It's the NBA trade rumor that just won't die. The one we've been told never existed. And the one, genuine or feigned, that isn't going anywhere until the Portland Trails Blazers figure out just what the hell it is they're doing.
Of course, we're making reference to LaMarcus Aldridge, who, depending on the day, rumor and what he had for lunch, either wants to stay in Portland or get as far away from the Blazers as possible.
Grantland's Zach Lowe posits that dealing the All-Star forward is an avenue Portland is content not to explore. Owner Paul Allen detests the concept of rebuilding, and Aldridge helps bridge the gap between lottery dweller and potential playoff team.
But because the Blazers aren't assured of that postseason berth, Lowe admits they'll have to keep their options open as the summer of 2015 draws nearer. It's then that Aldridge is set to become an unrestricted free agent, at which point he can sign elsewhere while leaving Portland with nothing.
Cases can be made for either side of the coin, no matter which version of the story you subscribe to. And we're here to play up that versatility.
There's no better way to issue a verdict than by confronting every possible consequence either decision stands to parent.
Look at Portland's roster. Really look it. What does it look like? Championship caliber? Playoff worthy? Lottery bound?
"Er..." three times over.
At this point we can safely assume there isn't a championship to be won for these Blazers, Aldridge or no Aldridge. Additions such as Dorell Wright, Thomas Robinson, Robin Lopez and Mo Williams (please explain to me why) have made them deeper but not potent enough to contend in a loaded Western Conference.
Portland isn't assured of a postseason appearance, either. Its depth isn't so much a guarantee as it is a theory. The new crop of players are supposed to gel with the team en route to a playoff berth. That's all hypothetical. The Blazers could be headed back to the lottery for the third straight season.
Or they could snag that seventh or eight postseason slot, be handed a first-round exodus and be done with it. Exciting, I know. Except not really because it's pointless.
Inhabiting the space between fringe playoff contender and recurring lottery participant is NBA purgatory. You're not bad enough to rebuild, but you're also not good enough to win anything special.
Trading Aldridge gives the Blazers that clear-cut identity. They wouldn't be pining for a playoff appearance; they'd be gearing up for the future. Though that'll be difficult to stomach now, aspiring to eventually be great is more fulfilling than continued mediocrity.
Deja vu, am I right?
Like Lowe said, Allen isn't akin to rebuilding. At least now the Blazers have an outside chance at finishing in the top eight of the West. Dealing Aldridge ensures Portland won't be contending for a playoff spot.
Readily admitting that its prepared to lose in excess while trading away a top-20 talent doesn't sell tickets. It doesn't peak interest. And more importantly, it doesn't make sense for a team averse to restructuring.
Portland prefers to reload and marginally plug holes in hopes of playing into late April and beyond. If the Blazers fail to extend their season, they'll settle for being a part of the postseason conversation.
Resigning to a transition period isn't glamorous. Submitting to a rebuild sucks, especially when you (think you) have a postseason faction on your hands. Ask the Boston Celtics, specifically general manager Danny Ainge. It took him three years to break up the band.
And that was more out of necessity than choice. Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce were on the wrong side of 35; Aldridge is a fresh 28 and in his prime. Imagine dismantling a team you clearly don't believe has hit its ceiling.
The Blazers don't know what they have in their roster, be it a lottery outfit or playoff haven. That uncertainty can be more appealing when the alternative is a definitive record below .500.
I don't envision Portland's locker room being a hostile environment.
Not since Bonzi Wells, Damon Stoudamire, Qyntel Woods and Zach Randolph flirted with the prospect of donning orange jumpsuits over Blazers jerseys has Portland's infrastructure seemed legitimately shaken. An alleged Raymond Felton and Jamal Crawford-led mutiny against Nate McMillan in 2011-12 comes close to measuring up, though I doubt Felton could articulate himself with pastries in his mouth, and I'm convinced Crawford is the equivalent of a wiry teddy bear.
Still, when you look at the Blazers, there's no discernible "guy." As the veteran on the team (and third-oldest player), one could assume Aldridge is that guy: the team leader and person through which all things run. But what about Lillard, the Rookie of the Year and, let's face it, face of the future? And Mo Williams?
While I'm not implying the two are engaged in a passive power struggle, it remains a question. Trading Aldridge eliminates any doubts as to whose team the Blazers are moving forward.
Never underestimate the power of an established pecking order.
The Miami Heat's fishing expedition has netted some serious return.
Portland has a current nobleman in Aldridge and a blossoming young stud in Lillard; the Blazers are two-thirds of the way there. Don't fall into the trap of believing Wesley Matthews or Nicolas Batum (or Mo-Mo) is the third. They aren't.
With most of the Association's teams operating under the assumption that it takes multiple superstars to win, purging half your supply can be perceived as misinformed. Systematically arranging the internal power grid means little if you're becoming less, well, powerful as a result.
