke Hamilton.

Alan Draper profile picture
Updated 1 year ago on

10 min read

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With less than a second remaining on the clock, the Portland Trail Blazers needed a three-pointer to win, or a two to force overtime.

Collectively, Chandler Parsons, James Harden and Patrick Beverly failed to adequately cover the staggered screens set by Wesley Matthews and Mo Williams. Damian Lillard slithered free, and the 0.9 seconds remaining on the clock proved to be enough for him to drill the series clinching three-pointer and send the Houston Rockets home after Game 6 of their first round battle back in 2014.

Lillard’s shot elevated the Blazers out of the first round for the first time since 2000.

For LaMarcus Aldridge, that has always been a problem.

Yet another example of talent evaluators failing to properly forecast the true potential of a young player, after selecting Aldridge with the second overall pick in the 2006 NBA Draft, the Chicago Bulls opted to trade him to the Blazers for Viktor Khryapa and Tyrus Thomas.

From his beginnings in Portland, Aldridge always had high expectations of himself. He pushed Jamaal Magloire and Joel Przybilla in practice and believed that he, along with fellow rookies Brandon Roy and Sergio Rodriguez, could lead the Blazers to heights not seen in Portland since Rasheed Wallace and Steve Smith were patrolling the paint and the perimeter.

Now in his ninth year, with the Blazers trailing the Memphis Grizzlies 0-3 in their first round playoff series, for the Blazers, the end is nigh.

Sadly, it may be for Aldridge’s tenure in Portland, as well.

* * *

By rule, when Aldridge becomes a free agent on July 1, the Blazers can offer him the richest contract of any NBA team. To the tune of five years and about $108 million, Aldridge can fulfill his goal of one day surpassing Clyde Drexler as the greatest player in franchise history, but there is only so much disappointment that one man can take.

Back in July, when it had become known that the Blazers offered Aldridge a three-year, $55 million extension to forgo free agency, Aldridge politely declined, but was honest about his intentions.

“I’m happy to stay, happy to be here, happy with the direction the team has gone the last year or two,” Aldridge told the Oregonian.

“This has no impact on my interest in staying in Portland. I just want to get a five-year deal. I feel like that’s the best decision on my part.”

Of course, that is easy enough to understand. Aldridge will become 30 years old in July and if there is one thing that we have seen fairly consistently amongst 30-year-old superstars, it’s that at their age, as the sun begins to set, they want their final, hefty pay day.

What Aldridge did not mention was how, once upon a time, he was on the fence about re-signing in Portland. Way back in 2009, when Aldridge signed the five-year extension under which he is currently playing, he made no secret about his desire to make deep playoff runs in Portland and become a perennial contender.

It hurt him that the Blazers offered Brandon Roy the maximum-allowable $80 million extension but only deemed Aldridge worth $65 million. But in the name of winning, Aldridge accepted.

With Greg Oden in tow and Roy and Aldridge seemingly on an upward trajectory, there was reason to believe that bright days were ahead. Unfortunately, the lofty expectations went unfulfilled, as Roy and Oden’s bodies betrayed them and Aldridge was left as the lone solider. A team that seemed to once have championship aspirations was suddenly a lottery participant.

According to intel from Portland, while there was never a formal trade demand from Aldridge or his camp, he had grown frustrated with the direction of the franchise and lost confidence in the front office. He wanted out.

Between then and now, Neil Olshey has done a commendable job of building a competent team around Aldridge. But more than anything else, the drafting of Damian Lillard appeased the big man to the highest degree, and it is easy to see why.

Despite his shortcomings as a player, Lillard is a rare find. Most of the time, it takes a rookie at least a few years to learn the ropes of the NBA game, learn to play at a faster pace and, for a point guard, to make snap decisions with the basketball and compensate for the overall higher-caliber competition. Occasionally, a player like LeBron James enters the league and, from day one, shows that he belongs.

Anthony Davis fits in that category, as does Lillard.

For Aldridge, Lillard immediately became the running mate that he thought Roy would have been. With the pieces already in place in Portland, Lillard has fit almost seamlessly. His meteoric rise amongst the NBA’s hierarchy of talented point guards can be directly correlated to the diminishing reports originating from Portland about Aldridge’s discontent with the direction of the franchise.

And for what it’s worth, back in July, when Aldridge went on the record as saying he expects to re-sign in Portland, he made it a point to reference the fact that he was happy with the direction that the franchise has gone “in the past year or two.”

Still, like Chris Paul, Aldridge is closing in on his 30th birthday, and like Paul, he will continue to look around and measure himself up against his peers. Aldridge is now playing in his ninth professional season and has been out of the first round of the playoffs once.

There comes a time when every player reaches a point where they decide to begin anew in search of greener pastures, or fully hitch their wagon to their general manager and their teammates and decide to ride until the wheels fall off. His decision to forgo surgery to repair a torn ligament in his left hand could easily be a sign of desperation on his part as it could be evidence of commitment to the Blazers.

To this point, Aldridge has made no certain declaration, either way. And as reports continue to surface about his growing discontent in Portland, the certain fate that awaits the Blazers—another first round exit—only increases the probability of Aldridge taking his talents elsewhere this summer.

For him, the sign-and-trade market could present interesting scenarios. But what is most interesting to ponder is the potential of Aldridge being a trailblazer in the literal sense, opting to leave a more talented team in the Western Conference in order to move to the Eastern Conference. With a list of teams which includes the New York Knicks ready to pounce, Aldridge could opt for a road less traveled.

* * *

Credit Adam Silver for this: he has hit the ground running and is attempting to rectify some of the things that the league sees wrong with its current product. As soon as next season, the masses will see reductions in back-to-back games and, perhaps, the all-out elimination of instances in which a team plays four games in five nights.

Aside from draft lottery reform, the other major item on Silver’s agenda in the immediate future is addressing the lack of competitive balance between the Eastern and Western Conferences.

To this point, there are not many examples of a player going from a Western Conference team to an Eastern Conference on his own volition because he believes that the road to a championship would be easier. But over the course of the season and especially during All-Star Weekend, all of the Western Conference players with whom I spoke seemed to agree with the notion that a move out East could be beneficial because of the inferior level of competition.

One former All-Star in particular, who asked to remain anonymous, had strong comments.

It was after he had put on an impressive performance in his sole visit to this Eastern Conference city. Over the course of the preceding 19 days, his team had played 12 games. Seven of them were on the road and six of them were against Eastern Conference teams. They had won all six.

“These East coast trips are long,” he said. “But few guys complain about them, really.”

And why’s that?

“Who’s going to complain about easy wins?” he asked. “We can’t be coming in here and losing to bad teams, we’re trying to make the playoffs,” he said.

It was a moment of candor that is as disrespectful of the Eastern Conference as it is true.

This was in mid-December, and by the All-Star break, the question of playoff realignment had already been discussed widely amongst the league’s players. During All-Star Weekend, Wesley Matthews was the only player with whom I spoke that wasn’t aware of the concept, but did deem it “more fair” and “more competitive” after it was explained to him.

Others from the Western Conference—Anthony Davis, James Harden and DeMarcus Cousins, to name a few—all were supportive of the idea of an altered playoff alignment or restructuring. At the very least, this is something that scores of players are actively thinking about. Those that are not can be easily convinced.

As it relates to Aldridge, it cannot be lost upon him that his Trail Blazers, if they were in the Eastern Conference, would have probably approached 60 wins this season and would be favored to to reach the NBA Finals. Instead, out West, they are a fourth seed that does not have home court advantage in a first round series that they trail, 0-3.

When you yearn to become a winner and change your fortunes, you weigh everything. That Aldridge will could be a negative for the odds of the Blazers retaining him.

How can they become better than the San Antonio Spurs? The Golden State Warrior? The Los Angeles Clippers? How can they get over the hump?

These are questions Aldridge asked before he signed on the dotted line last time. Six years later, he’ll be asking them again.

* * *

In July 2013, Dwight Howard opted to leave the Lakers behind and pursue his championship aspirations in Houston. The decision caused him to leave $30 million in guaranteed money on the table, but, as Howard said at the time, a championship was his priority. He felt that Houston gave him a better opportunity to compete, so he opted to join up with James Harden.

Leaving behind one’s Bird rights in search for championship glory, at the very least, is not unprecedented.

As the gulf seemingly widens between the Eastern Conference and Western Conference, through the lens of Howard we can see that there is always a trailblazer.

As Aldridge closes in on his free agency and finds himself on the brink of elimination yet again, it certainly seems as though his tenure in Portland could be nearing a close.

With no shortage of suitors and the contemporary superstar yearning to compete for an elusive championship, an exit would not only be unsurprising, it would be completely understandable.

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Alan is an experienced writer of online betting and casino guides. He is one of the main editors of Basketballinsiders.

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