For how far the Blazers still have to go, they're so very, very close to something, perhaps a trio of stars. Robinson could be that third wheel. To a lesser extent, C.J. McCollum could be too.
If the Blazers elect to trade Aldridge, they'll never know what this current core can do or how far they can go.
Now is the perfect time to tank. And for the Blazers, it's the perfect time to tank without looking like they're actually tanking.
With next summer's draft class projected to be the deepest since 2003, a tweener like the Blazers should pounce at the opportunity to secure a slice of that pie. Shipping out Aldridge guarantees they'll finish outside the playoff bubble and remain in play for one of the top prospects.
Better still, if and when the Blazers trade Aldridge, they're able to sell it as either: a) parting ways with a disgruntled star, b) capitalizing off what they believe to be an unavoidable departure or c) some combination of both.
Sans Aldridge, Portland's chances of landing Andrew Wiggins remain slim, but there are star-caliber talents ripe for the picking. Surely the Blazers wouldn't mind adding a Julius Randle, Jabari Parker, Joel Embiid, Aaron Gordon or someone like that.
So Portland can toy with the prospect of a low-seeded playoff berth and subsequent early exit with Aldridge, or it can make an aggressive (though seemingly passive) play leading up to next year's draft without him.
"Oh crap, I can't believe we traded away LaMarcus Aldridge and didn't wind up with a future star" wouldn't fit above, so I give you the Cleveland Cavaliers, living proof that tanking doesn't always pay dividends.
Moving Aldridge undoubtedly makes the Blazers worse, but what if they do better than expected? Their first-round pick is owed to the Charlotte Bobcats in 2014 and only top-12 protected. What if, by some nightmare-esque miracle, they fall into those last two lottery spots?
Worse yet, terrible records don't always equate to successful tanking. The Bobcats and Orlando Magic will tell you; the Cavaliers will not. They haven't had the worst record in the league in each of the last three years, yet they've walked away with the first overall pick twice.
Few would consider acquiring a top-five pick a tankastrophe, but again, where's the iron-clad guarantee? When displacing such an integral part of your team, you should feel like you're striving toward something better, something for the greater good.
Purposely diminishing the talent on the roster can sometimes be that something. That there are still loopholes waiting to thwart the benefit of tanksters is cause for hesitation.
Not to mention it may be impossible for the Blazers to completely bury themselves. Lillard may be too good and lead Portland to a Cleveland-esque finish sans the No. 1 pick.
Procrastinating won't do much in the way of Portland's future. If the Blazers are going to deal Aldridge, they should do it now or soon, not later.
Now is when teams will pony up their assets. Aldridge has two years left on his deal and, for now, no leverage. The Blazers won't have to abide by a predetermined list because interested teams won't bat an eye at two year's worth of the power forward. That's two year's worth of convincing him to stay.
Waiting for the trade deadline or into next season stands to taper the offers Portland could accept now. Approaching free agency in a year or 18 months limits what the Blazers can get in return. Teams won't fleece themselves of assets to acquire a star who doesn't promise to re-sign.
Even if a deal can be struck with a team of mutual interest to Adridge and the Blazers, it would behoove the latter to act now before the former's contract nears conclusion. Right now the Blazers can attempt to pry some combination of Jimmy Butler, Nikola Mirotic, Carlos Boozer and Charlotte's 2014 (top-10 protected) draft pick from the Chicago Bulls, knowing full well they'll have to consider it.
Six months to a year from now similar options won't exist because: 1) the 'Cats' pick may not be there, 2) the Bulls, among others, would understand Portland is in a bind and 3) everyone will know he is hitting the open market soon enough.
Selling high, then, dictates the Blazers stop twiddling their thumbs while playing hopscotch and act now.
More than the Blazers need Aldridge's production in the coming years, they need his status.
Cap space does little to entice free agents not named Al Jefferson. Suitors need to have solid sales pitches built around incumbent stars.
Two years from now the Blazers have just more than $12 million in guaranteed salary on the books, not including Lillard and Aldridge's wages. Think of the possibilities. They could use Aldridge and Lillard to sell prospective free agents like Roy Hibbert and Brook Lopez (player options), among others. On the off chance Carmelo Anthony and LeBron opt into their deals for another year, they could be available, too.
Convincing top-notch talent to set up shop in a small market like Portland is difficult enough. Depleting the ranks of star power would be an active admittance that the Blazers plan to rebuild from within.
Of course Aldridge is also a free agent in 2015, so he could leave if they don't trade him. Or he could stay to recruit fellow stars alongside Lillard (team option in 2015). That sure has a nice ring to it.
The kind that peaks the interest of a Hibbert, Lopez or Kevin Love (player option).